State Politics

Former U.S. Senator Ernest ‘Fritz’ Hollings has died

Former U.S. Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings has died

Former U.S. Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings died Saturday, April 6, 2019, at age 97. This video shows Hollings with John F. Kennedy, Robert Mueller, Andy Griffin, Jim Clyburn and others. He was a World War II veteran, governor and U.S. Senator.
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Former U.S. Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings died Saturday, April 6, 2019, at age 97. This video shows Hollings with John F. Kennedy, Robert Mueller, Andy Griffin, Jim Clyburn and others. He was a World War II veteran, governor and U.S. Senator.

U.S. Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings, a larger-than-life politician who by sheer intellect and will wrested a segregated and economically depressed South Carolina into the modern era, died early Saturday at his Isle of Palms home. He was 97.

Over a half-century of public service, Hollings — a native Charlestonian and unabashed Democrat — rose from the State House to the Governor’s Mansion and on to Washington for nearly four decades.

“One of South Carolina’s greatest lions roars no more,” Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement. “Fierce, bold, and robust – the sounds of Fritz Hollings’ vision and drive for the Palmetto State will continue to be heard by generations.”

In a time when Democrats ruled South Carolina, Hollings returned to his Charleston home after service in World War II determined to make his mark as a lawyer and politician. He was elected to the State House in 1948 at the age of 26 and went on to be elected lieutenant governor in 1954 and governor in 1958. He won a special election for the U.S. Senate in 1966 and remained a powerful and colorful figure in Washington until his retirement in 2004.

Hollings shared the political arena, often begrudgingly, with another iconic state figure, the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, but set himself apart with a mix of deep thinking, acerbic wit, caustic and often impolitic bombast, and a baritone Lowcountry drawl that could both charm and intimidate.

Hollings’ legacy is rooted in his sustained belief that government could improve lives and that he was the man to move Washington to act. As years passed, that attitude gave way in South Carolina to a wariness of government’s goodness and largess, a sentiment articulated by his GOP U.S. Senate successors, Jim DeMint, and the current U.S Sen. Tim Scott.

Scott on Saturday lauded his Democratic predecessor, saying, “From his time as a soldier in World War II, to shepherding peaceful desegregation as governor, or fighting for the American worker in the United States Senate, Fritz Hollings was a statesman who never lost his love for the Lowcountry, for South Carolina, and for his wife—Peatsy.”

Fritz Hollings elected as governor of South Carolina in 1958. The State archives

As lieutenant governor and governor at the mid-point of the 20th century, Hollings cleared the way for huge economic growth with his focus on job training and technical education. He barnstormed through the United States, Latin America and Europe in a used plane to entice corporations to locate in South Carolina.

Along the way, the Democrat persuaded his fellow citizens to bid farewell to an old segregated way of life and a tradition of sharecropping and subsistence farming that had kept the state’s poorest citizens in a cycle of poverty since the Civil War. Hollings, who began his political career as a segregationist, determined that the state had to change.

“Fritz Hollings was the first state figure who literally dragged South Carolina kicking and screaming into the 20th century,” Jean Toal, former chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, said a few years ago. “He was one of those young men who went through the fires of World War II and emerged with the leadership and determination to change his own world.”

As a U.S. senator he waded into national issues of the day and left indelible marks on America — battling deficits, fighting hunger, protecting the oceans, and rewriting telecommunications law.

He said he went to Washington with one purpose in mind — to get things done. He and his second wife, the late Rita Louise “Peatsy” Hollings, embraced Washington life with gusto and were among the capitol’s most recognized power couples.

After seven terms, Hollings was still chocked full of the righteous indignation that propelled him to the Senate in 1966. He was 83, had seen the federal surpluses of the Clinton era evaporate during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars spawned by President George H. Bush, and was growing more and more impatient with the excesses of Washington.

He also wanted to spend more time at his Isle of Palms home with Peatsy, his political confidante and lively social sidekick who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

At his retirement news conference in late 2004, Hollings lamented the short-sightedness of his fellow congressmen and women, a condition he said was fueled by the constant grasping for campaign dollars.

“We have got to change the culture in Washington,” Hollings told reporters. “It’s an outright money chase, both sides, totally partisan, nothing gets done. The Congress and the government are dedicated to the campaign and not the country.”

The iconoclast

When he departed Washington, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer declared him “the last of the great individuals. He was so individualistic that even when he cleared his throat you knew it was Fritz.”

Towering over 6-feet, with an erect Citadel bearing and shock of white hair, Hollings looked every bit the patrician Southern politician. (Because of his classic good looks, he was cast, not surprisingly, as a Democratic senator in Al Pacino’s 1996 Hollywood movie, “City Hall.”)

Hollings mounted a bid for the presidency just once, in 1984, a brief foray into national politics that some impish pundits suggested was derailed by his distinctive Charleston patois.

New Hampshire primary voters, they opined, could not decipher his accent. After he notched just four percent of the vote, Hollings said he learned you had to have “boatloads of money” to compete on the national stage. Frontrunner Walter Mondale won the nomination but was trounced by President Reagan.

A Democrat re-elected time after time by an increasingly Republican constituency, Hollings never fell into a neat political category.

Thurmond, Edwards, Hollings
S.C. politicans Strom Thurmond, Jim Edwards, Fritz Hollings File photograph

He was denounced as a liberal by conservative South Carolinians, but often voted more conservatively on federal spending and the military than his Democratic colleagues in Congress. He fought bitterly against the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the next year, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, both of which were heavily supported by his own party and its president, Clinton.

He offended with shoot-from-the hip slurs, but was also respected for his willingness to stand up for his beliefs — even when he stood alone.

Hollings was the Senate’s most unabashed protectionist as Congress increasingly embraced free trade. For years, he pushed unpopular proposals to introduce a federal value added tax and to reinstate a draft.

In 1991, he opposed President George H.W. Bush’s call to invade Iraq in retaliation for its invasion of Kuwait. Eleven years later, Hollings sided with the younger President Bush and agreed to support a resolution to invade Iraq, persuaded by Bush that Saddam Hussein had access to nuclear weapons. He said later he regretted his vote and had been misled by President Bush.

In 2004 he was the only senator to vote against a resolution supporting American troops in Iraq, calling it “political games.”

“He was always outspoken,” said now-deceased S.C. Gov. John West. “He was not looking for the popular side. He didn’t follow the polls. He was an independent thinker.”

A South Carolinian first

Despite his nearly four decades in the U.S. Senate, Hollings was first a South Carolina politician.

With Republican Thurmond — who died in 2003 after 48 years in the Senate — he excelled at bringing home federal dollars to South Carolina.

Even while he chafed at being the “junior senator from South Carolina,” Hollings partnered with Thurmond on issues particularly related to military.

But many projects were Hollings’ own. The Hollings National Advocacy Center, the training school for prosecutors in Columbia, is one of many S.C. institutions that would not exist if not for his sway in Congress.

After the Pentagon targeted the Charleston Navy Base for closure in the early 1990s, Hollings worked to secure the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, which bears his name, on the property.

For 32 years Hollings sat on the Appropriations Committee — which more than any other pulls the Senate purse strings.

Kennedy and Hollings
Ernest “Frtiz” Hollings and John F. Kennedy The State archives

Years earlier, as a young state legislator, he had helped raise taxes on gasoline, cigarettes and beer and decided that South Carolina had to bite the bullet and enact a sales tax increase — initially in order to bring black schools up to par with white schools and satisfy the separate but equal mandate on the books.

In 1950, after much wrangling, the legislature agreed to a 3 percent sales tax, with money designated for education. That year it went to raise teacher salaries, build new schools to replace dilapitated shanties, and purchase buses for all children.

But even Hollings acknowledged that black schools were still not up to par with white institutions — a reality that would lead to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn segregated schools in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Because he had written the tax legislation, Hollings served on South Carolina’s legal team arguing before the high court to retain segregated schools.

That same year, Hollings introduced legislation to make lynching a crime.

“I proposed such legislation in the wake of the infamous Willie Earle lynching case in Greenville, which had ended in 1947 with the culprits going free,” he wrote in his 2008 book “Making Government Work.” “We veterans of World War II now serving in the legislature had not fought so that South Carolinians could be free to lynch.”

Home from war and eager to work

Ernest Frederick Hollings was born on New Year’s Day, 1922 to Adolph G. and Wilhelmine Hollings. His father operated the A.G. Hollings Wholesale Paper Company on East Bay Street in Charleston, but lost the business during the Depression.

The elder Hollings spent the years following trying to repay those debts, a lesson that stayed with his son.

Hollings enrolled in The Citadel at 16 and paid tuition with help from an uncle and part-time jobs as a hotel night clerk and construction worker. In 1940, during his sophomore year at The Citadel, his father died.

After graduation in 1942, Hollings joined the Army and fought in North Africa and Europe. Discharged as a captain in 1945, he earned seven campaign ribbons and the Bronze Star.

Hollings arrived home in Charleston on Thanksgiving evening, reuniting with his mother whom he had not seen in three years. He told her he was determined to enroll in USC’s law school.

The term had already begun and the law school dean was reluctant to admit him, but, cajoled by an impatient Hollings and his Uncle Ernest Meyers, a Charleston lawyer, the dean allowed the young veteran to audit classes to determine if he could catch up.

Hollings passed first semester exams in January 1946, and then, taking three semesters per year, graduated with his law degree in August 1947.

He also married Martha Patricia Salley in 1946, with whom he had four children. They divorced after 24 years of marriage.

In 1971 he married Rita Louise Liddy, better known as “Peatsy,” a former school teacher who had headed the Charleston County Democratic Party. “Peatsy” Hollings, 13 years his junior, became a member of Hollings’ inner political circle.

2/16/05 Columbia, SC -- Peatsy Hollings, wife of US Senator Fritz Hollings, gets a kiss from her husband after unveiling his portrait during a ceremony in the Senate Chambers Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Todd Bennett TODD BENNETT

Shortly after graduation from law school, Hollings won a seat in the S.C. House of Representatives. He was 26. Two years later he was its Speaker Pro Tempore.

“I didn’t have any political background,” Hollings once said. “But I had an honesty background from my father. That’s how I got elected.”

He served as lieutenant governor, from 1955 to 1959, and then as governor, from 1959 to 1963, four years in which he altered the course of South Carolina on several fronts — from education to industrialization to race relations.

Hollings fought a balking legislature for the technical college system. He plied his opponents with whiskey and in his own words, “fought like a dirty dog” to pass the bill. The children of farmers would learn the industrial skills that would in subsequent decades help lure thousands of factory jobs to South Carolina.

Then he began to travel the world to personally cajole company executives to bring their business to his state. Trips to Germany and France sowed the seeds for companies from BMW to Michelin to locate in the Palmetto State. Calls on Italy entrepreneurs yielded Pirelli.

Hollings admitted that he borrowed the idea for the technical colleges — now 16 strong in South Carolina — from North Carolina. But the S.C. model became the most studied and emulated by other states.

On race relations, Hollings helped set the state on a mostly non-violent course in his last days as governor, using his farewell address to the legislature to call for the peaceful admission of Harvey Gantt, a fellow Charlestonian, to Clemson University in 1963.

“Gentlemen, we have run out of courts,” he told the legislature that January in calling for an end to the state’s battle to keep African Americans out of the state’s white public colleges and universities. Now, he said, it was time to acknowledge a changing world.

“We are a government of laws, not of men,” he said, urging the acceptance of the courts’ desegregation rulings.

At a conference at the Citadel in 2003, West, the former governor, recollected the tensions of that era, crediting Hollings with turning the state away from the incendiary violence that had erupted throughout the South, most notably at the University of Mississippi with the admission of James Meredith.

Some South Carolina leaders, including Thurmond, still thought the state should put up roadblocks to Gantt’s admission.

South Carolina’s all-white, pro-segregation Legislature would have done whatever Hollings asked — even shut down Clemson, West said. “The tension in that legislature was as tense as I’ve ever seen it,” West noted in 2003.

Gantt, who went on to become mayor of Charlotte, said Hollings’ actions prevented an explosion of the kind of racial violence that occurred in Alabama and Mississippi, when governors there resisted integration.

“Hollings’ position was that the inevitable is going to happen, and we need to prepare ourselves for the fact that change is going to come,” said Gantt. “Fritz Hollings represented more of what the New South should be.”

In 2015, Hollings asked that the federal courthouse in Charleston that had been named for him be renamed in honor of J. Waties Waring, a South Carolina judge who attracted death threats for his rulings against segregation in the 1940s and 50s, according to The Associated Press.

Andy Griffith, right, star of the Broadway musical ?Destry Rides Again? and a native of North Carolina, pins a badge on the lapel of Ernest F. Hollings, governor of South Carolina, after performance at night on May 21, 1959 in the Imperial Theater, New York. (AP Photo) Matty Zimmerman ASSOCIATED PRESS

Like most Southern whites born in the 1920’s, however, Hollings began his career as a defender of segregation and an opponent of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case. Later, he expressed remorse for his early views and actions, and publicly prided himself on the anti-lynching bills he pushed as a state legislator and his efforts to restrain the Ku Klux Klan as governor.

He finally cast an affirmative vote in 1982 to re-authorize the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had been anathema to the state’s congressional delegation for decades. But he voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision he publicly lamented in later years.

He tasted defeat at the polls only once, when he said he got “too big for my britches” and tried to unseat U.S. Sen. Olin D. Johnston in 1962. When Johnston died in 1966, Hollings won the election to fill his unexpired term, defeating Gov. Donald Russell in the Democratic primary. He went on to win six full Senate terms.

He worked for the election of John Kennedy in 1960, catapulting South Carolina into the Democratic column despite Southern fears that Kennedy was too liberal and too Catholic.

When President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, Hollings, now a former governor but not yet a U.S. senator, drove to Washington and stood in line with thousands of other Americans to pay final respects.

He recalled how he and his first wife inched their way to the Capital where Kennedy’s body lay in state, braving near freezing temperatures.

“We walked all night long, six abreast, frozen until six o’clock that morning,” he recalled in an interview in November 2013. “Six abreast, I’ll never forget it. We were all huddled together trying to keep warm.”

A war on hunger

In Washington, Hollings made his mark quickly, by pulling back the curtain on poverty in his home state and demanding a national war on hunger.

Spurred by Sister Anthony Monaghan, a Charleston nun who took him through impoverished parts of the city in which he grew up, Hollings sought to spotlight malnutrition as an American crisis.

The U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings during his 1969 Hunger Tour in the South Carolina Lowcountry. File

He embarked on a much-publicized “Hunger Tour” in 1968 and in 1970 published “The Case Against Hunger: A Demand for a National Policy.” Hollings co-sponsored the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as “WIC,” which remains today one of the most powerful federal tools to combat hunger.

Without Hollings, the fight against hunger may have remained a sideshow, said Michael Matz, a Senate aide who then worked on the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition.

“It wasn’t just how he framed the issue, or the unique tone of his voice. It was his stature,” said Matz. “He wasn’t a Northeastern liberal. To have a Southern conservative say this was a real problem and it’s not acceptable in the United States of America . . . that allowed others to run with it.”

The stark images of poverty he witnessed in every county stayed with Hollings through his career, even though his detractors suggested he was courting “the Negro vote” with his actions.

“Nothing in my thirty-eight years as a U.S. Senator affected me more profoundly than the tour I took of my home state to explore the depth of misery caused by malnutrition and hunger,” Hollings later wrote, noting that some citizens suffered from such famine-related diseases as pellegra, kwashiorkor and marasmus.cq

sledlab, tour.JPG
FBI Director Robert Mueller, front, visits SLED facilities with Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings Jr., right, after the unveiling cremony of the S.C. Computer Crime Center Tuesday. Leading the tour is SLED Chief Robert Stewart, middle. 12/17/02 Takaaki Iwabu Takaaki Iwabu

At the same time, Hollings took up another cause: the health of the nation’s and the world’s waterways. Drawing on his coastal upbringing, Hollings schooled himself in ocean pollution, and wrote a series of successful bills to combat it. Among them: the National Coastal Zone Management Act — the nation’s first land use law to protect coastal wetlands — and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Hollings is also known as “the father of NOAA,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for his campaign to found the agency. A prestigious scholarship for students of environmental science administered by NOAA bears his name.

Focused on national issues, Hollings won re-election after re-election, pleasing his constituents with the federal money and construction projects he was increasingly able to deliver as he rose in seniority.

Secure in the Senate seat, he entered the 1984 Democratic presidential primary.

On paper, Hollings appeared a near perfect candidate. He was a Southerner, a former governor, conservative on military issues and deficits and progressive on social issues. And more than any Democrat running, Hollings looked the part — tall, impeccably dressed and sure of himself.

The late Sen. Thomas Eagleton, D-Mo., who ran for vice president in 1972, imagined a Hollings presidency.

“He would have been the most frank president in our nation’s history. He would have been the most colorful president in our nation’s history.”

A quick tongue and a few bloopers

“Colorful” is what his admirers call his shoot-from-the-hip style. To his detractors, he was insulting and even cruel in his comments.

He once referred to Mexicans as “wetbacks,” African leaders as “cannibals” and Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” as the “Blackbow Coalition.” He angered Jewish groups by declaring that the war in Iraq was fought in large part to secure Israel.

He also could get personal. During confirmation for former Sen. John Tower, who aspired to be Secretary of Defense, Hollings called him “Mr. Alcohol Abuser.” When ABC newsman Sam Donaldson asked the protectionist where he purchased his suit, Hollings replied: “Sam, if you want to personalize it, I got it right down the street from where you got that wig.”

But he did not regret his barbs. In an interview with The State on the eve of his retirement, he defended even the most egregious of them.

Reminded of the “cannibal” comment, Hollings said: “That’s right. They’re still eating each other.”

But no one ever declared Hollings less than a serious legislator. As Thurmond was the king of constituent service — Hollings was the lawmaker.

As Hollings crafted and pushed through Congress landmark environmental and nutrition legislation the 1970’s, he would author significant laws in the decades to come.

In 1980 he became chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, where he honed in on the nation’s spiraling deficits and co-authored the first legislation to control them. The Graham-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act — which he co-sponsored in 1985 with two Republicans — called for automatic spending cuts if Congress exceeded budget benchmarks.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, right, raises the arm of Sen. Fritz Hollings to acknowledge the applause of the audience before Marshall Clement Sanford Jr. took the oath of office at 12:09 p.m. Wednesday to become the 115th governor of the state of South Carolina. Sanford, 42, was sworn in by S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal on the south steps of the State House in front of family and friends and an audience estimated at 6,000 to 7,000 people. Erik Campos/The State Erik Campos

The law helped usher in the prosperity of the years that followed, but, as its authors often lamented, was subsequently weakened by Congress.

In 1987 Hollings became chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He authored the 1996 Telecommunications Act and pushed this deregulation of the communications industry through Congress over then President Bush’s veto.

Among the provisions of the Act — the first major revamping of the laws governing broadcasting, cable and telephone services — was the elimination of barriers to head-to-head competition among telephone companies.

Hollings weathered a close 1992 Senate race against Rep. Tommy Hartnett, R-S.C., who tried to paint Hollings as too liberal for a state that was now firmly in the GOP column. Hartnett and the national Republicans pointed to Hollings’ opposition to the 1991 invasion of Iraq to liberate Kuwait, and suggested affirmative action.

“I don’t have to get elected to a bloomin’ thing. And I don’t have to do things that are politically correct,” he said after besting Hartnett. “The hell with everybody. I’m free at last.”

But he had one more race in him. In 1997, S.C. voters and Congress watchers across the nation wondered whether Hollings would seek a seventh term. He beat Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., a savvy Upstate politician and supporter of term limits, with 53 to 46 percent of the vote.

After 9/11 Hollings lobbied to boost security for the Port of Charleston and ports along the nation’s seaboard, which he declared particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack. Hollings, who had opposed the Gulf War of 1991, grudgingly supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Later that year he declared the war a mistake, arguing that Iraq was not a threat to the United States.

“Iraq is Vietnam all over again for the senator from South Carolina,” he said on the Senate floor.

Hollings teased supporters and opponents alike in 2003, sending mixed signals about the possibility of an eighth term. In the spring of that year, the younger of his two daughters, Patricia Salley Hollings, 46, died in her Charleston home. Her death was ruled accidental.

That August he announced that he would retire to Charleston. Privately, friends said he wanted to spend time with his wife, Peatsy Hollings, who was in failing health. She died in October 2012 at age 76 after a battle with Alzheimer’s.

In 2004, Republican Jim DeMint, a congressman from Greenville, won the Senate seat Hollings had held for 38 years. Upon DeMint’s resignation in 2012, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Tim Scott, a black Republican representative.

Hollings spent a mostly quiet retirement on the Isle of Palms, keeping an office at the Medical University of South Carolina. A cancer center there — established thanks to the millions of federal dollars Hollings secured — is named for him, and he devoted much of his time to raising money for it.

In 2010, the University of South Carolina named its special collections library after Hollings in a ceremony attended by then-vice president Joe Biden.

But he could still lob a telling riposte at modern day politicians whom he contended were timid and lacked vision.

“We wanted to do everything — I’m glad I said that — we wanted to do everything when I was coming along. Both sides, Republicans, Democrats, everybody in public service,” Hollings said at the S.C. Book Festival in 2009. “Now, all they do is talk about the Constitution and I don’t have enough authority. Man, give me a break, if I had started on the Constitution and the authority I would have never gotten anywhere.”

He is survived by his sons Michael Milhous Hollings and Ernest Frederick “Fritzie” Hollings III, and daughter Helen Hayne Reardon and several grandchildren.

Carolyn Click and Lauren Makoe are former staff writers for The State. Avery Wilks, Noah Feit and Emma Dumain contributed.

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.
Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.