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Making Her Mark

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Writer, poet, and book editor Harriet McDougal champions local literacy initiatives. She’s shown here in the library of the Charleston County School of the Arts, where she mentors a senior creative writing student each year; photograph by Christopher Shane

November 11, 2015

Making Her Mark
With the Giving Back Awards coming up on Friday, November 20, get to know the 2015 Jerry Zucker Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Harriet McDougal, presented by Ibu Movement

written by Stephanie Hunt

As a writer, poet, and editor, native Charlestonian Harriet McDougal knows that words wield muscle and beauty, love and heartbreak. Crafted into stories, they convey the deepest human truths; they unleash imagination, conjure worlds, open doors, and transform lives—as they have hers. McDougal, who graduated from Ashley Hall and Radcliffe College, worked as an editor in New York. Her passion for words and literature led to the love of her life: She met her late husband, the renowned fantasy writer James O. Rigney Jr.—author (under the pseudonym Robert Jordan) of the epic fantasy “Wheel of Time” series (Tor Publishing)—in Charleston while publishing his first novel. “We were a natural pair of bookworms,” says McDougal.

Time and again, McDougal has demonstrated that words are generous; they create opportunity, they give back. Rigney’s internationally best-selling novels gave a world of intriguing characters and elaborate tales to millions of devoted readers across the globe. And the success of those books, which McDougal edited, gave the couple the means to help create a better world here in the Lowcountry.

“Harriet’s personalized license plate reads, ‘Stet’ (an editor’s notation to indicate ‘revert to original’), but ‘leave it as it was’ isn’t how Harriet lives her life,” says Coastal Community Foundation interim CEO Richard Hendry. “Her personality, her mind, and her money have brought positive changes in the lives of more people than anyone will ever know.”

Through the James O. and Harriet P. Rigney Endowment at the Coastal Community Foundation, established in 1996 (11 years before Rigney died at age 58 from amyloidosis, a rare blood disorder), McDougal has championed local literacy initiatives, including support of Trident Literacy Association as well as Begin with Books, a pre-school reading program and the Charleston affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. In addition, McDougal serves on the boards of Friends of Addlestone Library (College of Charleston), Charleston Library Society, and South Carolina Academy of Authors and is a supporter of Lowcountry Initiative of the Literary Arts (LILA). “Literacy is essential,” McDougal believes. “All avenues are closed if you can’t read.”

But McDougal’s philanthropy extends to other causes as well, particularly those that improve health, education, and opportunity for women, children, and underserved communities. Supporting women’s reproductive health has been a long-standing passion, one she inherited from her aunt, who was an early advocate for a racially integrated birth-control clinic in Charleston in the 1930s. “If a woman doesn’t have control of her own body, she has no control of her life and never will. I believe we should be able to make decisions about our own lives. Men do,” says McDougal, who was a struggling newly divorced mother of a young boy, living in a rough part of Brooklyn in the late 1970s—“Oh honey, I was robbed 14 times in four years”—before moving back to Charleston in 1977.

“Harriet is the epitome of an empowered woman,” notes her friend Lese Corrigan. “Her civic-mindedness is global. She’s always asking, ‘What needs to be done?’ ‘What’s the best approach?’ and then, ‘Let’s get to it.’ I’m in awe when I realize how many different things she’s had her hand in across the community.” Corrigan adds that McDougal has also been engaged with Metanoia and the South Carolina Community Loan Fund and considers them “especially meaningful way of serving” in the wake of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shootings. “I can’t imagine a more fitting recipient of this award,” says Jennet Robinson Alterman, former director of the Center for Women, a beneficiary of McDougal’s generosity. “Harriet has long-standing family roots here; she went away [for school and work], and then came back, and despite the difficulty of losing a spouse, she hasn’t let anything hold her back. She’s become a major force in the community.”

For McDougal, as for her late husband, giving back to the community is simply a central plotline of an ever-unfolding story. Asked why she gives, McDougal takes only a second to come up with the few perfect words: “I don’t know how not to.”

To read about our other Giving Back Award winners, click here.

To purchase tickets to this year’s Giving Back Awards on Friday, November 20, at Memminger Auditorium, click here.