Fritz Hollings would have been 100 years old on New Year’s Day. I worked for him for 15 years and knew him as a friend for 50. For me, he was a model of what a public servant should be —dedicated to moving his beloved South Carolina and his country forward, committed to straight talk with his constituents and possessed a knack for policy and politics that was both visionary and practical.
He had an almost intuitive feel for policy and politics the likes of which I have never encountered; it was in his brain and in his gut. His brilliance, humor and commanding personality made him the most impressive man I ever met.
Graduating from The Citadel in the famous Class of ’42, young Fritz went straight into World War II, winning a Bronze Star and seven combat stars as he fought across North Africa and Europe. Returning home, he garnered a law degree in just two years.
Soon thereafter the 26-year-old up-and-comer was asked to run for the South Carolina House. He quickly became speaker pro tempore, and was then elected lieutenant governor. By age 37, he was governor of the state. He traveled the nation recruiting hundreds of millions of dollars in business investment for new jobs in South Carolina. His visionary technical education program became a model for other states. Educational television (SCETV), teacher pay raises of 38% over his term-limited four years and a Triple “A” credit rating for the state budget were other highlights of his governorship.
As current U.S. House of Representatives Majority Whip James Clyburn eloquently noted at Hollings’ funeral in 2019, Fritz had an amazing capacity for growth, and he grew to be a leader for equal opportunity and civil rights.
In a history-making gesture in 2015, Hollings asked that his name be removed from the federal courthouse in Charleston and proposed that it be named instead for former U.S. District Court Judge J. Waties Waring, a pioneering civil rights jurist whose decisions had played a major role in setting the stage for Brown v. Board of Education. At Hollings’ request, congressional legislation was passed and the building’s name was changed. To the best of my knowledge, no sitting or retired senator had ever asked for removal of their name from a federal building. That said a lot about Fritz.
He was, of course, known for his quick wit and witticisms.
“When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles scream and shout,” he would say about certain politicians.
“The ox is in the ditch,” when the nation encountered tough sledding.
“There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.”
“A man convinced against his will is a man of the same opinion still.”
“On the way through life make this your goal — keep your eye on the doughnut and not the hole.”
There were scores more which would take a small book to recapture. On occasion, a particularly pungent utterance would get him into trouble. But Fritz, being Fritz, said what he thought.
While often humorous, Fritz Hollings was a serious man engaged in serious business. He dove deeply into every issue. I know, because I was there. And what an amazing record of legislative accomplishment came out of his leadership.
NOAA, coastal zone management, protection of marine mammals and fisheries, the Ocean Dumping Act, funding for cancer research and other health priorities, building stronger national defense, the Automobile Fuel Economy Act, telecommunications legislation, strengthened port and airport security, are just some of the issues on which he led.
His widely read 1970 book, The Case Against Hunger, played an important role in focusing attention on the need for nutritional and anti-poverty programs like Women, Infants and Children feeding.
Education was another Hollings priority: “The only way we can raise the income level of any is to raise the education of all.” He fought mightily to limit campaign spending, convinced that the untoward role of big money was undermining our elections and corrupting democracy. No one spoke more candidly about this continuing challenge.
Fritz believed that office-holding brought with it the duty to really learn about issues and to share what he learned with his constituents. I seldom saw him go off for the weekend without a serious book tucked into his briefcase. He was not a man for 30-second soundbites that obscured issues.
Instead, he traveled the state explaining what the challenges really were, and he wrote regular fact-filled newsletters to keep his fellow citizens informed. Even when some people disagreed with him on an issue, they knew they were being treated as mature citizens by a leader for whom integrity truly mattered.
Fritz had a great appreciation and love for those who worked for him during his many years of public service. He wasn’t just our boss, but our friend too.
We should do more today than just commemorate his centenary. We should seek out and find more leaders like Fritz Hollings who put the common good first.
Michael Copps, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, served as Hollings’ chief of staff from 1974 to 1985. Currently, he is a senior adviser to Common Cause in Washington, D.C.