The walls of South Carolina’s Senate chambers are decked with images of historic state figures and dignitaries like John C. Calhoun, Clementa Pinckney, Mary Gordon Ellis, Henry Timrod and Strom Thurmond.
Now, a face familiar to Florence County joins those ranks — Sen. Hugh K. Leatherman Sr.
The 85-year-old Republican was immortalized in the Senate chambers at the Statehouse in Columbia on Wednesday afternoon as his official portrait was unveiled.
Leatherman, the Senate president pro tempore and chairman of the finance committee – among about a dozen other official titles — is regarded as the most influential official in state government in decades.
He becomes the first official from the Pee Dee Region whose portrait adorns the walls of the Senate.
“I’m really humbled, grateful, honored,” Leatherman said Wednesday night. “It’s been a good ride and I think I’ve had a positive impact on the state and particularly on the Pee Dee. I know it sounds sort of corny but I’ve always said I want to leave this state in a better shape than when I came in. We’ve got more work to do, in the Florence area and across state.”
The near life-size, hyper-realistic painting was done by one of America’s top classically trained painters, John Siebels Walker.
The portrait will hang in the upper section of the Senate chamber beside the portrait of Glenn McConnell, the president of the College of Charleston who previously served as a senator and lieutenant governor.
The painting itself embodies Leatherman’s statewide legacy. In his right hand are plans for the Port at Charleston, behind his left shoulder is a Boeing 747 and his lapel pin is the logo of Francis Marion University.
Half a century in politics
Leatherman began his political career in 1967 after winning election to the Town Council of Quinby, a small community in Florence County. He served as a town councilman until 1976; five of those years were served as mayor pro tempore.
In 1981 Leatherman was elected to the state Senate, representing District 31. He has retained his role in that post since that election more than 35 years ago.
He’s has served as Senate president pro tempore since 2014, often butting heads with former Gov. Nikki Haley.
Two weeks ago Leatherman resigned the Senate leadership spot rather than become lieutenant governor when that job became vacant. He was re-elected to the Senate’s top job after Sen. Kevin Bryant was chosen for the less powerful position instead.
Some of the most notable local initiatives that would have likely been dead on arrival if not for Leatherman’s clout in Columbia include the Florence County Museum, a performing arts center and a health sciences facility for Francis Marion University, and matching state funds for dozens of major roads projects in Florence County.
His reach doesn’t stop with local projects. Many of Leatherman’s colleagues attribute his ability to compromise to many of the large manufacturing initiatives to hit South Carolina in the past two decades — namely, Boeing, BMW and Honda Manufacturing.
Leatherman was born on a small cotton farm in Lincoln County, North Carolina, in the early 1930s. He pushed through high school and went on to graduate from North Carolina State University in 1953 with a degree in civil engineering.
Two years after graduation, Leatherman moved to Florence to found Florence Concrete Products. Since then, he’s been a champion for the heart of the Pee Dee region.
Colleagues, allies say Leatherman deserving of Senate portrait
Hundreds of supporters, friends, colleagues and business partners of Sen. Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. filled the state Senate chambers on Wednesday afternoon as a portrait of the long-serving Florence representative was unveiled.
Speakers applauded Leatherman on his unyielding devotion to his constituents in Florence County and his unending striving to forge a better path of all South Carolina people.
Here are some reactions to the portrait unveiling and Leatherman’s legacy from those who have worked closely with him and attended the event:
Gov. Henry McMaster
“Every kind word said about Sen. Leatherman was well-earned. He has given much to the state and he will give much more. The effect of his presence and his desire to fulfill the wishes of the people he represents is an indicator of what’s to come.”
House Speaker Jay Lucas
“Sen. Leatherman is a devoted statesman who is most deserving of this honor. Throughout our years in public service, Hugh has become a dependable and dear friend. He is not afraid to make an unpopular decision, as long as it is in the best interests of the people of Florence and Darlington counties. There is no doubt that Sen. Hugh Leatherman’s longstanding service in the Senate has and will continue to impact every South Carolinian and that his legacy will live on for generations to come.”
Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela
“He’s a constant statesman and his impact on the city of Florence, Florence County and the entire Pee Dee, for that matter, can’t be overstated. What should also be noted is his statewide focus. As pro tem of the Senate and chairman of the finance committee he’s committed to advancing this state every opportunity he gets. Investments like Boeing and Honda are a perfect example of that. We’re very proud that he’s our senator.”
Florence County Council Chairman Kent Caudle
“Sen. Leatherman has been a fabulous servant for the people of Florence County for over 30 years and we’re excited that he’s in the position he’s in. Not many people can serve that long and be as effective as he’s been on not only our county but on the entire state, as stated today by so many people. We think the world of him and to have a senator from Florence on these walls make us all proud.”
Former Lt. Gov. Yancy McGill
“It’s a historic moment not only for the Leatherman family but for the entire Pee Dee region, as well as the state of South Carolina. This man’s service is remarkable. A lot of times success is hard to come by but I can tell you Sen. Leatherman has really achieved many great things for this state by hard work and dedication to his principles. It’s truly an honor to have his portrait on these walls.”
Francis Marion University President Fred Carter
“It’s a wonderful recognition for a lifetime of service to the people of South Carolina. In this state, the hanging of your portrait in the Senate chambers is as close to immortality as you’ll ever get. It’s an enormous deal, and we couldn’t be more excited for him for such a well-earned recognition.”
Rep. Terry Alexander
“This is a great day for Sen. Leatherman and the people of the Pee Dee. To be honored in this magnitude is a testament to his hard work and to his service to the people of South Carolina, and the Pee Dee in particular. It’s not everyday someone has their portrait hung in the Senate chamber, so it’s a big deal. It’s an honor for the people of Florence.”