AIKEN -- In true Strom Thurmond fashion, the senator Saturday shook hands with everyone in the room, kissed the women and left Aiken with several shades of pink on his right cheek.
Mr. Thurmond, the longestserving U.S. senator, and to many the South's elder statesman, was honored by the Aiken Lodge of Perfection, Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for serving 50 years as a Scottish Rite member.
"Shortly after I took office as governor in 1947, I was asked to speak to a group of inmates at the state prison," Mr. Thurmond said, upon receiving his award. "I started my speech off as a normally do by saying, `Good afternoon ladies and gentleman. It's good to be here, and I'm glad you're here, too.' You can imagine the look on their faces when I said that.
"Anyway it's good to be here,"' the Republican senator said. "And I'm especially glad to be here with the ladies. I will hang this (plaque) high in my Senate office, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
At 95, Mr. Thurmond is only the second Aiken lodge member to be given the honor. Eighty-two-year-old Zack Phillips was the first.
"I'm in good company," Mr. Phillips said. "I couldn't think of a more fitting man to be joined by."
His life and political career have spanned some of the most turbulent and interesting years in United States' history. He is a political survivor, reading the public's mood and knowing when to change. Even those who don't agree with Mr. Thurmond's political stances say he is a marvel of endurance, a wily politician and a man of the people.
Known for his Southern charm, the senator Saturday was glorified for his ability to touch nearly every South Carolinian by making constituent service a priority.
"I've been admiring him since I was a kid," said Frederick Tonsing, a McCormick resident and Venerable Master of the Aiken Lodge of Perfection. "I especially remember when he ran for president in '48, but I was only 18 and wasn't eligible to vote."
Mr. Thurmond won his first election as a Democrat, then later became a Dixiecrat who ran for president on a "states rights" platform. After switching to the Republican Party in the 1960s, he became one of the nation's most influential lawmakers.
"The greatest thing I've ever done in my life is to help people," he said. "As a Mason, I stand for God and country, and I hope I never stand for anything else. And as long as I can walk and stand up, I will be glad to serve this nation."