HARTSVILLE — The powerful Republican legislator leading the charge this year on improving South Carolina's public schools knows firsthand that education is key to lifting children out of poverty.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, 61, grew up in rural Darlington County, where his grandfather worked at the Sonoco paper mill and his father was the first in his family to earn a high school diploma.

Like many of their generation in the agrarian Pee Dee, Lucas' grandparents didn't get past sixth grade. His grandpa walked to his job as a night watchman.

Not wanting to join his dad at the mill, Bobby Lucas joined the Army instead and fought in the Korean War, knowing the GI Bill was his only way to go to college.  

"Education in our family did not come easily," Jay Lucas told The Post and Courier. "It’s something we wanted badly but needed to put in a lot of effort to get."

Reaching his goals

The future politician was born the same day his dad graduated from the University of South Carolina at age 25. But 17 years later, when Jay Lucas was a high school senior, his dad suffered a massive stroke and wasn't expected to live. He did, but spent several years in the hospital and could not work again.

His mom's social worker salary could barely pay the bills, much less his college tuition.   

"There was no way I could go to college except for the fact my daddy had fought in Korea," said Lucas, who went to USC on an American Legion scholarship for children of disabled veterans. 

He wanted to go on to law school but couldn't afford it, so he worked for several years as Bennettsville's finance director and Fairfield County's administrator before returning to USC and graduating near the top of his law class in 1988.

Then, as an attorney, he returned to his hometown, where he's still called "Coach Jay" by a generation's worth of children, now adults, who he coached in baseball and basketball youth leagues. 

"He'd haul them anywhere they needed to go. If a team needed a bat, as tight as he was (with money), he’d buy the team a baseball bat," said longtime friend Randy Lowe, whose son Seth grew up and graduated with Lucas' only child, Will. 

Lucas has "always been real competitive. But he wants not only himself to do good; he wants everybody to do good," Lowe said.

Pushing for change

Friends and colleagues say that philosophy is what's driving Lucas' push for legislation aimed at fixing a broken education system so that more students statewide can achieve their dreams. He's expected to introduce his proposal later this month.

"It’s time to face reality in education," Lucas told his Statehouse colleagues in December after they re-elected him speaker. "Without significant reforms, our students won’t have a future."

The stunning pronouncement brought a standing ovation in the House and set the stage for a session focused on improving public schools. Other Republican leaders, including Gov. Henry McMaster, have echoed his pledge in the wake of The Post and Courier's "Minimally Adequate" series, which laid out how gaping disparities and a history of low expectations have helped make South Carolina’s public school system one of the nation’s worst.

Lucas, then speaker pro tem, first ascended to the speaker's post in September 2014 when former Speaker Bobby Harrell stepped down before pleading guilty a month later to misusing campaign money on his personal airplane.

It thrust into the limelight a guy who shied away from it — who drove to and from Columbia during session rather than stay overnight to hobnob.

In his spare time, he had continued to coach and could be frequently seen at high school sporting events throughout his district. After Will graduated as Hartsville High valedictorian and went to Virginia Military Institute on a scholarship — intending to become a math teacher, though he later changed his mind — Lucas and his wife Tracy also traveled wherever the Keydets were playing to watch their star offensive lineman on the football team. 

Lucas' colleagues, who viewed him as squeaky clean and smart, first elected him to the speaker's post in December 2014, a month after the state Supreme Court ruled the state fails to provide poor, rural children even the opportunity for success and ordered legislators to fix the system. He created a study panel of House members and educators who met for a year and issued a lengthy list of recommendations. Only a few piecemeal changes made it into law.

An unexpected win

Lucas calls it improbable he was ever elected to the House in the first place, as a Republican in a then-heavily Democratic district. 

He decided to take a chance in 1998 when former Rep. Mike Baxley, a Democrat, decided not to seek a seventh term. 

"I really didn't understand politics at the time. If I'd known then what I know now, I never would've run because there's clearly no way I could win that seat," he said.

But he did — by a mere 35 votes out of 7,575 cast — after knocking on thousands of doors, repeatedly.

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Former long-time Rep. Grady Brown, who still works as a barber in nearby Bishopville, said he didn't know Lucas at the time but heard about him in the barber shop. Brown explained the stunner by repeating what one customer told him on a Saturday afternoon close to the election while getting his haircut.

"He said, 'I realize you’re a Democrat, but how can you vote against someone who's been to your house three times?' I said, 'I don’t expect you to.'"

Normally, narrow wins attract opposition in the next election. But Lucas hasn't had a single challenger since that first race, Republican, Democrat or third-party. 

That's because he's helped people all over the district, whether they voted for him or not, Lowe said. 

"He's never forgotten his roots. I don’t care if you have a billion or five cents, it doesn’t matter. Jay’s Jay. He's going to like ya regardless," said his wife, Lori Lowe, a computer lab teacher in local public schools. "He has not ever tried to put on airs."

'Caring component'

Former Darlington County Superintendent Rainey Knight recalls getting a call from Lucas when Will was in elementary school. Lucas was worried about a student who didn't have a coat. 

"I told him, 'We've got it,' " she said, adding the district collected gently used clothes for children in need. "He just has that caring component about other children."

When the district restarted a foundation to award grants to teachers for things like starting a photography class, Lucas volunteered to handle the legal work for free, Knight said. 

"He was always supportive of our schools," she said. "Yet he wasn't obtrusive. He didn't make demands."  

Both she and Pat Earle, who taught agriculture at McBee High for 40 years, said Lucas made a point to come to their districts' teacher forums every year. Lucas' district includes the McBee portion of Chesterfield County, as well as sections of Kershaw and Lancaster. 

"I think he’s a frustrated school teacher, deep down," said Earle, who retired in June.

"His heart is where it’s supposed to be in education," he said. "I hope he really gets down and gets it done this year."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.