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Arnold School of Public Health


Kimberly Butler Willis and Elizabeth Newton

Arnold School supporter Elizabeth Newton passes away, leaves legacy

March 20, 2019 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu

“My mother was an early proponent of preventive healthcare and, like her, I have always had an interest in preventing disease,” said Elizabeth Newton in an interview with the Arnold School of Public Health in 2007. “I believe that it is much more important to prevent disease than to cure it.”

Newton was 89 at the time of the interview, and she had just established a permanent endowment, the Mary Elizabeth Newton Fellowship in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) at the Arnold School of Public Health. Every year, the endowment provides funding support to HPEB doctoral students, with preference given to South Carolinians.

Born in Charleston, Newton moved to Columbia with her mother and sister following the death of her father. Her parents fostered not only a love of music, which led to Newton’s donation of a large collection of sheet music to the UofSC Music Library in 2005, but also a passion for health promotion and disease prevention.

After graduating from Furman University in 1939, Newton taught advanced training to the troops at Fort Jackson in Columbia where she observed disparities in healthcare and education among her students. It was then that her interest in preventing diseases and associated suffering transitioned into a passionate commitment.

I would like to see everyone in our state have equal opportunities when it comes to prevention and access to healthcare.

-Elizabeth Newton in a 2007 interview

Newton spent the next 60 years teaching English and French at Fort Jackson before retiring. She was also an active member of First Baptist Church in Columbia, playing the piano for the children’s department, singing in the choir, and teaching for the international program. Deeply philanthropic, she held a special place in her heart for the citizens of South Carolina and for the University of South Carolina.

“I would like to see everyone in our state have equal opportunities when it comes to prevention and access to healthcare,” Newton said in the 2007 interview. “It is my hope in establishing this fellowship that it will be awarded to a student who will remain in South Carolina after graduation and use the education they receive to improve the health of the people of this state, especially the underserved and underrepresented population.”

At the time of her gift, Newton was exercising regularly and teaching music—an active member of the community and a role model for those around her. Twelve years later, after her death at 101 years of age, she continues to serve as a role model through her generosity in supporting public health professionals and scholars.

“I only visited with Ms. Newton a few times, but the first time I met her I saw immediately what a treasure she was.  She was passionate about public health. She loved hearing about the work of HPEB students and faculty and discussing the importance of promoting healthy lifestyles,” says HPEB professor and chair Daniela Friedman. “Ms. Newton’s generous gift to our department will continue to provide support for our talented students who are dedicated to improving the health and quality of life in communities across our state.”

Recent HPEB Ph.D. graduate Kaleea Lewis received the scholarship multiple times. She is currently a Preparing Future Faculty Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Missouri and focuses on changing the deficit-oriented narratives our society holds about the health of marginalized (e.g., African American) communities. Victoria Lambert, the 2018-2019 recipient of the Mary Elizabeth Newton Fellowship Award, is a current HPEB doctoral student whose work focuses on researching health communication around smoking cessation and tobacco products as well as health communication more broadly.

Ms. Newton’s gift to our graduate students working in health promotion has had such a positive impact on them personally and more importantly on the communities where they now live and serve.

-Thomas Chandler, Dean of the Arnold School of Public Health

Kimberly Butler Willis (pictured above (left) with Newton) was one of the earliest Newton Fellows (2007-2008, 2008-2009), and she’s still committed to the spirit of the endowment. She had already earned a bachelor of science in exercise science and a master of public health in HPEB from the Arnold School when she decided to begin working toward a Ph.D. 

“When I was awarded the fellowship in 2008, I met Ms. Elizabeth for lunch, and she asked me about my dreams and back then they were pretty simple—to take everything I was learning back to Hollywood,” says Willis of her plans to improve health in her small hometown outside Charleston, South Carolina. “She didn’t question it or provide a critique. Instead, she listened and shared her own dreams as a student, a teacher, and devoted church member. We bonded over our love for education, my lack of skill with plants, and our memories of Charleston.”

Today, Willis is the director of the Ryan White Wellness Center at Roper St. Francis Healthcare in Charleston. The certified health education specialist has coordinated and managed sexual health and community health initiatives in South Carolina for the past decade. After a break to focus on her career, Willis is currently working to complete her dissertation. 

Since 2007, Newton’s endowment has provided nearly 20 scholarships to support HPEB doctoral students who are working to improve the health and wellbeing of South Carolinians. “Ms. Newton’s gift to our graduate students working in health promotion has had such a positive impact on them personally and more importantly on the communities where they now live and serve,” says Thomas Chandler, dean of the Arnold School. “She was a dear friend with a wealth of interesting life stories accumulated over her 100 years on Earth. She lived a very modest and simple life, she saved much of her modest income as a teacher of music, English and French, and then she paid a large portion of her life savings forward to help deserving students pay for their public health educations. I will miss her kindness, her concern for the health of less advantaged populations, and her wonderful sense of humor and joy.”