Taking the Lead

Jerome Rice, '08

Jerome Rice was watching Barack Obama’s victory speech on election night in 2008 when his oldest son turned to him and asked, “Dad, why have you never run for office?”

Given his active involvement in Spartanburg as a mentor and coach, Rice realized it was a fair question. It was the start of a political journey that’s taken him from the Spartanburg City Council to the mayor’s office. But it was never a path Rice envisioned for himself while growing up on Spartanburg’s Northside.

“Just like any other teenage young man, I wanted to be in athletics,” the mayor says with a laugh. “And if that didn’t work out, I think it was a teacher. But I never saw a political spot in my future.”

Rice has always been passionate about his hometown. He attended Spartanburg public schools growing up, and after losing his father as a child, he found strong male role models among his coaches, teachers, and mentors. After graduating from Spartanburg High School, he attended Wake Forest University on a football scholarship. But Rice admits he was more focused on sports than school, and eventually dropped out and came back to Spartanburg.

His former sixth-grade teacher, Judith Bazemore, was principal at Mary H. Wright Elementary School at that time, and she offered him a job “to be a little bit of everything,” Rice says. In addition to being a substitute teacher, he was an attendance clerk and the in-school suspension monitor. He would even accompany kids who had been sent home so he could talk to their parents.

Rice also got involved with the Boys and Girls Club while at Mary H. Wright, to further mentor students, and one day took a group to hear a speech by Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. Bernice King commended all the young African Americans who were graduating from colleges and universities and moving on to big cities, Rice recalls, but she concluded by asking, “Who will be here to take care of your home?”

“I truly thought she was talking directly to me,” Rice says. “In the early '90s, the climate of our community and these kids really needing that male role model, it just kind of hit home with me.”

Rice, who had always dreamed of moving to Atlanta, decided to stay and make a difference.  He noticed the toll the crack cocaine epidemic had taken on the area, and young people’s low degree attainment. He also lost a good friend and mentor, Ernest Rice (no relation), in a parking lot shooting following a church basketball game.

Following his conversation with his son in 2008, Rice began exploring a potential council run. He had recently received his bachelor’s at USC Upstate in interdisciplinary studies, fulfilling a long-held goal of completing his college degree and showing his children – and the young people he mentored – the importance of higher education. When a seat opened up in Rice’s district, he embraced the opportunity to help his city in a new way.

Rice served 12 years as a councilman, during which time he supported initiatives that transformed his old neighborhood. Redevelopment in the Northside brought new housing, parks, a dedicated space for the Hub City Farmers Market, businesses, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, and a recreation center. Rice says he’s proud of the collaboration between the city and residents that has restored pride in the northside and made it a model for other cities.

Now, as mayor, Rice is overseeing other major changes in Spartanburg. Plans to bring a minor league baseball team to the city were recently announced, which will create new development near the downtown. Conversations are also ongoing on how to make Morgan Square, the center of downtown, a more vibrant space that welcomes all while balancing retail, dining and entertainment needs. More mixed-use development is coming to Main Street, along with a brand-new city-county complex on nearby Church Street. “So things are changing around us daily, and change is good,” Rice says.

In addition to his mayoral duties, Rice is also the transition specialist at Spartanburg High School, where his wife is an assistant principal. In both jobs, Rice promotes the transformative power of education, something his own personal story demonstrates. He’s grateful for all Spartanburg has given him, and sees that affection reciprocated. When he goes out with his wife, he notes,  “We’re constantly stopped and asked, “Can we take a picture?’”

“Knowing that this face may resonate with someone else, that they can understand that one day they can be the mayor of their city, that’s what’s so special to me,” Rice says. “I can’t think of a better time or a better place to give back to my community.”