True to the Maya Angelou quote scrolled at the bottom of the program, everyone at the Cleveland Park events center Thursday night seemed to have a story about how Liz Patterson made them feel – usually energized and inspired.
Spartanburg County Democrats used their annual fundraiser dinner to honor the groundbreaking politician who served 18 years in elected office. Patterson, the daughter of former governor and U.S. Sen. Olin Johnston, was elected to Spartanburg County Council in 1975 and served for two years. She was elected to the S.C. Senate in 1979 and served until 1986 when she launched a hard-fought successful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives where she served three terms.
"That was one of the elections where the outcome was really a function of a person, and her personality," said Frank Holleman, who was the state Democratic Party Chairman when Patterson was elected.
Holleman noted a lot of things were stacked against Patterson – someone from Spartanburg hadn't won the seat in about 50 years, a woman never held the seat, and the Upstate was already earning a reputation as a bastion of Republican conservatism.
"Liz won that election, I think, because of her life, her character, and who she is," Holleman said.
Ron Romine, the chairman of the county Democratic Party, was Patterson's campaign manager in her first bid for the U.S. House.
"It was a highlight for me," Romine said.
Visiting Patterson in Washington D.C. after she was sworn in was also a thrill, he said.
"Let me tell you, this woman made a splash. She was known all over D.C. Having a woman elected from South Carolina to Congress was unheard of," he said.
Patterson ran for office as a fiscal conservative who refused to sacrifice the needs of average Americans. She served on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, the Veterans Affairs Committee and the Select Committee on Hunger. In a video tribute, Dennis Shreefer, an active member of the party, said Patterson was a moderate who worked with Democrats and Republicans to accomplish goals for her district, state and country.
S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Democratic candidate for governor, remembered feeling a surge of pride and inspiration when he was working in Congress and came upon a rally for the Americans with Disability Act, and at the podium, giving a passionate speech, was Patterson.
"If we had people like Liz Patterson, who care like Liz Patterson, America would be unstoppable. And it will be," he said.
Sheheen received a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd of about 200 when he called Patterson a "hero of South Carolina."
"I want you to think about the vision of people like Liz Patterson," Sheheen said. "It's a vision that says it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, it doesn't matter if you're black or white if you're willing to lift up your brother in this state, we will make a difference."
Michael Thompson, candidate for S.C. House District 34, said he met Patterson on a family visit to the Capitol when he was 9 years old, and remembered her being a part of his first taste of politics.
"If I could give only half of her measure, that would be something," he said.
After she was defeated for re-election in 1992 by Bob Inglis, Patterson ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor. She then became a political science professor at Spartanburg Methodist College, earned a master's degree from Converse College and became the county's Democratic Party chairwoman. She's also served on the Wofford College Board of Trustees and is very active in the Methodist Church.
Members of Patterson's Congressional staff attended the event, and her driver of six years, the Rev. Rob Brown, gave a fitting benediction. He remembered a time when Patterson was running late en route to a fundraiser but asked him to pull into a nursing home along the route where she visited for 30 minutes with an elderly man who wrote her a letter about her father. When they were leaving, and Brown was worrying about their tardiness, he said Patterson told him something that has remained in his mind.
"She said, 'It's never about money. It's always about people,'" he said.
Patterson, 74, was surrounded by her husband, two of her three children, and several grandchildren at the event. She said she was "overwhelmed" by the turn out of friends, supporters and well-wishers.
"Not shingles, nor any malady would've kept me from being here tonight," she said. "Let's don't stop tonight. Let's keep going. Keep going and bring the Democratic Party back in power."