WASHINGTON – Strom Thurmond made history Thursday when he turned 100 while still a member of the U.S. Senate.
The retiring senior senator from South Carolina is going out with a bang as he celebrates his birthday on Capitol Hill. He's leaving Washington after eight terms in the chamber and a long and prosperous career as a politician who dedicated 70 years of his life to public service.
Joined by several hundred people, including friends, family and Washington's elite, Thurmond entered his party in a Senate office building by wheelchair, waving to the crowd as his two sons and daughter walked alongside him.
"His first group of interns are now getting into Social Security,'' said Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who last month was elected to succeed Thurmond in the Senate.
Thurmond was born in the first term of Theodore Roosevelt, was first elected when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and is retiring with the modern Republican party he helped form.
He spent 48 years on the Hill, longer than any senator in history, and has been a vital part of the changing political and racial scene of the South.
Speakers at the birthday party were to include incoming Senate Majority Leader Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., according to organizer Thad Strom, who worked for Thurmond for more than 20 years and is now a partner in a Washington consulting firm.
All but one of the nine Supreme Court justices were also attending, as was White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and many of Thurmond's Senate colleagues. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist couldn't make it since he is recovering from knee surgery.
In Thurmond's hometown of Edgefield, crowds flocked around the life-sized statue of the lawmaker in the town square to celebrate with cake and performances from the Strom Thurmond High School band and chorus. Thurmond will return to Edgefield when he leaves Washington.
South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges even declared Thursday Strom Thurmond Day, giving people in the state the occasion "to reflect on the many blessings he has bestowed upon our state throughout his life."
Artifacts of all things Strom were on display at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbus, and the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University encouraged people to plant 100 trees across the state to honor the lawmaker.
Thurmond is to be honored at the White House on Friday, and on Dec. 12, he will attend ceremonies at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington when the Air Force is to name its 100th C-17 cargo plane the "Spirit of Strom Thurmond."
While wishing Thurmond a happy birthday, President Bush noted that the senator, while serving as a circuit court judge, volunteered for combat duty during World War II and landed a glider at Normandy on D-Day at the age of 41.
"His patriotism, courage and lifetime dedication to South Carolina and his nation will always be remembered," Bush said.
He leaves a legend behind on Capitol Hill for his tenacity as a politician and his love for the ladies.
Thurmond won his first election to a local office in 1928, and, after serving in World War II, was elected governor in 1947. A year later he ran for president as a Dixiecrat, picking up 39 southern electoral votes as part of the South's states' rights rebellion against Harry Truman's civil rights policies. He was governor of South Carolina until 1951.
He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954 and in 1956, he was an originator of the "Southern Manifesto" urging defiance of the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation ruling.
The South Carolinian also holds the record for the longest filibuster in the Senate — in 1957 he held the Senate floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes — as he railed against a civil rights bill. Later in his career he expressed regret for his stand against civil rights.
Thurmond bolted the Democratic Party in 1964 to support GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, signaling the beginning of the end of Democratic dominance in the South.
In 1977, Thurmond's views changed on the civil rights front, and he enrolled his 6-year-old daughter in an integrated public school. He was one of the first Southern lawmakers to hire black staffers and support blacks for federal judgeships. He became highly regarded by many blacks in South Carolina.
The man who entered the Senate abetting the body's deep racial division leaves it as a much — loved legend.
Thurmond was last re-elected in 1996 — even though polls show that he many South Carolinians did not want him to run. But he insisted on staying in the chamber until he reached 100. He remained vigorous in all senses of the word up until his mid-90s, having his first child with his second wife at age 68.
It is only in the last few years that Thurmond has started to lose a step here and there.
Thurmond is physically frail and has been generally confined to a wheelchair and accompanied by aides during the last few years, but has rarely missed a Senate vote and his office maintained a reputation for constituent service.
During his Senate career, he chaired both the Judiciary and Armed Services committees and has served as president pro tem, a ceremonial job that made him third in line to succeed the president.
In 1996, at age 93, he passed the late Sen. Theodore Green, D-R.I., to become the oldest person to ever serve in Congress. Green retired in 1960.
Graham, who is succeeding Thurmond, was born a year after Thurmond entered the Senate.
Fox News' Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.