Ike McLeese, who served as chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce for nearly two decades, guiding it from disarray and debt to prominence as the region’s leading business advocacy group, died Tuesday after undergoing heart surgery 20 days ago. He was 69.
McLeese suffered a heart attack Sept. 5 and underwent heart surgery Oct. 10. In an interview with The State before his surgery, McLeese said that he was planning to step down as president and CEO in December and continue to serve the chamber as a consultant in military affairs.
As a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army, McLeese is credited with much of the success the region had in securing new missions and public support for Fort Jackson and other area military bases. He also was a champion in bringing the Midlands disparate governments together as a region.
“He was unflinching in his commitment to the Midlands,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “He was dedicated to his country and that manifested itself in his support for men and women in uniform. He will be sorely missed. Like many people in Columbia, I am heartbroken.”
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McLeese’s death comes just two days after that of prominent Columbia attorney Steve Morrison, who championed education, the arts and the disadvantaged. The State’s Lee Bandy, considered the dean of South Carolina political writers, died Oct. 21.
“It’s been a tough week for Columbia and South Carolina,” said state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, a close friend of McLeese. The two often shared their love of baseball by watching the former Capital City Bombers play during sweltering summer games at Capital City Stadium.
Courson called McLeese “a gutsy guy” who would enter the fray of a political battle “when others in the business community wouldn’t.” He pointed, as an example, to McLeese’s work promoting a strong-mayor form of government in Columbia.
“Whether you agreed with him or not, you had to admire his involvement,” Courson said. “He was an outstanding public servant.”
McLeese considered the outcome of the 2005 round of military base realignment and closure, called BRAC, his greatest accomplishment.
That year, Fort Jackson received three new missions: the Army’s Drill Sergeant’s School; expansion of the Army Chaplain School to include all service branches; and the relocation of the Army’s 81st Regional Support Command, which oversees Army Reserve units in 15 states and Puerto Rico. Also, McEntire Joint National Guard Base, which at the time was considered vulnerable to being absorbed by nearby Shaw Air Force Base, survived.
Former Mayor Bob Coble said the BRAC outcome “was his finest hour and his legacy. It was the greatest economic-development announcement in the region’s history.”
Fort Jackson’s commander, Brig. Gen Bradley Becker, said that before he arrived in August, he was told by many that Columbia was the most military-friendly community in the nation – due in large part to McLeese’s work. McLeese was the first person he met with here after his personal staff, Becker said.
“This isn’t just a loss for Columbia,” he said. “This is the loss of a national treasure. He’s not the type of person you can just replace.”
Maj. Gen. Bradley May, deputy commander of initial training for the Army and former commanding general of Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest training base, called McLeese “a legend” in military circles.
“The impact that he has on so many lives goes beyond measure,” he said. “He will be deeply missed as his legacy lives on. On behalf of (four-star) Gen. Robert Cone, commander of Training and Doctrine Command, our heartfelt condolences are extended to Sue and the entire family.”
McLeese, an Anderson native and a 1966 University of South Carolina graduate, served for years in the political arena, working first as a staffer for then-U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, which he said was the most interesting time of his career.
Hollings called McLeese “a dedicated and indispensable member of my staff in the early years when I was first elected to the Senate. He was a true professional then and throughout his entire career. He was my friend, and he will be missed.”
In 1970, McLeese worked on the gubernatorial campaign of John C. West and then served in West’s administration for four years. He went on to work for two of the city’s top public relations firms — Cook & Ruef and Newman Saylor & Gregory — as a political consultant, running high-profile campaigns throughout the country and at home.
“He was a tireless advocate for business issues, but he always found time for his Gamecocks, his fondness for baseball and his family and friends,” said past chamber chairman Lee Bussell, chief executive and chairman of Chernoff Newman, which absorbed both of those firms after McLeese’s departure. “He still had a playful side as strong and determined as he was.
“He will be missed, but he will always be with us,” Bussell added. “Just look around the Midlands. Every day you will see something important that would not be there if it were not for Ike’s determination.”
McLeese took over the helm of a struggling chamber on Sept. 15, 1994. At the time, the organization had purchased a high-priced headquarters building at 930 Richland St. As a result, the organization had a $1.8 million-a-year budget and was $3.2 million in debt.
He turned the organization into one of the leading voices for business in the region and the state, said present chamber chairman Holt Chetwood.
“The Midlands business community has lost a giant with the passing of Ike McLeese,” he said. “As a native South Carolinian, no one worked more tirelessly than Ike for the betterment of the state and the region. Over 20 years of Chamber service, he showed an ability to work with diverse groups to achieve positive change. Few have had a greater impact on the region than Ike.”
McLeese told The State that one of the city’s and region’s greatest failures, however, was the loss of Southwest Airlines to Greenville-Spartanburg in 2010, a loss he attributed to the lack of a regional identity. Since then, he had worked tirelessly to build the Midlands’ cohesiveness as a region, said state Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington.
“It’s a tremendous loss not only to Columbia but to the Midlands and South Carolina,” he said. “One of his lasting legacies is what he has done for regionalism.”
McLeese is survived by his wife, Sue, a former Miss South Carolina he wed in 1991; their five children, Kelly, LeDayne, Bill, Susan and Heather; and four grandchildren.
Services had not been announced late Tuesday.
What was being said
‘His passing is a huge loss’
“He always thought about the balance of what’s good for our community in terms of creating jobs, and prosperity ... and quality of life for our citizens. He balanced all those things very well. I never saw him bow to pressure that would pull him away from those principles. He had a spine of steel and always stood up for the right thing.”
Jim Reynolds, CEO of Total Comfort Solutions
“When I got here, there were some serious air-service issues. Ike was there every step of the way, helping organize things. I’m sure the chamber will do fine, but Ike was a first-class guy.”
Dan Mann, director, Columbia Metropolitan Airport
“He was able to grow the chamber into a new organization and then he was able to keep it together during the recession. ... He really brought a lot of different business people together. He kept innovating and trying to create new avenues for not just bigger businesses but smaller businesses to be part of the chamber.”
Fred Monk, ECI-Find New Markets
“He wasn’t just an advocate for the business community. He knew that the arts were important, that human services were important, that government that acts quickly is important. He knew all those pieces, and he wasn’t afraid to get involved with all of them.”
Greg Pearce, vice-chairman, Richland County Council
“He has been a major player for the past two decades in enhancing the economic vitality of the Midlands. He also enlarged diversity efforts to connect more minority businesses with the chamber. He felt the chamber could not be as strong and could not be the type of leader it needed to be without that type of representation.”
J.T. McLawhorn, Columbia Urban League
“All of us at SCANA were saddened to learn of Ike’s passing today. Ike had a vision of what Columbia could be. He had a gentle and collaborative nature, but would jump right into the most contentious issues and champion causes no one else could for the greater good.”
“Ike was a true pioneer for chambers of commerce all across South Carolina and a giant for economic advancement for all communities. On behalf of the board of directors of the South Carolina African-American Chamber of Commerce, we celebrate the great contributions he has made to South Carolina and we mourn this great loss with his family.
Stephen Gilchrist, chairman, S.C. African-American Chamber of Commerce
“He was a big man with a big personality, and I was proud to call him a friend. He loved Columbia, and poured his heart and soul into making it a great place for businesses and for residents. His leadership and spirit will be sorely missed."
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.
"Ike McLeese was a Columbia institution. I’ll never forget his kindness when our family moved our business to West Columbia. He was a man who never stopped trying to add to the Midlands business community, and his vision and leadership will be sorely missed.”
Gov. Nikki Haley