COLUMBIA - The flag-draped casket of former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond was escorted Sunday into the South Carolina Statehouse on a bright and blistering afternoon, and hundreds of people braved the heat to pay respects to the political legend who lived for more than a century.
Carried into the marble-floored second-story foyer between the House and Senate chambers by a mixed-service, seven-person honor squad of the South Carolina National Guard, Mr. Thurmond's casket was dwarfed by two towering arrangements of red and white roses. A wood-and-glass display case stood near the foot of the bier, which contained insignia of his military ranks and rows of medals, including the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart he won during World War II.
Tall flags stood to the rear of the bier - the Stars and Stripes; the South Carolina state banner; the standard of all four services; and the red, two-starred ensign of a major general, Mr. Thurmond's highest Army commission, awarded him in 1959, five years after he was elected to the U.S. Senate on a write-in vote.
All stood as mute testimony to his heroism during the D-Day invasion, when he rode a glider into combat behind enemy lines in Normandy as an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division, and his strong support of the armed forces during his record-setting 48 years as U.S. senator.
"We have lost one of the leaders in terms of the military," said Maj. Gen. Stanhope Spears, the commander of the South Carolina National Guard. "Strom Thurmond was always there for the military, and he was always fair."
A martial theme will dominate Mr. Thurmond's funeral service Tuesday at the First Baptist Church of Columbia, the procession from the Statehouse that precedes it and his burial in a family plot next to the Edgefield First Baptist Church, where he was baptized in 1912 and served as deacon and Sunday school superintendent.
An hour before the public was allowed to enter the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia to view Mr. Thurmond's casket, Edna Ratcliff, 61, of Columbia, and her daughter Sharon Biggers, 34, of Lexington, stood near the statue that catches the late political legend in vigorous midstride, his back to the Capitol. Both were waiting to see the casket.
"Just known him all my life," said Mrs. Ratcliff, whose father, Edwin Zobel, was a football player at the University of South Carolina and the Carlisle Military Academy in Bamberg in the mid-1920s and had games refereed by Mr. Thurmond, who was a teacher at the old Edgefield High School at the time.
Said Mrs. Biggers: "He served the people, so it's time for the people to serve him. I think people of my generation will begin to understand what he meant to this state now that he's gone."
Like many South Carolinians, Mrs. Ratcliff has a Strom Thurmond story. When Mrs. Biggers and another daughter were preteens, they took a free "First Flight" that Eastern Airlines ran between Columbia and Charlotte, N.C. On its return, there was a long delay after the plane pulled up to the gate and opened its doors. Like other parents, Mrs. Ratcliff was worried - until her daughters came out holding hands with Mr. Thurmond.
"This was a man everybody knows," said Mrs. Ratcliff. "I don't think there's a soul on earth who doesn't know Strom Thurmond. People who kept saying he was too old just didn't understand the clout he had. And in a state like South Carolina, you needed a man with his clout or nothing would ever get done."
While the Statehouse had a sharp military tone, morning worship at Mr. Thurmond's old church in Edgefield, where his sister Mary Tompkins is still a member, had the familiar rhythms of a Baptist service. Behind the choir loft is a giant stained-glass window portraying Jesus in a red robe and green, foot-length tunic - a gift from Mr. Thurmond and his wife, Nancy, to commemorate the death of their daughter, Nancy Moore, who was struck by a car and killed in 1993.
A guest preacher, the Rev. Ken Owens, the director of collegiate ministry for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, gave a sermon about the testimony of good deeds that made frequent references to Mr. Thurmond, who was elected a deacon there in 1928.
"We may never have the name and the standing of a Strom Thurmond, but we can be disciples of long standing," the Rev. Owens said.
For members of this church, Strom Thurmond was still part of the congregation, even though he transferred his membership to First Baptist Church of Aiken years ago. Sisters Mary Ray, 91, and Alva Jackson, 81, remember when Mr. Thurmond served as Sunday school superintendent and rang a bell to call people from classes to morning worship.
"I can still see him sitting in that pew with his mother," Mrs. Jackson said of Mr. Thurmond, pointing to the third pew in the left-center row of church benches.
Pointing toward the altar, Mrs. Ray said: "When I think about him, I see him and my daddy sitting at a table, taking care of Sunday school business."
While Mr. Thurmond was fighting overseas, he wrote letters to John Kemp, 65, a church deacon, timber farmer and former mayor of Edgefield. Mr. Kemp was a boy at the time, living next to the home of Mr. Thurmond's parents on Penn Street.
"He told me to be a good boy and feed the chickens and help in the war effort," Mr. Kemp said. "I collected scrap for the iron monger. In my mind, I was making bullets to kill Germans."
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1394 or email@example.com.
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