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Time honors Pee Dee's Ben Bernanke

He played saxophone in a Dillon marching band and won a state spelling bee. He waited tables at the tourist stop South of the Border. And when others were disco dancing, he studied the Great Depression at Harvard.

A lot of life experiences - many in South Carolina - have guided Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke as he worked to avoid further economic collapse during what's been dubbed "Depression 2.0."

And for that work, the 56-year-old son of a Pee Dee drugstore owner was named Time magazine's Person of the Year - an award usually reserved for heads of countries and the occasional business tycoon.

The award highlights a life that has taken Bernanke from a rural Pee Dee upbringing to an Ivy league academic career to Washington's inner circles.

And the accolade might boost Bernanke's standing on Capitol Hill. The Senate Banking Committee is expected to vote today on Bernanke's nomination to a second four-year term.

Bernanke used his experience as a leading scholar of the Great Depression to learn from the mistakes from the 1930s, namely failing to expand the money supply. He has worked to keep large banks open and lowered interest rates to zero.

He "generally transformed the staid arena of central banking into a stage for desperate improvisation," Time magazine wrote in his Person of the Year profile. "He didn't just reshape U.S. monetary policy; he led an effort to save the world economy."

Time magazine praised Bernanke for his methodical and analytical nature, the opposite of most Washington heavyweights who have a "look-at-me swagger or listen-to-me charisma."

"He doesn't do the D.C. dinner-party circuit; he prefers to eat at home with his wife, who still makes him do the dishes and take out the trash," the magazine wrote. "Then they do crosswords or read. Because Ben Bernanke is a nerd. He just happens to be the most powerful nerd on the planet."

He told the magazine he still feels ties to Dillon, the town of about 6,000, where he was raised. It's where he said he learned to appreciate working-class values. But he found it confining, the magazine said, especially as part of a Jewish family growing up in a Christian-dominated community.

"Me and Dillon. It's a funny psychodrama," he told Time.

The magazine noted Dillon's current troubles: Bernanke's childhood home was sold at a foreclosure auction this year and his now rundown middle school was cited by President Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign.

Bernanke's life after Dillon High School, including going to school at Harvard and MIT, as well as teaching economics at Stanford and Princeton.

In 2002, Bernanke became a governor at the Federal Reserve, which can control money like a hand on a faucet. He was chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers in 2005 when he was selected to replace Alan Greenspan to head the Fed.

Since the financial crisis that started the recession in 2007, the Fed has become the whipping boy on Capitol Hill.

The central bank faces serious challenges from lawmakers who want greater oversight over monetary policy deliberations and others who want to strip the central bank of its vast responsibilities over the nation's biggest banks.

Many analysts say the latter reform has a good chance of success.

The Fed's unpopularity has come despite something of a charm offensive by Bernanke. He was the first Fed chairman to appear on an interview for "60 Minutes" and was even filmed strolling through Dillon.

In an interview with Time, Bernanke said he decided to speak "directly to the public" after surveys showed "a lot of fear and uncertainty" after the financial sector froze up last fall, causing the economic recession to deepen.

But Bernanke remains largely under wraps and avoids tough questions about the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the disappearance of all U.S. large broker-dealers almost overnight.

In the Time interview, Bernanke stuck to the script that the actions taken by the small group of policymakers including the Fed chairman, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and then New York Fed president Timothy Geithner pulled the economy and the financial sector back from the brink of collapse.

He provided no details about the decisions taken during the crisis - for instance to allow Lehman Brothers to fail and then to rescue American International Group - that have puzzled experts ever since.

Bernanke did take a mild swipe at Wall Street bankers, saying the highly paid executives should "look in the mirror and decide that perhaps there should be more restraint in how much they pay themselves, given what the government and the taxpayer did to protect the system."

Last year's winner of the Time magazine award was then-President-elect Barack Obama. The 2007 winner was Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Other previous winners of the have included Bono, President George W. Bush, and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

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