To watch a video of Gergel discussing the significance of Columbia's Big Apple building, scroll to the end of this story.
Belinda F. Gergel is part academician, part history lover, part civic activist and wholly about winning for her causes.
But Columbia City Council now is losing her.
Gergel is stepping down from her one term as the representative for Columbias District 3, home to some of the most well-do-do, highly educated, most politically active residents of the citys four single-member districts.
Former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, who has known Gergel for decades and is a strong political ally, remembers the first time she approached him to discuss a public issue.
I remember thinking, Its just going to be easier to agree with her, Coble said last week. When she would hit you with a hammer she was wearing a velvet glove. She was always doing it with perfect Southern charm.
Current Mayor Steve Benjamin, in his latest State of the City address, jokingly referred to Gergel as our own personal honey badger, an animal known for its fearlessness and dogged pursuit of its target.
Shes relentless, focused, never to be underestimated, said Benjamin, who joined Gergel on the council in 2010. Shes the most principled, practical and pragmatic politician Ive ever seen.
Im just a historian, is a Gergel refrain before she dissects an issue. She says it so often that fellow council members have come to complete the sentence for her. Then they chuckle.
The Rock Hill native is leaving the capital city that has been her home for nearly all of the past 44 years to live in Charleston, where her husband of 32 years, Richard Gergel, has been a federal judge since August 2010.
And shes walking away from elective politics for good.
I do not intend to come back here and run for public office, the councilwoman said last week. I have no plans to go to Charleston and run for public office.
Gergel, 61, said she will move to Charleston after her term ends June 30.
Asked if she would ever again seek any public office, Gergel had a one-word, unequivocal answer: No.
Shes probably done 12 years work in her four-year term, Benjamin said.
By Gergels accounting, she stepped into city politics in 2008 at a volatile time. City Council was grappling with a financial and administrative mess that lacked accurate numbers, accountability or transparency.
Columbias books had not been audited in three years, the financial director had left and the city managers job performance had not been evaluated by council in two years.
Council would come to select a new city manager and the finance department would be retooled with new hires.
City Council also was at an impasse with advocates for the homeless after rejecting their preferred site for a service center. Opponents wanted the center to open away from their homes and businesses.
When I took my seat, this was a priority for me engaging council in the dialogue for the homeless, Gergel said. I think were working more closely together now.
She also took on the tense job of tackling the Columbia-area bus system and changing the citys relationship with its board. As vice chairman of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority board, Gergel pressed for overhauling the board, getting the company that operates buses to make financial concessions to help offset a $3 million deficit and voted for an increase in fees that city residents pay so that buses would have a stable source of funding.
She voted to put the Columbia Police Department temporarily under Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, a move that would have been a milestone toward a city-county merger for public safety. The effort failed. Council decided instead to hire Lotts chief deputy, Randy Scott.
I think this was a missed opportunity, Gergel said of the move to consolidate public safety services. Yet she is impressed with Scotts performance and professionalism. I think hes done a terrific job. I think weve ended up with the best of all worlds.
Fighting words: Community character
Gergels backers said that perhaps her biggest imprint will be on preserving neighborhoods from being changed dramatically by new construction.
That issue, known as community character or neighborhood distinctiveness, launched her political career.
A longtime activist in the arts and historic preservation, Gergel adopted a 2008 election strategy that received a well-timed gift as she readied her campaign.
In July 2007, Columbia developer Ben Arnold tore down a 78-year-old farmhouse on a 2½-acre lot he bought for $2.2 million at the edge of Heathwood, one of the citys old-money neighborhoods. Arnold had told the Planning Commission and neighbors he would not raze the house.
At the time, developers were seeking downtown property to meet a growing demand for homes in the city. Zoning laws allowed for the Kilbourne Road lot to be subdivided and for up to nine homes to be built to replace a 1920s-era house all without requiring notice to neighbors or permission from the city.
Arnolds decision ignited a war between saving the look and feel of old neighborhoods and commerce and property rights.
Candidate Gergel, a former president of Historic Columbia Foundation, called for a six-month moratorium on the demolition of homes 50 years and older. She sought a ban on McMansions as the new, larger homes were dubbed and requested a review of all of the citys development-related zoning laws.
Gergel and then-Mayor Coble held one of her campaign news conferences in front of a home being built by developer Chris Dorseyon Duncan Street. Dorsey said he had built about 300 homes in downtowns Rosewood and Shandon neighborhoods, more than any other developer.
We were no match for Team Gergel, Dorsey, who is no longer a builder, said last week. Man, did I get an indoctrination in politics. She absolutely kicked my butt.
The three-person race in 2008 boiled down to a contest between Gergel and developer Brian Boyer, a West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran who is the brother-in-law of Columbia developer and financier Don Tomlin.
Boyer, now 34, a husband and a recent father, said last week that Gergel has won his backing.
Belinda has done a great job the last four years, Boyer said. I think the world of her.
Since 2008, five neighborhoods have adopted interim measures to extend protections against new construction, said Amy Moore, of the citys preservation office. Five additional neighborhoods have chosen community character and/or historic designations.
Gergels legacy will be to have elevated the importance of neighborhood preservation, said Mary Baskin Waters, president of Columbia Council of Neighborhoods, an umbrella organization that represents 112 neighborhoods.
She took us to a higher level, Waters said.
Wife, mother, professor, activist
Belinda Friedman, daughter of an attorney and developer, moved to town in 1968 to study history at Columbia College.
She met her future husband, who had been a student leader on integration of Columbias public schools, in 1972.
He was cute and smart, and I knew he was the one for me, Gergel said. She followed him to Duke University, where she earned masters and doctoral degrees.
Gergel, a year away from marriage, returned to Columbia in the spring of 1978 and became director of continuing education at her alma mater.
She also taught Southern womens history at a time when womens studies was emerging as a academic field.
Gergel remained an educator until the couples first son, now 28, was born. A second son was born in 1986.
That year, Gergel, with her doctoral degree, took a job teaching social studies at C.A. Johnson High School until 1989, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The longtime smoker quit the habit and underwent six months of chemotherapy, she said.
I stopped smoking the day I was diagnosed. Cancer-free for 22 years, Gergel said, The big fear is that it will come back. I never thought Id live this long.
She returned to the faculty at Columbia College in 1991 and stayed until she retired in 2002 as chairwoman of the schools history and political science department.
Being on City Council has been an eye-opening experience, Gergel said.
It has enriched my life in ways beyond measure. Im leaving with a greater appreciation for the great potential of this city.
Video: Gergel and Robin Waites on The Big Apple
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.