Richard W. Riley: Statesman of Education
Greenville, South Carolina native Richard Wilson “Dick” Riley was the first modern governor of South Carolina to serve two consecutive terms, from 1979 to 1987.
His signature effort as governor, improving public education, led to his appointment as the sixth United States Secretary of Education, serving the longest term of any Secretary, from 1993 to 2001. Before his governorship, Riley served in the South Carolina House and Senate from 1963 to 1977.
The Richard W. Riley Collection documents a lifelong passion for public service, advocacy for education, and commitment to improved quality of life for constituents at the local, state and national levels.
South Carolina Political Collections, a special collections division within University Libraries, has been receiving materials from Secretary Riley since the 1990s. The staff worked for five years to organize, preserve, describe and catalog the materials, which are now open to the public for study of contemporary government and society.
The Richard W. Riley Collection documents these aspects of his life of public service, personal and professional.
Early public service
Following his service as a Navy officer on a minesweeper, and then graduation from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1959, Riley practiced law in Greenville.
He became Simpsonville Town Attorney in 1960, and in 1962, he ran for a seat in the
South Carolina House of Representatives.
In 1976, after two full terms as senator, Riley became interested in what was then
a long-shot campaign for president by Jimmy Carter, and oversaw Carter’s campaign
in South Carolina.
South Carolina Governor
Elected governor first in 1978, Riley’s primary focus as governor was education, which culminated in the passage of the 1984 Education Improvement Act.
This combined two of his major platforms, advancing the state’s schools and cultivating South Carolina as a fertile ground for economic and industrial development, with an educated workforce and improved standard of living.
While governor, Riley also focused on economic development, children’s health, reducing infant mortality, and the need for increased federal oversight of the low-level radioactive waste being disposed of in South Carolina.
With his eye on improving education, Riley felt that the prohibition of governors serving more than one term should be repealed. He called for the legislature to submit a constitutional amendment allowing gubernatorial succession, which passed, allowing Riley to run for and win a second term in 1982.
U.S. Secretary of Education
In 1992, Riley's close friend and former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton ran for president, and Riley served as his campaign chair in South Carolina.
After the election, Clinton asked Riley to vet talent for his political appointments, including the position of Secretary of Education, in which Riley agreed to serve at Clinton’s request.
The Clinton Administration’s signature education legislation, Goals 2000: Educate America Act, was signed into law in early 1994. The law spelled out a set of national education goals and set up a system of competitive discretionary grants for states. Riley referred to it as “the framework” for all other educational initiatives to follow.
In 1999, Riley’s alma mater, Furman University, established the Richard W. Riley Institute of Government, Politics and Public Leadership. He has been named a Distinguished Professor at Furman and at the University of South Carolina.
He has been inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame and, in 2009, TIME Magazine named him one of our nation’s Top 10 Best Cabinet Members.