The bride and I ventured into the real world of S.C. politics Monday, attending a moving two-hour tribute to former Sen. Fritz Hollings in Charleston.
Some of the biggest names in South Carolina politics showed up for the dedication of a statue of Hollings at the J. Waties Waring Judicial Center – from Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Jim Clyburn to Gov. Harold McMaster and former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
All biggies but the star of the show, besides the 95-year-old Hollings, was former Vice President Joe Biden.
It was no accident that Biden, of Delaware, was the featured speaker in a ceremony for a beloved South Carolinian.
He pointed out that he had sat next to Sen. Strom Thurmond on the Senate Judiciary Committee for several years and also sat next to Hollings during their time together in the Senate chamber. He joked that he knew almost as much about our state as his own.
Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, but before he was to be sworn in, his wife and 1-year-old daughter were killed in an accident while two sons, Beau and Hunter, were severely injured.
One of the first persons to call him was Hollings and, in conversations, Biden said he didn’t think he could take his seat. His grief was too great.
Hollings, he said, told him he really ought to take the seat. He had worked too hard for it. Give it six months and see how you feel.
Biden finally agreed, but still he missed the official swearing in because he refused to leave his hospitalized sons. Hollings then arranged to have the secretary of the Senate go to the hospital chapel in Wilmington, Del., to administer the oath.
It was one of several little known but touching stories told about Hollings, arguably the most popular Democrat elected in South Carolina in the last 50 years – and elected over and over and over, serving first as governor, then, for almost 40 years, as senator.
Graham spoke before Biden and recalled his own first meeting with the future vice president, during a 15-hour flight to Iraq.
“I managed to sit next to him when we got on the plane and asked him to tell me all about Delaware politics. When we landed, he said, ‘I’ll finish the story in the car.’ ”
Rep. Clyburn talked about Hollings’ unprecedented role in renaming the Hollings Judicial Center after Waring, a federal judge who made several ground-breaking civil rights decisions in the 1940s and 50s,
Hollings had told Clyburn that the courthouse had been for him only because he had gotten the funding, but said Waring had performed justice.
The request, Clyburn said, was unheard of and demonstrated Hollings’ selflessness toward others.
Clyburn also noted Gov. Hollings’ role in bringing technical education to the state, eventually making South Carolina attractive to companies like BMS and Boeing.
He also discussed his role desegregating higher education in the state. While other governors stood in the doorway, he said, Hollings in 1963 peacefully welcomed Harvey Gant as the first African-American to attend Clemson. (Gant went on to become the mayor of Charlotte.)
Hollings, who sat quietly in a wheelchair during the ceremony, spoke briefly at the end.
As he spoke I was reminded of the quotes several of the speakers had borrowed from Hollings’ late wife, Peatsy. Whatever our differences, she had said, the two of us always agreed on one thing: We were both in love with the same man.
On Monday, she could have added a couple thousand more to that number.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.