Virginia Uldrick, a towering and beloved figure in education and the arts in Greenville, has passed away.
Uldrick, a deep-voiced opera singer and choral director, founded the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and the Greenville school district’s Fine Arts Center.
She’s also fondly remembered for creating and leading Greenville’s “Singing Christmas Tree,” which featured high school choristers singing in a huge Christmas tree-like structure.
“Her greatest contribution was her love of teaching and mentoring young artists as if she was sent from above to inspire generations of young people,” said Ann Hicks, the former arts writer for The Greenville News.
Uldrick’s career as a music teacher and educational leader spanned more than 50 years in Greenvile County before her retirement in 2003.
Uldrick started the “Singing Christmas Tree” in the 1960s, the Fine Arts Center in 1974, the six-week summer Governor’s School in 1981 and, at age 70, the residential Governor’s School in 1999.
She became the first president of the residential Governor’s School after steadfastly advocating for the concept for 14 years. Earlier, she had led the Fine Arts Center, a magnet program, and taught music at Greenville High School.
Working with elected officials and community leaders to create the Fine Arts Center and later the Governor’s School from scratch, Uldrick was a formidable force.
“She was determined and so committed to helping young people improve their education through the arts,” said Dick Riley, the former U.S. secretary of education and South Carolina governor. “She influenced South Carolina and especially Greenville in a very big way. Everything she touched was beautiful and worthwhile. She was a wonderful person.”
Uldrick in 2014 was honored with Greenville’s first statue of a woman: a representation of Uldrick conducting music students. The statue stands at the front of the Governor’s School.
Uldrick had been in declining health for several months, friends said. Uldrick’s death was confirmed by friends and the Governor’s School as well as by her church, Buncombe Street United Methodist Church.
Myra Cordell, a close friend, said Uldrick died either late Tuesday or early Wednesday. She was believed to be 86 or 87 years old. Uldrick’s family preferred not to take calls on Wednesday.
“Virginia Uldrick was a visionary music educator and arts educator, someone who really understood the value of arts education,” said Cedric Adderley, current president of the Governor’s School, located on the banks of the Reedy River. “Without her visionary leadership, we’d not have the Governor’s School or the Fine Arts Center.”
The child of a modest background, Uldrick was shy when she was young, Greenville News columnist Beth Padgett wrote in 2014. Uldrick was talented, however, and her dream was to become an opera singer. The irony is that the young girl who once was more comfortable with adults eventually became the adult who surrounded herself with children, Padgett wrote
Uldrick lost her shyness as she became more comfortable on stage, and after her graduation from Furman she went to the Chautauqua Institution to prepare for the title role in Puccini’s “Tosca.”
The most famous aria from that opera is “Vissi d’arte” — “I lived for art.”
Cordell, a professional opera singer who in her teens sang at the top of the annual “Singing Christmas Tree,” remembered Uldrick as someone who had the highest expectations of high school choral students who participated in the annual program.
“She had very high standards and she demanded a lot,” Cordell said. “She was never mean or cruel, but she was strict. She made you want to do your best.”
Uldrick, with her refined enunciation and upright posture, had a commanding presence whether working with high school singers or twisting arms in Columbia to obtain funding for arts schools.
“I remember one time when I was at a ‘Singing Christmas Tree’ rehearsal in high school, I was chewing gum, just chewing like a cow, and she walked up to me and put her hand under my chin and said, ‘Spit it out,'” Cordell said, with a laugh. “I don’t think I chewed a piece of gum for the next five years.”
Cordell also remembered Uldrick’s warmth and generosity.
“She was fun and funny. Many people saw only the serious side,” Cordell said. “But she could be hysterically funny. She was fine a human being.”
Cordell and Riley recalled how Uldrick worked tirelessly not only to raise private money to create the Governor’s School but also relentlessly lobbied lawmakers in Columbia for support.
“Virginia just kept appearing in Columbia,” Cordell said. “She would not give up. Her mission was young people. She had her detractors because she wanted things done. But she put Greenville on the map with the Fine Arts Center and Governor’s School.”
The Governor’s School began as a summer program at Furman and later became a free, year-round residential high school open to all South Carolina students by audition.
Uldrick was the sort of woman who didn’t take no for an answer, who lived in a man’s world and succeeded, Greenville News reporter Lyn Riddle wrote in 2014. When her first principal in Greenville County offered her five cents for her music program in the 1950s, she went to a state senator and ended up with $3,000.
She didn’t let anyone or anything stand in her way of ensuring a high-quality music education for her students. Not even football players’ bad attitudes. To convince them music could help them on the field, she laid down on the classroom floor to demonstrate breathing from the diaphragm.
Uldrick led the Fine Arts Center and the Governor’s School with unflagging energy, staying at work sometimes until 1 a.m., Cordell said.
Behind the scenes, Uldrick endured her full share of health challenges (cancer twice and back surgeries) and personal tragedies. Her son, Michael, died of cancer at age 17. Her husband, Marion, suffered a head injury in a fall and was incapacitated for five years before he died in 2005. Uldrick is survived by her daughter Lisa.
In addition to her other work, Uldrick also served as choir director at Buncombe Street United Methodist Church for several years.
“I don’t know how she did everything she did,” Cordell said.
Uldrick was the recipient of the state’s highest honor for an artist, the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, as well as the state’s highest civilian award, the Order of the Palmetto.
Funeral services for Uldrick were pending.
The Governor’s School released a statement:
“The Governor’s School community is deeply saddened by the passing of our beloved founder, Dr. Virginia Uldrick. She was a passionate visionary and teacher, a respected and unifying leader, and a steadfast advocate for the arts. Thanks to Dr. Uldrick’s pioneering efforts, thousands of South Carolinians have benefited, and will continue to benefit, from arts education opportunities and Governor’s School programs. While we spend time honoring Dr. Uldrick’s legacy, our thoughts and prayers are with her family.”