November 3, 2023

A Purr-fect Place

A Purr-fect Place

A Purr-fect Place

By Tucker Mitchell  |  November 2023  |  FMU Focus Magazine Fall 2023

FMU Carters-0852

The Carters have been FMU’s first family for 25 years. Folly Carter couldn’t imagine anything better.

First Lady.

It’s a job that’s never posted on a recruitment site, never listed under “Help Wanted” in the classifieds. In fact, it is not really a job at all. It’s more of a role, earned, or assigned, or … something, when your spouse rises to a certain position, in certain institutions where tradition says this is what you do.

And it all just gets a little fuzzier, a little more vague from there, as Folly Carter learned some 25 years ago when she and husband Fred (and their two-and-a-half year-old son Luke) landed on the doorstep of Wallace House, residence of the president at Francis Marion University.

Folly Carter, a veteran of a decade’s service on the staff of three different South Carolina governors, had a general idea of what to expect. She’d seen bits and pieces play out in the governor’s mansion and thereabouts, and she was sharp enough to understand that when her husband landed the FMU post, way back in 1999, that she had, for all intents, been hired, too. But hired to do what was unclear. Every first lady position is different, and every first lady is, too.

Early on, Carter connected with Sara Stanton, the wife of FMU’s second president, Tom Stanton, who was still living in Florence. They hit it off as golfing partners — Stanton brought Carter into the Country Club of South Carolina’s Tuesday morning women’s group — and, of course, as fellow first ladies.

“(Sara Stanton) took me under wing, let me know she was there for anything I might need,” recalls Carter. “That made for a nice transition. Sara told me a little about her experiences, the trials, what worked, what didn’t. That was helpful but … wasn’t a lot.”

Carter shrugs. “Anyway, you take that and then, I guess, you just start swimming.”

Folly Carter has lapped them all. Few first ladies serve as long as she has and few serve as well. A quiet, low-key person by nature, Carter has juggled the various tasks and duties that make up her unusual role with aplomb and good humor. For almost a quarter of a century, she has navigated an assortment of personalities and seemingly endless events with grace and genuine enthusiasm.

Carter says it came naturally. After all, she holds a master’s in education from the University of South Carolina and began her adult life as a teacher at her alma mater, Dreher High, in Columbia. She was always interested in education.

Her husband has a slightly different view. Lots of people, lots of other first ladies, are interested in education. Some are interested for a while, before tiring. Some are … too interested.

“A lot of what (Folly) does is very instinctive,” says Fred Carter. “She has a good feel for people and I think people like her, and certainly she’s derived some benefits from all the time spent in the FMU community, primarily through some very deep and lasting friendships she’s made there. But it’s harder than it looks. She’s asked to be a part of it, but she’s careful not to be intrusive in any way.

“She is a very strong partner. We do go to a lot of events on campus and I’ll tell you, she’s driving that as much as me,” says Fred Carter. “She’s the one who is scrupulous about that, about all the details that make so much difference, like managing flowers for weddings and funerals, gifts when children are married, all of that. That’s an important part of doing this job well. That’s something she assumed early on. And she did it well. … Let me tell you, you attend somebody’s child’s wedding early on and they never forget, and if you don’t attend … well ….”

‘A Good Team’

Folly Carter says her husband is always saying that “they make a good team.” A big reason for that, she notes, is because “I always let him do what he wants to do.”

A faint smile flashes across her face as she says this. She has a wry sense of humor. She is joking, more or less.

The unending tasks of a college presidency know no real boundaries. Work comes home and goes out to dinner. Work conversations last well past 6 p.m., or whatever a president’s official quitting time really is. Because of this, families are part of most discussions, whether they like it or not.

“He’ll seek my advice,” says Folly Carter. “He’ll say ‘you know we’re thinking about this and this is the way I feel about it, and this is the way someone else is thinking about it. What do you think?’ He does that with Luke, too. He treasures the advice of those who are close … which I think is good. Make no mistake: he makes the decision. But hearing from us — that’s a part of it. It’s always been like that.”

Says Fred Carter, “There are a lot of issues that I bring her into the conversation where she would just as soon not be involved. … But I’m interested in what she thinks. She knows the community, the faculty, people, as well as I do. And her judgment is impeccable, just wonderful really. I probably use her as a sounding board far more often than she wants, but she’s very good at it.”

Of course, the Carters are more than president and first lady. They are a family. Over the quarter century they’ve spent at FMU, Folly Carter’s primary task has been taking care of the Carter family. At times that has been, as the old saying goes, like herding cats.

In recent years that has literally been the case.

Folly Meets Fred

Florence Olive “Folly” Roach grew up in Columbia, S.C., a middle daughter among six children, the oldest of the youngest three and hence, “the peacemaker” between the two warring factions. She excelled in school and went to the University of South Carolina where she earned her bachelor’s degree, and a master’s, in education. She returned to her alma mater, Dreher High, to teach and that seemed to be that. She was a teacher.

And then one day, she was watching television when an advertisement for Carroll Campbell, a handsome young congressman who was running for governor of South Carolina, beamed across the screen. Folly Roach was so impressed she volunteered, on-the-spot, to work in his campaign. It was a strangely impetuous act — she’d never done anything political in her life, was never especially interested — but it seemed like the right choice at the time. And, it turned into a life-changing event.

Folly Roach’s enthusiastic and competent campaign work impressed Campbell and company, and when he won the election, she was asked to stay on as a staffer, setting in motion a chain of events that eventually brought her to FMU.

Dr. Fred Carter was a senior executive policy adviser in the Campbell administration, a rising star on his way to becoming head of the South Carolina Budget and Control Board. His path crossed with Folly’s, who handled a variety of assignments. They talked, they had dinner, one thing led to another. The couple married in 1992.

A few years later, after a long struggle that included in vitro fertilization, Luke Carter was born. Folly (now Carter) continued to work in the governor’s office — remarkably, her tenure covered the terms of three different governors and two different political parties — but was already a committed mom. Luke’s daycare was across the street from her office, and she took Wednesdays off so she could, among other things, eat lunch with the couple’s young son.

In 1999, when Luke was two-and-a-half, Fred Carter was picked as FMU’s fourth president. It’s a familiar story at FMU. Carter was appointed to mediate a serious breach between FMU’s president and its faculty and wound up becoming the solution. The couple moved to Florence to start a new life.

“I remember us driving over here, when he was being interviewed, and seeing campus, and falling in love with it and thinking how nice that might be,” says Folly. “It never dawned on me that we’d be here this long.”

Family Life

Folly Carter went back to teaching for two years, but after Fred Carter took a one-year leave to serve as Governor Mark Sanford’s chief of staff, the couple decided it was best for Folly to become a full-time mom. Luke was growing up fast. The schedule was getting busier.

Folly missed some aspects of being a career woman, but says she was more than ready to be a mom.

“I had struggled so hard to get Luke, and then was so delighted when I finally got pregnant,” says Folly. “Right then, in the back of my mind I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom with Luke. When (the presidency) opened up, that really became possible. And with being first lady, there are so many responsibilities that you are still involved. It is like a job, a career. For me, it was a nice balance.”

The house was a great place for family events. Bryan Carter, Fred’s older son, visited many times with his wife Adele and their children, Max, Chloe and Milly. But it was Luke who benefited most.

With mom ready and able to perform all kinds of motherly duties, and the resources of a state university at hand, Luke had an idyllic childhood. FMU faculty and staff doted on him. Coaches from the FMU athletic department gave him pointers in a number of sports. Dr. Tom Fitzkee, chair of FMU’s Department of Mathematics, found math tutors when needed.

Several new campus events started by the Carters — a children’s Christmas party, an Easter egg hunt — were geared towards kids, and included Luke, of course. He got to live in the presidential residence, a stately southern mansion, surrounded by a 400-acre playground.

For years, Fred and Folly joked that some day they were going to have to tell Luke that they didn’t own the house.

Luke, a recent grad of the USC School of Law and now a clerk for South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Mark Hayes, has probably figured it out.

Cats in an Empty Nest

One night, not long after Luke had gone off to college, the Carters were in the kitchen at Wallace House when they saw, out of the blue, a small group of kittens, three or four, under the carport. They were in distress. It appeared something was wrong with their eyes.

“Fred being Fred, he knew something had to be done, so he put on some gloves and went out to investigate,” says Folly Carter.

Several scratches and at least one bite later, the Carters managed to get the young cats inside and into a vacant bathtub. A visit to the vet the next day showed the kittens had severe eye and respiratory infections. A regimen of antibiotics began. But no sooner was that situation under control when it began pouring cats (no dogs) at the presidential residence. Folly estimates that in what turned out to be the first wave a person or persons unknown dumped more than a dozen cats at the house during a five-week period.

And, over time, the cats kept coming. They started showing up at the front gate to the house. Some were part of a feral colony on campus, a common situation on many college campuses. But many were domesticated dump-offs.

Cat wrangling was not in the job description, not for a college president nor a first lady. The Carters took it on anyway. Cats were given medical attention. Cats were fed. A partnership for spaying and neutering, and for adoption services, was created with the local branch of Lucky Dog, an animal rescue service, and with Jayne Boswell and the Florence County Animal Shelter.

In the end — and, with the cats, there really is no end — the Carters and company have been able to find homes for more than 200 cats and kittens. They have a house for cats in the backyard, and there’s a feral cat feeding station on campus, serviced by volunteers from a student club.

“This is not a role we had envisioned taking on,” says Fred Carter. “But the cats were being abandoned here, and it intensified, for whatever reason, during Covid. We knew if they ended up in shelters, they’d be euthanized. We found a way to work through that with Lucky Dog and Myra Horowitz, and Jayne Boswell. … Some may wonder why we became so deeply involved. The answer is I don’t think we had a choice. We weren’t going to allow a number of cats to be euthanized.”

Cats are now a regular feature of life at Wallace House. The Carters kept three of the original blind cats — Francis, Marion, and Tux. Tux, surprisingly given her afflictions, managed to get pregnant and had two kittens, Little Francis and Pepper. Several other cats live in the backyard or are regulars at the front gate, where Folly feeds them daily when she is in town. There are a couple who follow Fred home every day on his walk from his office to the residence.

“I guess you could say this is another example of Fred’s leadership,” says Folly. “He saw a problem and he did something about it. I know I fussed at him about it at first — ‘what are we going to do with all these cats?!’ But now, I think I love them more than he does.”

No Better Life

The first lady’s mark on FMU is undeniable.

She helps her husband, of course, providing counsel and support behind-the-scenes that makes a difference every day. Her calm and soothing presence has doubtless improved relations with all the university’s constituencies, from faculty and staff, to alumni and donors. Fred Carter notes that while Folly has “probably never asked anyone for a single dime for the university, she has been a very successful fundraiser all the same.”

A number of FMU traditions can be traced to Folly. She and Fred imported the series of holiday parties on campus from what they had observed in the governor’s mansion in Columbia. Likewise, the idea of inviting local garden clubs to decorate Wallace House for the holidays.

The annual Children’s Christmas Party, which includes both kids from campus families and from underprivileged groups in the community, can be traced to Folly’s role as mother of a young child when she first arrived.

She and Fred will leave that all behind some day. They are in something of a transition now. They own a beach home near Georgetown where they spend many weekends. Folly sometimes stays a bit longer.

“We have the house at the beach, and right now, it feels like the best of both worlds,” says Folly. “Fred still has his work, which he loves and which he is so good at, and then we have this wonderful escape. But it’s not bad coming back here on a Sunday afternoon.”

“It’s hard to imagine how we could have had a better life.”

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