DARLINGTON — Dr. Thelma Pugh Dawson, a dentist who spent nearly 35 years on the Darlington County Board of Education, has died.
Throughout her life, Dawson was dedicated to the children and families of her community. She advocated for outstanding educational services for all children.
Dawson was first African-American female dentist in Florence/Darlington area and a community leader. The Greater Darlington Chamber of Commerce gave her its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
Dawson died on Oct. 30. A celebration of her life was held on Friday at John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Florence.
“I am blessed to have known Dr. Thelma Dawson for the past four and a half years,” said Darlington County School District Superintendent Tim Newman. “From our first conversation, I realized how passionate she was about the children in her community and across the county. As a member of the Darlington County Board of Education, Dr. Dawson worked tirelessly to improve opportunities for all students. Personally, I’ll cherish our many conversations about music and football, two of her favorite topics. She was a pioneer in her career as a dentist, and that carried over to her work on the school board. I am thankful for the opportunity to have worked alongside her. She will be greatly missed.”
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Dawson served as school board chairman on more than one occasion. She was currently serving as vice chairman. She was running unopposed in the upcoming election for District 3 on the Darlington County School District Board of Education.
In 2019, the South Carolina School Board Association awarded her the “30 Years of Service Award” for her dedication and hard work as a school board member. Dawson served on the transition leadership teams for State Superintendent Jim Rex and State Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum.
Dr. Felicia Goins, Sumter dentist and friend of Dawson, said she was a pillar of the community.
“She did so much for everyone,” Goins said. “She always fought for the underserved. Her heart was with the youth.”
Goins said Dawson was a voice of the people, especially children in public schools.
She said Dawson was also an active leader in the dental community. Goins served on the S.C. Dental Association with Dawson for about 30 years.
Dawson was also a life member of the American Dental Association and the South Carolina Dental Association. She was the past secretary of the Pee Dee District Dental Society.
“We are really going to miss her,” Goins said. “She was a dear, dear friend.”
She said Dawson was a “no-nonsense but caring and loving person.”
“She was going to tell you what she thought and not going to sugarcoat things,” Goins said. “She was very forthright and honest about the changes the community needed to move forward.”
Goins said Dawson loved basketball, especially the University of South Carolina girls’ team, and was a staunch supporter of South Carolina State.
Goins said Dawson continued to practice dentistry until about three months ago when her health began to fail.
“She has so many patients who wanted to see her,” Goins said. “She touched a lot of lives and made such an impact on so many people.”
Dawson’s first cousin, Dr. Fran McDuffie Foster, described her as “understated, quiet but had a strong feeling about education.”
Foster said it was part of her makeup. She said they both grew up on the campus of a boarding school that was run by their grandfather.
“We were infused with education early on and how important it was,” Foster said.
Foster said Dawson was a wonderful person, very smart and committed to the Darlington County School District.
She said Dawson grew up sharing her time in Laurinburg, North Carolina, and Darlington. Foster said Dawson spent her summers in Darlington and returned to Darlington after graduating from college to make it her home. She opened her dentist practice in Darlington and one in Florence, Foster said.
Some of Foster’s fondest memories of her cousin are when they would get together in Laurinburg for the Christmas holidays.
“I looked forward to her coming up to Laurinburg for my family’s Christmas dinner the day after Christmas,” Foster said.
Dawson was a musician and played several instruments, but her main instrument was the saxophone, Foster said. Dawson’s father sold musical instruments and her mother played, too.
“She came from a musical family,” Foster said.
She said Dawson enjoyed sports and tailgate parties.
“She was not very formal,” Foster said. “She was a casual person. She was a ‘real’ person. There was not a phony bone in her body.”
Foster said Dawson had a servant’s heart.
“She served where she was. She was a wonderful soul. I am going to miss her terribly,” Foster added.
Dr. Thelma Dawson was born on May 13, 1944, in Darlington, a daughter of the late David George and Iona Elaine Johnson Pugh. She attended school in the North Carolina Public Schools System and graduate from Lincoln Heights High School in 1961. She also received a bachelor of music in education from Howard University in 1967. She graduated from the Medical College of Georgia on Sept. 28, 1978.
She was a member of Mizpah Presbyterian Church in Darlington, where she served as the clerk of session under the Rev. Franklin D. Colclough.
Dawson was also a longtime member of the Darlington County Community Action Agency board.
In 2011, Dawson became a founding member of the Pee Dee Medical Professionals Association Inc. (PDMPA). She was a member of the executive board, served as parliamentarian and co-chair of the nominating committee. The organization increased health awareness to at-risk populations and provide scholarships for students in the Pee Dee Region. She was a mentor, friend, and a driving force behind the success of the organization.
She also served on the Duke Energy Progress Regional Advisory Board for more than 20 years.
In addition to her parents, Dr. Dawson was preceded in death by her brother, David Pugh. Survivors include her husband, Dr. Don Kenneth Dawson; one nephew, David Ellis Pugh; one great-niece, Davia Denise Pugh; one sister-in-law, Louise Pugh Jordan (Franklin); one brother-in-law, John A. Dawson (Barbara); and a special friend, Evelyn R. Graham.