Former Gov. James Edwards, the first Republican elected governor of South Carolina since Reconstruction, was remembered Monday for his humanity and humor.
Edwards, 87, once quipped that when politicians leave office, they go from being a “who’s who” to a “who’s he?,” son-in-law Kenneth Wingate of Columbia said during Monday’s funeral service for Edwards, who died Friday.
But even after leaving office, Edwards remained a who’s who as evidenced by the number of S.C. politicians who attended Monday’s service, including Gov. Nikki Haley; former Govs. Richard Riley, David Beasley and Mark Sanford; U.S. Sen. Tim Scott; U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson and his son, Attorney General Alan Wilson; and several members of the S.C. General Assembly.
“He never met a stranger, never turned down a request for help, never let race or creed or party affiliation color his love for people,” Wingate said. “Though he held his Republican ideals very closely, he embraced everyone across the aisle.”
Edwards — an oral surgeon, Reagan administration Cabinet member and MUSC president — accomplished more in a lifetime than 10 other people combined, Wingate said.
At 17, Edwards joined the Merchant Marines and was assigned to the Dogwood, a Liberty ship converted to a hospital ship that transported wounded soldiers back to the United States from Europe during World War II.
Edwards crossed the Atlantic Ocean 11 times, carrying equipment and supplies to Europe, and returned each time with wounded U.S. soldiers, Wingate said.
After the war, Edwards attended and graduated from the College of Charleston and married his childhood sweetheart, Ann Darlington, in 1951.
Edwards then entered dental school at the University of Louisville and was elected student body president.
Those early adventures taught him to break down barriers, build rapport and pull together a team, Wingate said.
Edwards also sold mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby. One year, he placed a $6 wager on a horse named Dark Star simply because the horse was trained in South Carolina. Edwards did not realize the odds of the horse winning were 25-1.
“Jim took home a fat purse and a lesson in long-shot victories,” Wingate said.
‘Makes you mad as heck, doesn’t it?’
Edwards lost a bid for Congress in 1971 but was elected to the state Senate two years later, an election that would help him gain insight into the arcane workings of the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
In 1974, he was elected the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
That election laid the groundwork for an eventual Republican takeover of the once solidly Democratic state, a conversion rooted in the turbulence of the 1960s and the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights and big government initiatives.
As governor, Edwards appealed to the natural conservatism of the Democratic lawmakers and employed his genial charm to get things done. He worked to help poor school districts, including winning passage of the Education Finance Act; expanded industrial development; established the S.C. Energy Research Institute; and reorganized state government.
Edwards had a genuine concern for the well-being of others, always looked for the best in other people and casting a patient, sympathetic eye if they fell short, Wingate said.
While leading the Medical University of South Carolina from 1982 to 1999, Edwards was credited with raising the profile of the school through expanded research and massive construction on its campus.
His love for the school continued for the rest of his life.
After suffering a stroke in 2013, Edwards and his wife would entertain potential donors to the medical university at his home. Less than three weeks ago, he attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony on campus for a refurbished College of Nursing.
Though Edwards had many titles — doctor, senator, governor, secretary and president — his favorite title was just plain “Jim,” Wingate said.
Wingate retold a story that Edwards loved to share of being in a Moncks Corner hardware store, wearing his hunting clothes as he searched through a bin for nuts and bolts. A woman asked him: “Does anyone ever tell you, you look like Jim Edwards?”
Edwards replied “yes” and before he could say anything else, the woman said, “Makes you mad as heck, doesn’t it?”
The politicians, family members and friends who packed St. Phillip’s Church Monday laughed.
‘He broke the ice’
Edwards’ election as governor in 1974 earned a place in the state’s history books.
“He broke the ice in regards to the Republican movement in South Carolina,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Charleston Republican who was governor from 2003-11. “He paved the way for myself and many other Republicans.”
The 1974 race also involved a bit of luck.
First, Edwards rolled up a GOP primary win against retired Army Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964-68. Then Edwards won the general election, largely through a combination of high voter turnout around Charleston, where he lived, and low turnout elsewhere in the state.
Edwards was not expected to win until the Democratic frontrunner — Charles “Pug” Ravenel, a Harvard-educated Charlestonian and Wall Street banker— was forced from the race because of a residency challenge. In the general election, Edwards defeated the second-place finisher in the Democratic Primary, U.S. Rep. William Jennings Bryan Dorn.
While her husband was governor, Ann Edwards began enlisting the state’s historians to help in the renovation of the Governor’s Mansion and its surrounding homes and acreage, returning South Carolina antiques and furnishings to the public’s home.
State law then limited Edwards to only one term, and he left office in 1978, never to run again.
Edwards served a two-year stint in Washington, from 1981-82, as President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of energy.
Edwards’ short career in Washington was marked by some controversy, as he went to the nation’s capital with the purpose of dismantling the Cabinet energy agency. The Washington Post wrote in an editorial titled “Farewell, Dr. Edwards,” that “he will be remembered here for a degree of cheery incompetence that, with the best will in the world, no successor is likely to equal.”
‘Personality that filled the room’
In 1982, Edwards, an oral surgeon, was courted by the Medical University of South Carolina, and he agreed to take on its presidency for a year. That one-year stint turned into 17. Under Edwards, the institution flourished and became a powerhouse research and teaching hospital complex.
“(H)e had a personality that filled the room — truly he never met anyone that he did not like,” said Medical University of South Carolina president David Cole, who started working at the school under Edwards. “(F)rom Day 1, he made me feel respected, included and, at times, like I quite possibly was his long-lost younger brother.”
At the time of his retirement from MUSC in 1999, Edwards told the Charleston Post and Courier: “The person who doesn’t make mistakes hasn’t done anything.”
Edwards largely remained out of politics following his retirement. But when Republican Gov. Beasley called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the State House, Edwards joined former Govs. John West, Robert McNair and Carroll Campbell at Beasley’s side in a State House press conference.
In 1999, near the end of his tenure as president of MUSC, Edwards also authorized an official apology by the institution to black workers who had participated in a 1969 strike against discriminatory labor practices at the medical university.
In retirement, at his home overlooking Charleston harbor, Edwards maintained his allegiance to the conservative principles that had guided his life. He said in 2011 he thought the rise of the Tea Party was the fault of both Democrats and mainstream Republicans, who continued to wobble on major issues.
“Most of those Tea Party members, I believe, are Republicans disenchanted with the party’s lack of standing firmly with the fundamental principles of patriotism and balanced budgets,” Edwards said. “All the Tea Party wants to do is get America back to complying with the Constitution, something President Obama and all the Democrats have ignored for a good many years.”
Edwards was born on June 24, 1927, in Hawthorne, Fla.
He is survived by his wife Ann and two children, James B. Edwards Jr. and Katherine Edwards Wingate.
Staff writers Carolyn Click, Andrew Shain and former State staff writer Jim Hammond contributed.