Spend an hour with Elizabeth Barron Mills Thomas, “Betty” and it will become clear why she is lovingly referred to as the “Jewel” of Fort Mill. Her stories are filled with the rich history and charm of her beloved small hometown of Fort Mill, South Carolina.
Betty grew up in the quaint house on Confederate Street which is now home to Savannah’s Room, a lovely tea room. The only one of it’s kind in the area. When I asked Betty if she wanted her birth date in my article, I loved her answer. She said, “Well, I don’t mind! I’m just glad to be here!” She was born on April 18th, 1932. She remembers Fort Mill as a town where, “Everyone knew each other and were friends. Everyone helped each other out...there was no fear and no one even locked their doors.” She said kids played outside from sun up until sun down. All of the moms would pack lunches for their children, so they could ride their bikes to the old Unity Cemetary for a picnic and a day of fun and games.
Betty vividly remembers the jubilant celebration on Main Street in Fort Mill as the end of World War II was announced. She said, “It was such a happy time. People were hugging and cheering and church bells were ringing all over town.” It was 1945 and she was 13 years old.
As the only child of J.B. Mills Jr. and Lib Mills, both Fort Mill celebrities in their own way, Betty graduated from Fort Mill High School in 1950. There were 41 students in her class, many of whom took a 50th anniversary cruise together to the Bahamas. Being the daughter of two well known Fort Mill characters, Betty says she had a wonderful childhood. She loves to talk about some of the hilarious antics of her parents. Her father was in the hardware business and was known for saying, “If I don’t have it, you don’t need it!” This and many of his famous quotes adorn the walls at the Fort Mill History Museum in a room the family donated and dedicated to the man himself called the J.B. Mills Museum Gift Shop.
Betty says her mother was a wonderful woman and a dedicated teacher who also taught Sunday school for many years. Betty went on to graduate from Winthrop University in 1954 and would become a teacher, just like her mother. She truly believes that she was born to teach and did so for a total of 32 years, 25 of them teaching her favorite: the 5th grade. Two of her former students went on to become well known Fort Mill Leaders: Mayor Danny Funderburk and Chief of Police, Jeff Helms. She makes it a priority to stay in touch with many of her former students and says reminiscing brings her great joy. After meeting Ms. Betty...I trust that staying in touch with HER is most likely her former student’s priority as well. Betty was married to Bud Thomas, a Celanese Pilot, for 55 years until he passed away last year. Betty said, “Bud was an amazing man!” She smiles as she talks about his delightful personality and charming wit.
Together they had one daughter, Laura Thomas and two granddaughters, Ana Kate, 11 and Bella, 8. She proudly showed Laura’s talent for pottery art with her pieces displayed around her charming home and pointed out pictures of her beautiful granddaughters. She and Bud also shared a love for pets. Betty said their dog Ozzie and cat Abigail brought Bud great comfort in his final years. Betty loves to sing and says one of her greatest memories was when she played Mother Superior in a local production of “The Sound of Music”. She has been a soloist at First Baptist Church in Fort Mill for many years and also enjoyed teaching Sunday school there for years. In 2012, Betty could be seen waving to her adoring fans as the Grand Marshall of the Fort Mill Christmas Parade.
My children and I were delighted and honored to spend time with Betty Mills Thomas. She paints a picture with words of what she refers to as “The delightfully small town of Fort Mill”. When asked what her one wish for Fort Mill’s future would be she said, “I would love for Fort Mill to retain the small town spirit.” I asked what she would like for everyone to know about her and she said, “I love life! I love family! I love people! And, I love Fort Mill! I have had a wonderful, wonderful life!” Well Ms. Betty, people love you back and Fort Mill is a wonderful place with you in it! You truly are the “Darling” of Fort Mill.
About Lori MacLeod
Lori MacLeod is a freelance writer and television producer. She is mother of Carly, 17, a Nation Ford High School Senior and twins Ryan and Sarah, 12, both 7th graders at Fort Mill Middle School.