Paula Harper Bethea

The Flight of the Paula Bee


by NancyLee Honey Marsh    
Photography by Christian Lee

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”  –Winston S Churchill

Need an energy infusion? No problem as long as you have on your fastest running shoes. Somewhere between Hilton Head Island and Columbia, SC, Paula Harper Bethea may come into view. When she spots us, she will graciously slow to a trot, and by osmosis we’ll feel a surge of electricity. A South Carolina native, Paula graduated with honors from University of South Carolina, moved to Hilton Head, and has been on an upward spiral ever since.

In 1977 Paula married William L. Bethea, Jr. “He was the first practicing attorney on the Island in1969,” she said. As a 40-year Hilton Head resident Paula has experienced a magnitude of changes in the area, and we enjoyed reminiscing about earlier Hilton Head days. “Only one main road, which eventually got a stoplight,” she laughed. “Let’s see, there was Gene Martin’s grocery store, The Porcupine, and our hospital, but you had to travel to Savannah in those days to have a baby! The Island is such an easy spot to love with all its natural beauty, warmth, amenities and hospitality. It was on the cutting edge of all to come.”

As Hilton Head grew, so did Paula, winning award after award. Settling in comfortably she became the queen of volunteerism. She was Hilton Head’s Citizen of the year in 1985. In 1992 she was honored by Governor Carroll Campbell with the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest award for volunteer service to the State. Her expertise reached all phases of the community, including Chairing United Way of Beaufort County and South Carolina. “I was fortunate to have loving parents and siblings, and Bill has always encouraged me. So many with good energy and ethics have inspired me along the way.

Now serving as Chair Emeritus of United Way of America’s Board of Governors Paula recalls,
“Betty Beene of United Way was one of those wonderful people I worked with, who influenced me a great deal. She gave me the opportunity to stand on her shoulders and learn so much.”
It’s no secret. “You’ll always see a bumble bee on my shoulder,” Paula declared. “It’s significance dates back to my Daddy. Shortly before he died he said to me, ‘Because of their structure, bumble bees should not be able to fly, but no one told them, so because of the sheer force adopted, they fly. That’s what I want my baby girl to do, fly.’”

“He passed away in my arms on New Year’s morning, 1973. Losing someone so vital in my life at such a young age meant I had to make it count. I always strive to make my Daddy proud of me, so I wear a bumblebee on my shoulder for him. A strong faith and church upbringing gave me the strength to work through the grief,” Paula related.

As members for the last eight years of Bluffton United Methodist Church, Paula and Bill greatly respect Rev. Joey McDonald. “He has positively touched so many lives.” Besides favoring the wisdom of 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paula believes, “Joy is a choice, not a feeling. Pain is inevitable. Misery is optional.”

A business dynamo, who feels “sleep is greatly over rated,” Paula is Vice Chairman of the Board of South State Bank Corporation and its subsidiary, South State Bank, is a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina and is immediate past President of their Alumni Association. Somehow in her flight, she finds time to Chair Hargray’s Caring Coins Foundation and serves as a member of the Board of SC Council on Competitiveness. Paula was one of the nine South Carolinians chosen to establish the Lottery in 2001, and from 2009 until 2016, she was Executive Director of the South Carolina Education Lottery. Currently President of Strategic Synergies, LLC, a consulting firm she organized in 2016, she travels between Columbia and Hilton Head. When occasionally overwhelmed, “I turn on my radio, munch on French fries and sip a Diet Coke!”

A bit unhappy with what technology has infused into our lives, she says, “Never underestimate the art of a written note and communicating with each other face-to-face. Our relationships are so very important and an intricate part of success. Volunteering is a gift, and I have received so much more than I have given.


My copy of Leadership is an Art, by Max DePree is thoroughly marked up and thread bare!

Special Memories:
I learned to water ski in the May River, standing on my older brother’s shoulders when I was five.

I taught water skiing in Harbour Town Marina in 1974.

When I worked with Avis Rollison at The Porcupine for a while, I hung lingerie on those tiny little hangers!

Life’s Lessons:
Never be harnessed by the size of your expectations. Be true to yourself. Choose Joy!
Refuge: I’d rather be at home than any place in the world!