Cathy Novinger, a woman who made a name in Columbia’s business and civic life at a time when few women had much influence – particularly in corporate circles – died Sunday after a years-long battle with cancer.
Her sister, Donna Blackburn Jumper, posted the news on Facebook. “My wonderful sister made her walk to meet Jesus this morning,” Jumper wrote. “She was such an influence on so many who knew her.”
Novinger’s age and circumstances surrounding her death were not immediately available. But the pastor of her church, Trinity Baptist in Cayce, said visitation is scheduled for Saturday with services on Sunday. But times for those events had not been determined Sunday.
“Her fight with cancer is an inspiration for anybody who’s been sick,” said Sen. Nikki Setzler, recently re-elected to become South Carolina’s most senior state senator.
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“Cathy never complained about her illness,” said the Lexington County senator, who knew Novinger more than 40 years and attends Trinity Baptist, too. “She was always ready to go and get things done. If she undertook a task, she was fearless.”
Novinger was once the only woman on the executive staff of South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. and parent company SCANA Corp. When the granddaughter of an Ohio hot dog businessman retired from SCANA in May 1999, she had risen from a file clerk in SCE&G’s accounting department to the corporation’s senior vice president for administration, government and public affairs.
She said she heard that SCE&G paid well when she overheard two women talking at a Kmart checkout line. At age 23, Novinger left her job as a clerk at commercial printing company R.L. Bryan and went to work for the utility company that would become a Fortune 500 firm for many years.
Forged ties between government and business
SCANA CEO Kevin Marsh called Novinger “the pioneer for women’s leadership in South Carolina. She was relentless in her fight against cancer just like the challenges she faced in business. She worked tirelessly to bring organizations and government together to promote progress for South Carolina. We will miss her enthusiasm and wisdom.”
When Novinger left SCANA, she put her energy into a West Columbia antique shop, into building her own business as a consultant, into activism in government circles as well as into leadership posts in Palmetto Agribusiness Council, the Midlands Business Leadership Group, and the State Board of Technical and Comprehensive Education, among other accomplishments. In 2010, she was named Humanitarian of the Year by the United Way of the Midlands.
Novinger also was one of the forces behind the construction of Columbia’s downtown center for the homeless at a time that City Hall dallied over where the controversial facility, called Transitions, should be located near Main Street. Transitions sits at a high-profile site, at Main and Elmwood Avenue, and serves hundreds of homeless adults.
“She was a giant in Columbia in so many ways, particularly in economic development,” former capital city mayor Bob Coble said. “She was one of my closest advisers for all the 20 years that I was mayor.
“No person had a greater impact on Columbia than Cathy,” Coble said, “and her legacy will live long.”
Novinger battled cancer for 11 years and survived seven rounds of chemotherapy, a radiation treatment and four surgeries from what started as Stage 3 ovarian cancer, she said in a September interview.
She was active in the annual butterfly release organized by the Ovarian Cancer Coalition of Central South Carolina.
When Novinger was diagnosed in August 2005 with ovarian cancer, she said her doctors told her the survival rate typically is 25 percent. She quickly became involved in public education campaigns because, Novinger said at the time, women needed to know more about a cancer that is not as easily detectable as breast cancer, for example.
She soon learned she had inherited a gene mutation from her father that also made her highly susceptible to breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and melanoma, Novinger said.
Coveted Rolodex of contacts
Longtime friend Lynn Bailey, a healthcare economist, said Novinger broke the glass ceiling in the area’s business community.
“Literally, Cathy Novinger was the only female executive in Columbia,” Bailey said. “She was a champion. When the boys needed a girl to get things done, they went to Cathy Novinger or Claire Forte.”
Forte was the longtime senior assistant to then-Gov. Robert McNair and later at the law firm that bears his name.
Novinger, like Forte, established long and deep connections with leaders in Columbia’s business, civic and political communities.
“There were two women in this town who had the industrial strength Rolodex,” Bailey said of their list of influential contacts. “People would kill for (Novinger’s) Rolodex.”
As usual, Novinger beat the odds by a long shot, and she forged ahead. “She never, never stopped working,” Bailey said. “By all rights, she should have been dead six years ago.”
A warrior for her causes
One-time S.C. Congressman and U.S. Claims Court Judge John Napier also had many strong memories of Novinger.
“Over the years, I was fortunate to work with Cathy on matters in Washington and in South Carolina. She made a tremendous mark in our public policy, especially in energy and agriculture.
“Cathy Novinger’s name – statewide and nationally – will always be synonymous with business and political savvy, knowledge, integrity and determination,” Napier said.
Former S.C. chief justice Jean Toal called Novinger “a warrior.”
Novinger “was a classy lady who went to the highest levels of one of South Carolina’s biggest corporations,” Toal said.
“She was so strong, and so strong for so many people. She was a real role model for a lot of people. But she did it with a very deft and gentle touch.”
Eddie Coakley, pastor at Trinity Baptist, at 2003 Charleston Highway, said Novinger was quick to befriend him and his wife when they arrived at the church 6 1/2 years ago. She also gave money to the church along with many other causes.
She believed in people, Coakley said, adding, “People who live their lives according to the wisdom of the Bible – she did that.”
Novinger is survived by her husband of 48 years, Bob Novinger. A son, Travis, is a physician.