AIKEN --- Known as the "mother of veterans," Aiken resident Ola Hitt has been honored with the Pickens-Salley Southern Woman of Distinction Award by the University of South Carolina Aiken.
The award recognizes a local woman who has made a positive impact on the community and served as a role model, said USC Aiken Vice Chancellor Deidre Martin.
The 96-year-old Mrs. Hitt has many stories that are as vivid as the postcards and pictures she keeps from experiences that go back to 1960, when she opened her home to veterans.
"This lady came to me from Augusta and she said she had a friend who needed a room, but I couldn't take him right then," Mrs. Hitt said. "I didn't realize they were veterans from the hospital until the second man came. I didn't ask questions. They kept on until they brought me six. Then it was 10."
Mrs. Hitt isn't new to awards. She can rattle off the half-dozen given to her in recent years, including the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor for a South Carolinian. But receiving the Pickens-Salley award this month caught her off guard, she said.
"It was a shock," she said, laughing. "When I got the letter I went all to pieces. I had to sit down and shut my eyes and pray a little bit."
Dr. Martin said the faculty committee felt that Mrs. Hitt embodied the symposium's message this year, which was Southern Women and World War II.
"She's just had a rich life opening her home and her heart to these men," Dr. Martin said. "There just seemed like no better person. This is by no means the most prestigious honor she's received, but we just felt like it was perfect timing."
Mrs. Hitt's family has been associated with Aiken since 1831 but is best known for boarding U.S. veterans for more than 30 years. Her home on Chesterfield Street in Aiken still remains ready for visitors, with tables set for at least 10.
Over the years, she has had more than 8,900 people share her rooms -- one man stayed for 17 years. Although her home is much quieter these days, she still makes trips to Augusta hospitals with magazines for veterans.
"I don't know why I do it. I just felt I could help," she said.
Reach Julia Sellers at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106 or email@example.com.