Thurmond was political legend

Lawmaker's views evolved during career

No political figure towered over the Augusta region over the past century more than Strom Thurmond, of Edgefield, S.C.


He served his people as a schoolteacher, coach, attorney, governor and judge.

Thurmond would go almost anywhere to meet and greet the people who kept electing him, and his offices were always legendary for their success in handling constituent requests.

When he died June 26, 2003, he was beloved by his friends and forgiven by his political foes.

Thurmond, who became the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, was born in Edgefield County a year before the Wright Brothers showed man the secret of powered flight.

He saw the nation go through two world wars and send the first man to the moon. He often found himself at center stage in a sometimes controversial public career.

Throughout his life, Thurmond, who once coached scholastic basketball in Edgefield County, watched his diet and exercised religiously.

After winning re-election to what was his final term in 1996, Thurmond told reporters the secrets of his longevity.

"I do 20 minutes of stretching, 20 minutes of calisthenics and 20 minutes of strengthening each day," he said. "I stay away from fried foods, and I only drink milk or fruit juices, nothing with caffeine."

And remain optimistic, he said, because "if you have a healthy mind, you will have a healthy body."

He also called his children every day because, "I think the most important thing in life is to be a good parent."

His father, John William Thurmond, once passed along similar advice in a letter to his son.

"Remember your God," his father advised. "Take care of your body and tax your nervous system as little as possible."

The elder Thurmond also suggested his son "think three times before you act and, if in doubt, don't act at all."

As a staunch segregationist in the 1940s and '50s, Thurmond ran for president as a States' Rights Democrat, or "Dixiecrat," in 1948. His views on race and civil rights changed with the passage of time and the recognition of growing black power after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1970, he became the first Southern senator to hire a black person for his staff. In 1983, he was honored by the South Carolina Conference of Black Mayors.

"I don't believe black mayors could have done otherwise," said then-state Sen. I. DeQuincey Newman, who noted Thurmond had helped many small communities get grants and other federal aid.

Thurmond graduated from what was then Clemson College in 1923 and held more than two dozen honorary degrees. He got his law training by studying with his father in Edgefield.

"The Supreme Court listed the books you had to study," Thurmond said later. "I figured I could learn it much faster if I studied it myself and had him there at night to answer questions."

Thurmond would rise at 6 a.m. and study until 9 a.m., then go to his job as Edgefield County school superintendent. He would return home and study from 6:30 p.m. until 11 p.m.

He was admitted to the bar in 1930 and elected a circuit court judge eight years later.

Today, wrought-iron fencing surrounds Thurmond's grave and the family plot in Willowbrook Cemetery in Edgefield.