When my editor asked me to come up with an essay for this anniversary issue, she noted that I was one of a handful people who have been with CP for the duration.
This assignment coincided with my changing residences and the nuisance of packing and disgorging my personal belongings into a new home. As luck would have it, I came across most of my notebooks used during my tenure as “The Wandering Eye.”
These notebooks took me back to a time when the three owners and most of the staff of the paper was surviving on the then-Bubble Room’s “all you can eat” crab legs to the point that a hard shell developed on our little community, something that would come in handy years later.
But I digress.
My first assignment for the paper involved slogging to Mt. Pilot to find out who was behind the prominent placement of billboards endorsing a negative campaign against then-Gov. David Beasley (R).
The billboards’ message was a simple one: “S.C. Schools — 48th in the Nation — Support Education” and featured the governor’s last name with the red circle slash superimposed over it.
The bottom corner stated simply: “Paid for by COLLINS ENTERTAINMENT.”
A few phone calls later, I was speaking with the big man himself, Mr. Fred Collins of Greenville, S.C., and thus began a seven year-long telephone correspondence with my first source.
Mr. Collins, who passed away recently and whom I never met face-to-face, was one of those imposing personalities unique to South Carolina. A bona fide, walking, talking contradiction in terms.
He financed the college education of lots of folks, both from his own pocket and through the Fred Collins Foundation, and was appointed to the Commission on the Future by the late Carroll Campbell in 1987. The conclusion of that 27-member group was that South Carolina lacked a commitment to public education.
Mr. Collins was also the state’s video poker king back before video gambling was banned. His business leased out the poker machines, pool tables, foosball, air hockey, pinball machines and other such what-nots that allowed millions to indulge in the pleasures of the addiction economy.
I knew that and he knew that I knew that, so we got along famously.
I was also warned by an old college chum that Mr. Collins had made some inquiries about me and the City Paper after our initial chat and had decided that we were basically harmless and potentially useful.
Which, by the by, turned out to be useful to yours truly.
A particularly nasty gubernatorial campaign ensued with Mr. Collins and his buddies, who were tired of the current Columbia lineup, financing the effort to drive Beasley and his ilk out of Columbia because they planned to rid the Palmetto state of video gambling. The industry’s chosen replacement was Jim Hodges (D).
It was a classic case of “be careful of what you wish for” as video poker went the way of the Pony Express and was replaced by the S.C. Education Lottery.
I’ve always suspected that Mr. Collins knew his lucrative revenue stream was marked for death and was just getting in a few punches before he retired.
Later, I was the recipient of numerous tips from Mr. Collins and his minions and was able to build up a network of contacts and passwords that gained me a little bit of access to the wizards behind the curtain of South Carolina politics.
Mr. Collins turned out to be a gold mine of information for me in my research of true-crime stories. It wasn’t a stretch to assume that if he didn’t know who a particular peace officer was, then he knew somebody who did and how to find that person.
I received a first-hand history lesson in the development of the tourism and recreation industry in South Carolina and how this eventually replaced racism as a more effective way to manage state politics.
Granted, I knew that there was no such thing as a free lunch, but he never asked me to do anything stupid that would come back to haunt me or the paper. Mostly, I think he was simply holding the business end of the string opposite a big ball of tin foil over my head.
After he died, I thought about attending his funeral but decided it was better to recall him as I knew him.
I learned a lot from Mr. Collins, mostly to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. I wondered why he always took my calls, but figured it was better not to know in the end.
There’s a big difference between the whole story and the whole truth.
With time, we got better at being a newspaper.
Sometimes I look back wistfully at the days when we kinda knew what we were doing, but then I’m reminded that paychecks are a good thing.
That and everybody has a choice now between a balanced diet or another plateful of crab legs.