Former 3rd District U.S. Rep. Butler Derrick was remembered Monday as a generous and gracious man, “the ultimate public servant” who believed he had an obligation to help his state’s citizens, no matter their political persuasion or economic circumstances.
“He never stepped back from what he thought was right,” said former U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley, who described Derrick as a man who mastered the legislative process, first at the State House and then for two decades in Congress, to wield power and influence on behalf of South Carolina.
Derrick, a Democrat who retired from Congress in 1994, died May 5 of cancer at his home in Easley. He was 77.
Riley was among about 300 mourners who gathered in a small rural churchyard under the shade of graceful oaks and pecan trees to hear the ancient Episcopal liturgy for the dead. They celebrated Derrick’s infectious spirit, his intellect, his gifts for storytelling and friendship, and yes, his signature bow ties and suspenders.
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Stewart Bauknight told those gathered that Derrick “changed my life” when he helped her secure a position at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. She remembered him as a man who “led an extraordinary, exemplary life” unafraid to challenge the status quo. “His pragmatic fight for basic human rights was ahead of his time,” she said.
Derrick’s passing suggests a farewell to a certain sort of pragmatic, progressive Southern Democrat who looked to Washington as a place to get big things done. Derrick crossed party lines, working closely with a delegation that included the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Republican, and retired U.S. Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a Democrat, on issues from nuclear energy and radioactive waste at the Savannah River Site to the fight to salvage the state’s textile industry.
“You see, Butler was at times a liberal Democrat,” his longtime congressional aide John Gregory told those gathered. But his more conservative constituents “chose to look the other way” because they believed in Derrick’s philosophy of government, he said. During his time in Washington, Derrick supported civil rights, gun control and abortion rights, and opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Derrick was among three new faces in the South Carolina delegation in 1974, in the class of incoming House members known as “Watergate babies.” President Richard Nixon had resigned that August, two years after the Watergate break-in that toppled his presidency, and a wave of reform had hit the country. Derrick came to Washington with 90 other freshman House members, many Democrats like himself.
“If you want to know what’s wrong with Congress today, you don’t have leaders like Butler Derrick,” former 5th District U.S. Rep. John Spratt of York recalled last week.
His intelligence and generosity were legendary, Spratt said. Among staffers on the House Budget Committee, Derrick’s nickname was Atticus Finch, the unflinching lawyer in Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“He became a mentor to many of us and I’m indebted to him,” said Spratt, who served in Congress from 1983 until his defeat in 2010. “He became a master of the legislative process.”
As vice-chairman of the House Rules Committee, Derrick understood Congress’s often labyrinthine process. Because of his expertise Derrick was able to earmark federal dollars not only to projects in his 3rd District but throughout South Carolina. He was a champion of Aiken County’s Savannah River Site, part of the federal government’s nuclear construction facilities, and instrumental in directing at least a billion dollars toward remediation of radioactive waste, Spratt said.
Butler Carson Derrick Jr. was born Sept. 30, 1936, in Springfield, Mass. His parents, native South Carolinians, returned to Florence when he was a child. He attended public schools there, and graduated from USC and the University of Georgia law school.
He practiced law in Edgefield, where he launched his first campaign for the S.C. House. He served there from 1969 until he won election to the U.S. House. Derrick succeeded Rep. William Jennings Bryan Dorn, a 13-term Democrat who left the House to make an unsuccessful run for governor. When he retired, Republican Lindsey Graham, now a U.S. senator, was elected to the 3rd District congressional seat.
As mourners clustered throughout the cemetery behind the white-framed chapel of the Episcopal Church of the Ridge, they recalled Derrick as a joyful person who touched so many lives.
“I just thought he was a good, compassionate country man,” said Rep. William “Bill” Clyburn, who represents Aiken and Edgefield counties in the S.C. House. He honored Derrick for his great skill in working across lines of color, politics and economics.
“People still want to believe in that,” Clyburn said. “They just want to believe in government again.”
Derrick’s first marriage, to the former Suzanne Mims, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 26 years, Beverly Grantham Derrick of Easley; two children from his first marriage; two stepchildren; a brother; two sisters; and nine grandchildren.