At age 14, Robert McClary shook hands with three of the most powerful men in the free world at the time: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and presidential advisor Bernard M. Baruch.
When they asked what he'd like to be when he grew up, he answered, "to be president, just like Mr. Roosevelt," McClary recalled, on a recent homecoming visit to Hobcaw Barony with members of his family.
His reply brought a chuckle from the men, because he was a black youth who had descended from grandparents who served as slaves on a S.C. plantation before being freed when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time, he was the son of servants who had landed jobs on the 17,000 acres that S.C. native Baruch had bought and turned into a winter retreat after amassing a fortune on Wall Street.
The encounter took place on a dirt road deep in Hobcaw's woods while ailing President Roosevelt spent a month of recuperation at Baruch's winter home in 1944 and Baruch was giving the president and prime minister a tour of his holdings. It also came in the depths of the Great Depression as World War II raged in Europe, and in an era when a bleak future faced a majority of poor blacks in the South.
At the time, McClary, his parents, three other siblings and an orphaned cousin lived in a tiny cabin on Baruch's estate that once had been part of the slave quarters on one of the old rice plantations Baruch bought to re-create Hobcaw Barony.
That story was part of McClary's history that came to life earlier this month when, at age 80, he brought his wife, several daughters and two grandchildren on a tour of Friendfield to show them his humble beginnings.
Hobcaw Barony, later bought by Baruch's daughter Belle and turned into a nature preserve after her death, now serves as a research center for several universities. Remaining structures like the Baruch home overlooking an inlet that leads to the Atlantic Ocean, the old slave quarters, the vintage Strawberry Village one-room school - and graveyards scattered through the woods where generations of antebellum slaves were laid to rest -are part of Georgetown County's historic treasures.
But even with a recent coat of white paint, it was evident that the shack where McClary spent part of his formative years was part of a hardscrabble life.
McClary's father, Frank, in 1937 landed a job as a "plowboy" at Baruch's sprawling estate after being laid off as a truck driver for a Kingstree feed store when the plummeting economy gobbled up jobs, he said. He tended the fields that produced the corn to feed Baruch's livestock.
Marvin Boykin, the superintendent who oversaw operations at Baruch's winter retreat, "had heard that he could plow a straight line," McClary said.
McClary's mother, Maudess Rozetta McCullough, had graduated high school and taught at Sandy Island's black elementary school before her marriage to Frank. She worked as a cook's helper in Baruch's kitchen.
McClary had written a memoir of his life in 2003 and told wife, Pat, and daughters Robin and Kelly about his early years at Hobcaw. But walking down the dirt track that led to the place where his family had slept on straw mattresses on the floor was a revelation to them of just how primitive his life had been at the time, they said.
"This looks so close to what slavery must have been," Pat McClary said. "It was just enough to keep you alive."
"Now that I've seen it, it's much smaller than he described it," said daughter Robin, who has a law degree from Rutgers University and now directs youth employment programs for the City of New York. She was born to McClary's first wife, a schoolteacher from Chicago he met after he moved to Detroit, Mich., at age 18. "It's just amazing. to see this bit of history firsthand and get this sense of family. My sisters and I lost our mother, Gladys Dorsey McClary . Near the end, we all wished that we knew more about her history as well."
While visiting relatives who remain in the area, McClary had visited Hobcaw with his mother and several of his nine brothers and sisters in 2004 just before his mother's death.
McClary didn't become president, but through hard work and determination, he did built a successful life for himself.
Monday was the first time he'd re-entered the shack where he spent more than seven years as a youngster since moving to Detroit, graduating high school, serving in the Army during the Korean War, and then forging a career as a high-profile arson investigator with the Detroit Fire Department.
Along the way, he earned a bachelor's degree in political science, studied fire science, earned a master's degree in education at Wayne State University and became a part-time instructor at that college..
He retired from the Detroit Fire Department in 1984, after overcoming numerous racial hurdles resulting from being only the 13th black to join the force. He then joined the Wayne County Prosecutors office as an investigator (generally of arson cases) until 1997. He and his second wife Pat, a librarian at the Grossepoint Library, wed 28 years ago and now live in the Grosse Point suburb of Detroit.
"I've never been back in it until today," he said. He said that when he was a youth, the board walls were papered with pages from magazines and newspapers thrown out from the Baruch home to keep cold wind from coming through the cracks in winter. He also pointed out that the place had neither bathroom nor running water.
As a youngster, he said, he often accompanied a cousin, who later joined the family in their tiny cabin, on trips to the village well pump in the dark of night to bring pails of water back to the cabin. He went along on the water runs, he said, because the cousin was scared of stories about ghosts, "haints," the Platt Eye and other specters that folklore said lurked in the woods.
There were advantages to having a mother who worked in the Baruch's kitchen, though, he said. When she made sandwiches for Baruch lunches, she trimmed the crust from the bread, bagged it and brought it home in the evening.
"My brother and I always would stay up until she got home so we could eat it," he said.
McClary said he discovered after moving to Detroit to seek a better life that racial discrimination was a fact of life even outside the South, where blacks had to attend separate schools from whites in his youth, were banned from eating at restaurants that catered to whites, and even considered less than human by some people.
When he joined the Detroit Fire Department, for instance, some white crewmembers refused to use the bed where he bunked during 24-hour shifts on the job. Another example, he wrote in his memoir, recalled working as a shoe salesman in Georgetown when in high school. He was hired specifically to serve black women, he wrote, but had to make sure they didn't actually try on a shoe until they were sure that it would fit and they would buy it.
The reason was simple, he wrote: White customers would refuse to buy shoes that a black person had merely slipped on their foot.
But, he said, over time he became a lifelong friend with many of the people who at first were judged him only on the color of his skin - and feels no bitterness about having undergone such trials.
"Throughout history, race has always mattered. The Irish, Jewish, Polish and other ethnic groups had problems to overcome. Romans had slaves. Even Africans had slaves. All that went on long before our country was founded in 1776. But, I learned there are good people everywhere and that good people have prevailed throughout," he said.
McClary said his trip back to his youth at Hobcaw was humbling, but also a pleasure to share with his wife, children and grandchildren.
It also was a reminder, he said, of his mother's advice on which he strived to build his life.
"My mother also told me that there is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that there is nothing left except to love the rest of us," he said.