S.C. Sen. Witnessed Century of Changes

Published June 27, 2003

| Associated Press

Former Sen. Strom Thurmond (search), who became the longest-serving senator in the nation's history, was born in Edgefield County, S.C., a year before the Wright Brothers (search) showed man the secret of powered flight.

He saw the nation go through two world wars and send the first man to the moon. As an educator, judge, soldier, governor and lawmaker, he often found himself at center stage in a sometimes controversial public career.

By the dawn of the 21st century, Thurmond was the stuff of legend in South Carolina (search). But the behind the headlines and controversy, there was always the South Carolina farm boy who made good.

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Throughout his life, Thurmond, who once coached scholastic basketball in Edgefield County, watched his diet and exercised religiously. After winning re-election to his final term in 1996, Thurmond told The Aiken Standard the secrets of his longevity.

"I do 20 minutes of stretching, 20 minutes of calisthenics and 20 minutes of strengthening each day," he said. "I stay away from fried foods and I only drink milk or fruit juices, nothing with caffeine."

And remain optimistic, he said, because "if you have a healthy mind, you will have a healthy body."

He also called his children every day because "I think the most important thing in life is to be a good parent."

Thurmond's father, John William Thurmond, once passed along similar advice in a letter to his son.

"Remember your God," his father advised. "Take care of your body and tax your nervous system as little as possible."

The elder Thurmond also suggested his son "think three times before you act and, if in doubt, don't act at all."

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At age 12, Thurmond discovered he enjoyed dancing and would travel from his hometown of Edgefield to Aiken, about 20 miles away, for dances.

He had no steady girlfriends. "I liked them all," Thurmond once told The Edgefield Advertiser.

In a 1946 interview describing his experiences in World War II, Thurmond expressed concern American soldiers would marry women they met overseas, forsaking those in South Carolina.

"I think the girls of South Carolina are the most attractive I have seen in any part of the world," Thurmond said. "I think it is the general consensus and desire of American boys to return and marry American girls."

A year later, Thurmond married Jean Crouch. He was 44 and she was 21.

When people questioned the age difference, Thurmond, in a famous photo published in Life magazine, stood on his head and invited a photographer to "feel my muscles."

Jean Thurmond died in 1960. Eight years later, Thurmond was introduced to former Miss South Carolina Nancy Moore. They married later that year in Aiken; he was 66, she 22.

"We sat down and told her everything that was going to happen to her," political aide Harry Dent recalled later. "But she said, 'But I love him,' and she boohooed all over us and we knew we had lost."

She and Thurmond had four children. They separated in 1991.

In 1997, when Thurmond became the longest-serving senator, he told reporters he was pleased there were more women in the Senate.

"When you bring in women, it's always for the better," he said. "They're smart and we like to look at them."

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As a staunch segregationist in the 1940s and '50s, Thurmond ran for president as a States' Rights Democrat, or "Dixiecrat," in 1948. But his views on race and civil rights changed with the passage of time and the recognition of growing black power after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1970, he became the first southern senator to hire a black for his staff. And in 1983, Thurmond was honored by the South Carolina Conference of Black Mayors.

"I don't believe black mayors could have done otherwise," said then-state Sen. I. DeQuincey Newman, who noted Thurmond had helped many small communities get grants and other federal aid.

In 1988, Thurmond received an honorary degree from predominantly black South Carolina State College.

Two years later, 42 of South Carolina's 46 state senators endorsed Thurmond for re-election. Though Thurmond switched from Democrat to Republican in 1964 to support Barry Goldwater, the endorsements included 30 Democratic senators, three of them black.

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Thurmond staged the longest filibuster in congressional history in 1957 against a civil-rights bill, then later took what is sometimes referred to as the longest breath ever in Congress.

It was 1962 when Thurmond breathed deeply and then denounced communism as "a power-seeking, God-denying, man-and-material worshipping, amoral force operating from the base of territories it dominates by conspiratorial tactics of subversion, infiltration, propaganda, assassination, genocide, espionage, political and economic blackmail, all under cover of nuclear holocaust, through the apparatus composed of agents, tools, opportunists and dupes of all ethnic origins and nationalities, bent on the unswerving goal of world domination and subjection, and the recreation of man himself into the common mold of an obedient slave to the minority for which communism was designed to appeal -- the minority which it has ever since captivated, and to the minority -- may it ever grow smaller -- which may in the future be so blind spiritually and so engrossed materially as to be stricken by the soul-destroying disease promulgated and spread by Marx and his successors."

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He graduated from what was then Clemson College in 1923, and held more than two dozen honorary degrees. But Thurmond got his training in the law studying with his father in Edgefield.

"The Supreme Court listed the books you had to study," Thurmond said later. "I figured I could learn it much faster if I studied it myself and had him there at night to answer questions."

Thurmond would rise at 6 a.m. and study until 9 a.m., then go to his job as Edgefield County School superintendent. He would return home and study from 6:30 p.m. until 11 p.m.

He was admitted to the bar in 1930 and elected a Circuit Court judge eight years later.

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