Mary Jo Cloninger stands inside the Gaston County fabric store that bears her name.

LINCOLNTON – The Gaston College foundation recently announced the establishment of a new scholarship available to female graduates of Gaston and Lincoln County high schools planning to pursue a business degree.

The Mary Jo Cloninger Endowed Scholarship was funded by the children of Margaret “Mary Jo” Cloninger in her memory. Cloninger, who died in 2017 at the age of 85, was a pioneer among female business owners in the area.

“Mary Jo Cloninger was a remarkable woman,” Gaston College President Pat Skinner said in a press release about the scholarship. “We are very excited to continue her legacy by empowering the young women of Gaston and Lincoln counties with the opportunity to become business leaders.”

Cloninger learned the value of hard work at a young age while spending most of her teenage years behind the register of her father’s family grocery store, the college said. In fact, Cloninger was pulled out of high school to work full-time, but she would go on to do just fine without her degree.

Cloninger, who stitched together cotton scraps from her mother’s sewing machine as a child, had developed an idea for her own business by the time she was married. Then, at the age of 19, she founded Mary Jo’s Cloth Store, one of Gaston County’s most iconic and successful businesses.

“She was taught to work hard and she did just that,” Cloninger’s son, Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger, said. “She worked seven days a week nonstop after dropping out of high school. Her daddy taught her about hard work, and she knew that she loved cloth. She took that gift and built Mary Jo’s Cloth Store from the ground up.”

Cloninger got her start with a $500 loan, which had to be co-signed by a male since businesswomen were uncommon at the time. She used that money to rent space in the back of her father’s barber shop, where she sold cloth to women who made clothes for their families.

Now, nearly 70 years later, Mary Jo’s is an international enterprise selling sought-after fabrics to homemakers and designers in all 50 states and countries around the world.

“Mary Jo was always about giving back to the community,” Alan Cloninger said. “One of her favorite sayings was ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and we as her children felt it would be appropriate to establish this scholarship for young women to be able to continue their education in her name.”

To qualify for the scholarship, applicants must be female students pursuing an associate degree in business, as well as a current resident of Gaston or Lincoln counties. Students considered must also have earned a high school diploma or attained their high school equivalency degree.

Students must apply to, and be accepted by, Gaston College before gaining access to its scholarship application system. Continued funding is available if the student maintains a 2.5 grade-point average.

While financial need is not required for the award, it is considered when applications are reviewed.

Gaston College is accepting scholarship applications for the 2019-20 school year. To apply, visit


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