Former U.S. Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings has died
It was always a great day when then-U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings came to visit our newsroom.
He was sort of a roving Broadway show. His booming voice matched his tall and erect frame. His coat and tie and white hair gave him a distinctive look that he would break down quickly with his tart tongue and humor. You had to always be on guard because you knew that at any moment, he could whip your fanny, rhetorically.
The man we joked was South Carolina’s junior senator to Strom Thurmond for 222 yiahs — that would be years — was from the old school of politicians who always paid respects at the newspaper when they came to town.
On one visit, the burning issue du jour was how South Carolina wasn’t getting enough money back from Washington for all the federal gasoline taxes we sent north.
His response went something like this: “Heyyyy, whoooo, hawwww, yoooo ain seeeeein, heeee, weeee, keep yo mouf shut, hoooo.”
When translated, we learned that he said, “Keep your mouth shut, stupid, because you have no idea how much money we’re taking out of Uncle Sam’s other pockets.”
And, for that political skill, his beloved South Carolina Lowcountry should be eternally grateful for Fritz Hollings.
A lot will be said about Hollings’ immense contributions as governor and 38-year senator following his death Saturday in Charrleston at age 97.
But here are three ways Hollings’ legacy leaves an imprint on the Lowcountry as deep as that unforgettable voice.
Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings was not the first to tell the world that Beaufort County was home to hundreds of malnourished children whose bloated stomachs were filled with worms.
But the lanky, razor-tongued senator used his bully pulpit and the media in 1969 to tell a lurid story nobody wanted to believe.
As Hilton Head Island was beginning to bloom with well-heeled newcomers in love with tee-times, Hollings dragged an entourage on “hunger tours” through the muddy back roads of our county and 15 others statewide.
For his “liberal road shows” he was called a communist, accused of destroying the fledgling tourism industry and ruining the state he’d served as governor and lieutenant governor. The Lowcountry’s Congressman called him “Hookworm Hollings.”
“I saw what all America needs to see,” Hollings wrote in his 1970 book, “The Case Against Hunger: A Demand for National Policy.”
“The hungry are not able-bodied men, sitting around drunk and lazy on welfare. They are children. They are abandoned women, or the crippled, or the aged.”
He decried the “red-tapeworm” of the government’s response to problems caused by poverty and shallow wells contaminated with human feces.
“Once upon a time, it was ‘I am hungry and you fed me,’ ” Hollings said. “Now it’s — ‘I am hungry and you form a committee, or call me shiftless.’ “
But lasting results came in a number of ways.
The Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services was established in 1971.
The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program came from it, and accessible food stamps.
The Hilton Head Health Project was created to address the parasite problem. Director Joseph Brown, with help from the Central Oak Grove Baptist Church on Hilton Head, quietly started educating children and mothers on sanitation, hygiene and health care, and working with the federal Centers for Disease Control to eradicate worms through medicine.
The Deep Well Project headed by retiree Charlotte Heinrichs helped get save drinking water into Hilton Head homes.
In his 2008 book, “Making Government Work,” Hollings said:
“Nothing in my 38 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.”
The ACE Basin between Hilton Head Island and Charleston is one of the “last great places” on Earth, as described by The Nature Conservancy.
It’s a palette of luscious land, mostly private and totaling more than 200,000 acres, that have been voluntarily preserved forever against development that is sinking the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge was named for Hollings in 2005 because of his significant contributions to conservation, including procurement of $13.8 million for the 11,815-acre refuge in Adams Run.
He secured $40 million to purchase the islands that make up the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve.
During his career, Hollings obtained $37 million for the state’s four coastal national wildlife refuges.
And that could all be considered the tip of the iceberg in his work for the environment.
Penn Center on St. Helena Island could easily be considered ground zero of the Gullah-Geechee culture that is itself endangered, according to the National Parks Service and the National Register of Historic Places.
When Hollings was inducted into its 1862 Circle, he was cited for seeing this long before others, and long before Penn became a part of what is now the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park.
Hollings helped get an allocation for Penn Center’s first major renovations.
He said at that groundbreaking ceremony in 1994: “I’m fully aware ... that here is the commencement of black history in this hemisphere. There is no question about it. It’s the beginning of history of our African-American population, not just the ancient history, but the modern-day history in America.
“For here it was that Martin Luther King Jr. orchestrated and organized his civil rights march on Washington, bringing equal justice under law — right here in Penn Center.
“After World War II, Penn Center became the greatest campus for the humanities in the history of man. I don’t say that lightly ... And that was the real significance. It wasn’t just to free the black man, but to free the white man. And that is the real vision of Penn Center and its contributions to our society.
“All the universities in the world give these graduate courses on art and architecture and medicine and law and engineering ... But the premium graduate course in the humanities, in human understanding, is Penn Center, South Carolina.”