Originally created 06/30/03

Thurmond's influence lives on through his proteges



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- While South Carolinians remember former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond as a man who could get things done for them, many others from the Palmetto State see their time spent with Thurmond as the stepping stone to greater things.

From the White House to the South Carolina Governor's Mansion, many political leaders from South Carolina started out in Thurmond's employ.

"We're talking hundreds and hundreds of people," said House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville. "So his influence will be felt for years and decades to come, not only in the judicial and legislative branch but in business and many other walks of life."

Wilkins' and his older brother, Billy, who will be one of the eulogists at Thurmond's funeral Tuesday, worked on 1972 re-election campaign. Billy Wilkins later was nominated by Thurmond to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., where Wilkins is now chief judge.

"A lot of people got their chance because of Strom Thurmond," David Wilkins said. "Whether that's in the judiciary or boards and commissions or ambassadorships, they owe their seat to Strom Thurmond. So his influence continues."

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was among the legions of people who worked in Thurmond's office either during college or even in high school as interns and pages.

"Like half of South Carolina, I was a Strom Thurmond intern," Sanford said. "That creates a known political group that endures."

Dennis Shedd was a former Thurmond chief of staff whose appointment to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals was one of Thurmond's last tasks as a senator.

"We call it the Strom Thurmond Alumni Association, and it's almost like a college alumni association," Shedd said.

Former U.S. Rep. John Napier, who worked as legal counsel and legislative assistant to Thurmond before serving in Congress from 1980-82, also compared Thurmond's Senate office to higher education.

"Senator Thurmond had a virtual university graduate school for people going into further public service and business," said Napier, a rare Republican winner in South Carolina's 6th congressional district.

"The senator always thought if he could get somebody tucked away in government, they'd not only serve his interests but the interests of the people of South Carolina because he could always call upon them," Napier said.

Most of Thurmond's proteges were white men with conservative politics, but not all. Black syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams also is an ex-staffer.

And former associate White House counsel Helgi Walker worked in Thurmond's office from 1988-1991, finishing up as Thurmond's deputy press secretary.