ABBEVILLE — Betty Jo and Wally Hall were on their way to an invite-only Shag dance competition.
“They were wonderful, wonderful dancers,” said Sharon Wall, who has known the couple for almost 40 years. “They would glide across the floor. It was effortless. They were so in sync, in tune. ... And in life, they were in sync and in tune.”
They didn’t make it to the competition.
Just after 6 p.m. Thursday, about five miles south of Chester, the couple’s 2012 Dodge Durango was struck by an oncoming 2003 Chevrolet SUV that crossed the centerline, according to the state highway patrol.
Betty Jo Hall, 58, and 18-year-old Savion Zyire White, of Rock Hill, died at the scene, according to the Chester County Coroner’s Office. White was driving the Chevrolet. He was a standout football player at South Pointe High School and was going to play for Newberry College in the fall.
Betty Jo was the superintendent of Abbeville County School District.
“It’s very sudden and tragic. It’s kind of rocked our community,” said Brad Evans, school district board vice chairman.
The wreck is under investigation by the state Highway Patrol and the Chester County Coroner’s Office.
Evans said Wally, who retired after serving as an assistant superintendent in Greenwood County School District 52, is in the intensive care unit at Spartanburg Medical Center. Wally Hall was listed as being in fair condition at about 7 p.m. Friday, according to Jessica Pickens, the hospital system’s media relations coordinator. Fair condition is described on the hospital’s website as: “Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. The patient is conscious, but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.”
Julie Fowler, the district’s chief administrative officer, said the board had asked her to assume the day-to-day operations of the district.
“Not only is this school district family going to be devastated, but so is this community,” Fowler said, wiping away tears Friday morning. “She was bigger than life and revered across the state, respected, and will be sorely missed.”
Board Chairman James Tisdale said Betty Jo lived the district’s motto: “Putting students first.”
“That’s what she does,” Tisdale said. “She’s worked with children all her life. All she’s ever wanted to my knowledge is to do what’s best for children.
“Betty Jo Hall, she might have been superintendent, but all 3,000 students were like her children,” Evans said. “She cared for every one of them. We’re all in shock and disbelief to be honest. I don’t know what else to really say than that, and to keep her husband in our prayers.”
Betty Jo began her career as an educator 37 years ago in Abbeville County schools, later moving to McCormick’s school district. She rejoined Abbeville 11 years ago as assistant superintendent and became the district’s top official in 2017.
“They just had a love and a passion for education, both of them,” said Wall, under whom the couple worked as assistant superintendent, Betty Jo in Abbeville and Wally in Ninety Six. “If you asked them to stay late, they stayed late. If you asked them to come early, they came early. They did whatever it took to get the job done.”
And when she eventually took the reins of the district in which she had spent most of her career, “She led with love,” said Skip Hopkins, director of student services.
As news of the wreck spread Friday, people shared their memories and grief on social media.
“Our hearts are hurting this morning with this tragic news,” said a tweet from Abbeville High’s football program. “Huge loss for our county and school district. Please remember this family in your prayers today. We are thankful for all the support Mrs. Hall showed our Panthers as well as our students.”
A post on Abbeville County’s Facebook page said county employees are “shocked and saddened” by the news.
“She loved this community like none other as well as every one of her students past and present,” the county’s post said. “We will miss Betty Jo, but are better people for having known her.”
Mark Peeler, Erskine College’s athletic director and member of the district’s board, wrote on Twitter: “What a wonderful lady and amazing superintendent who blessed our students in Abbeville. Our hearts are heavy but her race was run well.”
“One of the very best school leaders I worked with in my 43 years,” tweeted Randy Vaughn, who formerly worked as assistant superintendent at District 50. “She always put children first. Prayers for Wally and the entire Abbeville Community.”
McCormick County School District canceled its Friday morning back-to-school celebration so State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, who was to speak there, could instead grieve with district staff in Abbeville.
“She was just vibrant. She put a smile on everyone’s face,” Spearman said. “She was a dear friend.”
Wally has been working with McCormick County School District on a part-time basis since October, interim Superintendent Betty Bagley said.
In addition to their years of service in Lakelands school districts, the Halls were known for their dancing — both have been inducted into the South Carolina Shaggers Hall of Fame.
Wally told the Index-Journal in 2017 that he and Betty Jo got into shag dancing at local clubs while students at Lander University.
“Then we had the opportunity to go to a professional shag contest, and we went and just kind of fell in love with it,” he said.
Wall said one had to see the couple together to understand how deep was their affection for each other.
“Honestly, you never heard just Betty Jo or just Wally — it was Betty Jo and Wally,” she said.
“They loved one another,” Hopkins said. “I especially lift up Wally at this time. He adores her. And he’s going to need us and we’re going to be there for him.”
Fowler said the district will be ready to welcome its students back on Aug. 20.
“Any time we have faced adversity we have come out of it, not just strong but shining, and we’re going to do that again,” Fowler said. “(Betty Jo’s) last words to me were: ‘This is going to be the best school year ever.’”
Fowler will serve at least until a special-called board meeting Monday morning, at which trustees will discuss next steps. According to the agenda of that meeting, the board will discuss a personnel contract during a closed-door session.
Monday’s welcome back celebration for teachers was canceled, Fowler said, and adjustments have been made to the week’s professional development schedule. The district posted on Facebook Friday that mental health counselors and ministers would be on hand from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday at Wright Middle School Monday for anyone who needs someone to talk to: students, parents, faculty, staff and any community members.
At its annual WCTEL Classic football event Friday night, Abbeville had a moment of silence for Betty Jo.
The PA announcer at Hite Stadium said she was “an advocate for all students at Abbeville High School.”
People also remembered White, who was named to the All-State team last year and was twice selected to All-Region teams.
“Savion was an outstanding young man,” Newberry head football coach Todd Knight said in a released statement. “He had a bright future ahead of him here. It’s a tragedy that it was cut short. In the short amount of time he was here with us it was easy to tell that people thought a lot of him. Everybody loved the kid.”
The South Pointe Student Council tweeted: “We are sadden(ed) to hear the passing of such a true stallion. Savion truly did live the ‘South Pointe Way’ his past years at South Pointe. On behalf of the South Pointe Stallions, the White Family has our deepest condolences!”
In a statement Friday, Newberry College athletics director Ralph Patterson called White an “amazing young man” who will be missed by many.
White attended the college’s second summer school session and he participated in strength and conditioning activities.
“He was an amazing young man — a terrific student, and wonderfully talented. Our prayers are with his family and friends, and also for his teammates and coaches in Rock Hill and at Newberry College,” Patterson said.
Patterson’s wife, Lynn, has taught first grade at Cherokee Trail Elementary in Abbeville since 1998, and their sons are Dixie High School graduates.
“Our hearts are also heavy over the passing of Betty Jo,” he said. “Betty Jo made a difference in the lives of so many students, teachers and support staff. Our prayers are lifted for her family, loved ones and everyone in the Abbeville School District.”