Donald G. “Ike” McLeese, who served as chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce for nearly two decades, was remembered Friday as a dogged, fearless advocate for business, the military and regionalism in the Midlands.
Hundreds of mourners – government officials, military brass, business leaders, family and friends – gathered at noon at First Baptist Church in Columbia to pay their respects to the native South Carolinian, who is credited with guiding a struggling chamber to prominence and saving Fort Jackson and McEntire Joint National Guard Station during a round of military base closings in 2005.
McLeese died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack in September and undergoing heart surgery last month.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin called McLeese, an avid baseball fan, “our MVP” for the leadership he showed on myriad endeavors across the Midlands.
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“He made us brave because he was fearless,” Benjamin said in his eulogy, at one point wiping away tears. “He made us smart because he was brilliant. He made us bold because we knew that no matter what might happen, no matter what troubles might come, he was standing right there beside us and if need be in front of us.”
McLeese, a 1966 University of South Carolina graduate, cut his teeth in the political world working first for U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings and then Gov. John C. West. He later guided political campaigns at home and nationally for two of the city’s top public relations firms.
McLeese took the reins of the Chamber in 1994, guiding it from $3.8 million in debt to solvency and prominence as the leading voice for business in the region. When the Midlands lost Southwest Airlines to the Upstate in 2010, he worked behind the scenes to build a coalition of governments and business groups to present a united face to future opportunities.
Lexington Mayor Randy Halfacre, who worked with McLeese on improving regional cooperation, pointed to the incentive deal to land Amazon.com. At first, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to turn back an incentive package that would have sent the distribution center to another state. By combining their voices, chambers and local officials, led by McLeese and others, convinced lawmakers to reverse their vote and override a veto by the governor.
“That had never happened in the history of the legislature,” Halfacre said. “It showed when you can leverage the business community and local governments, you can move mountains.”
McLeese “was a behind-the-scenes guy who never sought credit, but pushed really hard.”
The Lexington mayor then led an extended standing ovation for McLeese from the crowd filled with local dignitaries and state and military leaders.
Retired Maj. Gen. Abraham Turner, a former Fort Jackson commander, represented the military. He noted that McLeese was appointed four times since 2007 as civilian aide to the Secretary of Army, a post that carries the protocol privileges of a three-star general.
While many worked hard to protect Fort Jackson and McEntire during the 2005 closures, “It was Ike McLeese that led the way. We are reaping the benefits today because of Ike.”
In addition to his passion for public service, USC athletics director Ray Tanner, a former national championship college baseball coach, called McLeese a baseball “purist” who often gave him advice and was right.
“I can assure you right now that Ike is laughing hysterically,” Tanner said. “He’s saying ‘Ray Tanner is fourth in this lineup?’ He’s thinking, ‘He’s not the clean-up hitter I had in mind.’”
Tanner said McLeese and his wife, Sue, a former Miss South Carolina who McLeese wed in 1991, would sit next to the dugout during every Gamecock baseball game. “And he knew when I would make a mistake. He wasn’t a fan; he was a purist.”
Among those gathered to celebrate McLeese’s life were former Gov. Jim Hodges; former S.C. Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum and her husband, Sam; present Education Superintendent Mick Zais; S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson; former Attorney General Henry McMaster; and state Chamber of Commerce chief executive Otis Rawl.
Representing the military were Fort Jackson commander Brig. Gen. Bradley Becker, Fort Jackson Soldier Support Institute commander Brig. Gen. Paul Chamberlain and Third Army representative Brig. Gen. David Coburn.
Pall bearers included state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland; former mayor Bob Coble; Chernoff Newman chairman Lee Bussell; and John Durst, chief executive of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.
Tameika Isaac Devine and Cameron Runyan from Columbia City Council were in attendance, as was Bill Banning of Lexington County Council and Palmetto Health chief executive Charles Beaman Jr.
The funeral ended with Turner, the former Fort Jackson commander, asking everyone to stand and salute or cover their hearts as a military bugler played taps, a tribute both to McLeese’s status as civilian aide and his efforts championing men and women in uniform.
McLeese is survived by his wife and four daughters, the Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski of Charlotte; Kelly Curran Johnson of Atlanta; Dr. Susan Curran Satterfield of Greenville; and Heather Anne Curran of Denver; one son, Dr. William Daniel Curran of Greenville; six grandchildren; and beloved dogs, Zona and Max.