Tonya Blanton steeled herself as she pulled into the driveway of Jack and Jill Nursery School.
She swore she’d stay composed. No crying. Just act the way she always did when picking up her 3-year-old daughter Briar. Her son Patrick, now 14, had gone to Jack and Jill too, and Blanton herself first went to the brick house on Red Bluff Road when she was six weeks old.
But when the door swung open and she stepped inside the room of Curious George books and Snow White figurines for the last time, Blanton couldn’t help herself. The 37-year-old squalled like the nursery’s infants.
“You feel like you’re losing part of your family,” she said. “She’s just been an awesome lady. … Her heart was in it every day.”
That lady is Carolyn Prince-Holt, or Mrs. Carolyn to the generations of boys and girls she’s raised in her tiny preschool in the cornfields of the Mt. Vernon community. For 46 years, she got up before dawn to prepare for her little ones. She recited the pledge of allegiance with them each morning and sang “Jesus Loves Me” before coloring. She read the story of Noah from the children’s Bible and the fairy tales of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. She cuddled, rocked and whispered to so many babies her family long ago lost count.
But at 73, Mrs. Carolyn is finally ready to retire. She and her husband have taken their Harley Davidson to the lower 48 states. Alaska is calling, and this summer they will make that trip. Jack and Jill closed Friday afternoon.
Getting to this point, though, has taken prodding from her husband and sons. They want her to travel and relax, not obsess over diapers and schedules. For years, Mrs. Carolyn objected to retirement because she worried about what would happen to her community, the area between Longs and Loris, if she shuttered the low-cost childcare option so many turned to.
“What are these people going to do?” she would often ask when someone mentioned closing.
And Mrs. Carolyn knows those people.
At Loris High School football games, she’s a celebrity. Constant hugs. Folks remember the person who taught them how to tie their shoes.
And for years, people have also wanted to know how long she’d continue her nursery. They’d tell her about a son or daughter who was preparing to become a parent or beg her to keep going for a few more years until they could have a kid to bring to her.
“Everybody out in that world knows her,” said Danny Knight, a former Horry County administrator whose daughter Kristi attended Jack and Jill decades ago. “So many people learned at that place.”
Mrs. Carolyn first opened Jack and Jill in 1973 because of two specific children: her sons Jody and Tony.
She had taken Jody to a preschool in Tabor City, North Carolina, because there wasn’t one in Loris. She was impressed by what he learned there and how that early education prepared him for kindergarten.
When her younger son Tony battled whooping cough, she didn’t know if the six-week-old would survive. She quit her job as a payroll clerk to care for him. As Tony’s health improved, the young mother looked for a way to bring in some money while staying home. That was the idea behind the nursery school.
“I knew that I could do that stuff,” she said.
Mrs. Carolyn had always been a learner.
One of five children, she grew up about five miles from Jack and Jill and often read her older brother’s books because she was fascinated by the world and its places. She wanted to go to college, but she married at 15 and dropped out of high school. Undeterred, she returned to school and finished her diploma. After she became a mother, she was considering Southeastern Community College, but the demands of life were too strong. Still, she vowed she would go back when the time was right.
Mrs. Carolyn and her first husband, Dean Prince, built their single-story house with the preschool in mind. His family owned the land, and it had good visibility off Red Bluff Road. A large main room on the left side of the house was dedicated to Jack and Jill.
Her first class had 24 kids. She charged $25 per week, enough to cover expenses and still make it affordable for rural folks of limited means.
“[Things] weren’t all about money for me,” she said. “I mean, you had to have enough to buy supplies and all that kind of stuff and pay the help. But as far as making money, no, I used it for the children.”
And the children were her focus. She took their natural curiosity and used songs, books and games to teach.
“I made it that way,” she said. “Because I wanted them to enjoy coming. … Have fun and learn too: that was my motto.”
Mrs. Carolyn started her preschool as a 9 a.m. to noon operation, but by the next year folks were asking for an all-day provider. So she obliged.
“There was a need for it,” she said. “That’s why I did it.”
Several years later, she persuaded her husband to forgo a carport and build another room for her growing preschool. Later on, they built an in-ground swimming pool.
Although she didn’t know how to swim, Mrs. Carolyn taught herself in the pool. Then she began teaching children. The pool was an unusual amenity in Mt. Vernon at that time, and kids outside the preschool soon began asking for swimming lessons. Two other daycares even carpooled kids to her house for lessons. Soon adults began coming by on summer afternoons so Mrs. Carolyn could teach them to swim.
“That dragged a bunch of people here,” her son Jody Prince joked. “I bet you she’s taught 5,000 people how to swim around here.”
Apart from the swimming, Mrs. Carolyn’s preschool stood out in other ways. She bought a motor home and took field trips to Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia and the beach to fly kites. Starting with her first class 46 years ago, she insisted that her students participate in a formal graduation ceremony, complete with blue caps and gowns. She also wrote plays, taking versions of popular stories such as “Snow White,” “A Christmas Carol” and “The Wizard of Oz” and writing lines the children could memorize.
She crafted props of painted paper mache and cardboard. The plays became so popular she started renting the auditoriums at Daisy Elementary School and Loris High School to host the 100-150 who often attended.
“She had a full blown production,” said Kim Lewis, whose son Jamison went to Jack and Jill in the 1990s. “It was just wonderful.”
Lewis remembers one year the Jack and Jill play had a western theme and she was surprised to watch her quiet, reserved son excitedly take the stage in boots and a cowboy hat.
“He’s out there just dancing all over the floor,” she said. “He just got out in front of the group and didn’t worry about anybody.”
When Lewis first enrolled her son at Jack and Jill, she didn’t see much of Mrs. Carolyn. Dean Prince was in the hospital with lung cancer, and the matriarch spent most of her time with him.
But Lewis knew of Mrs. Carolyn’s reputation and the handful of helpers, including Bonnie Stevens, her sister-in-law and longtime assistant. She figured her boy would be in good hands and Mrs. Carolyn would never be too far away.
“A teacher gets a child for nine months and that’s pretty much it,” Lewis said. “But Carolyn has them for years.”
After her husband died in 1992, Mrs. Carolyn found herself wondering what to do. She had thought about teaching to better support herself, but she knew her high school diploma wouldn’t be enough. She also knew the list of state requirements for maintaining a preschool continued to grow every year. She always wanted to be ready.
With both sons out of the house, she decided to pursue the college degree she’d always wanted.
She enrolled at Coastal Carolina University. She took remedial math and English courses, but made quick work of them. Her staff ran Jack and Jill while she was in class. She would study late into the night, then wake up early to prepare for the children.
She earned her early childhood education degree in just three and a half years.
“I always give the Lord praise for it,” she said. “I do whatever I’ve got to do.”
A few years after her husband’s death, she began seeing Jerry Holt. His daughter went to the daycare and she knew him from Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. A mechanic with Santee Cooper, Holt had a motorcycle and liked to travel. She also liked to explore the world.
Holt and his daughters, Holly and Brandy, fit seamlessly into the family. He began making props for Jack and Jill plays, too.
Over the last 22 years of marriage, the couple made multiple trips to the big motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. With Holt driving and Mrs. Carolyn hanging on, they made four cross-country adventures, gazing out over the Grand Canyon and rolling over the Golden Gate Bridge.
But they never stayed away too long. Mrs. Carolyn’s babies at Jack and Jill needed her back home.
“She’s been here forever,” said Elizabeth Porter, who dropped off her 3-year-old daughter Kinsley at Jack and Jill for the final time last week. “She’s the one person we could turn to to help with our children. One family member can’t just work nowadays. It has to be both parents.”
Porter also came here as a child. She began tearing up.
“She’s just like everybody’s grandma,” she said.
In her final days in that role, Mrs. Carolyn found herself consoling parents. They understand, of course, and they said she deserves to retire, to reach her 49th state on the Harley. But they talked about how they’ll miss that comfort of knowing their child would be safe and loved. They talked about how they’ll miss the songs and the plays. They talked about missing Mrs. Carolyn.
Tonya Blanton’s daughter, Briar, made her final visit on May 31. She had found a new preschool and wouldn’t be there for the final week, though her mother came back one more time.
Last week, Tonya Blanton brought a rose bush to the nursery.
“I told her to plant the rose bush in her yard,” she said. “She had watched me grow. She had watched my children grow. … I wanted her to plant that and watch it grow as she had watched us grow.”