Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who died Thursday night at the age of 100, was praised Friday morning by some of his closest friends and those who had, in the past, been his foes.
President George W. Bush said Thurmond had led an "extraordinary life."
"He served in the Army during World War II, earning a Bronze Star for valor and landing at Normandy on D-Day," the president recalled. "He served his country as senator, governor and state legislator and was a beloved teacher, coach, husband, father and grandfather."
While campaigning across South Carolina with Thurmond in 1988, Bush said he saw first hand "the tremendous love [Thurmond] had for his constituents, and the admiration the people of South Carolina had for him."
Thurmond retired in January as the longest serving member of the Senate and the oldest member of Congress in history. He was first elected to the Senate in 1954.
"A great oak has fallen," said Sen. Fritz Hollings, a Democrat who served as the junior senator from South Carolina under Thurmond.
"Strom Thurmond cannot and never will be replaced in the countless hearts of those that loved and respected him," said Rep. Joe Wilson, a fellow South Carolina Republican. "He was my personal hero and I will miss him dearly."
Wilson called Thurmond South Carolina's "greatest statesman of the 20th Century," and credited him with pioneering the development of the state's Republican Party "from effective non-existence in the 1960s to majority status by the end of the century."
Thurmond employed many members of Wilson's family during his tenure, including Wilson and his wife as interns, two of Mrs. Wilson's uncles as staff attorneys, and Wilson's three oldest sons as pages.
"The legacy of Strom Thurmond will always be felt in South Carolina because of his steadfast integrity and the meaningful results of his thoughtful constituent service," Wilson said. "[He] will endure as the leading example of a public servant due to his love and devotion to all the people of South Carolina regardless of status, race, politics, or region."
Alaska Republican Ted Stevens recalled his first meeting with Thurmond, who was on the floor of the Senate in January 1958 leading a filibuster against statehood for Alaska.
"He held up the bill for a considerable period of time," Stevens recalled. "Believe me, as an advocate for statehood for my state, anyone that was going to filibuster that bill was not exactly a friend at that time.
"But, over the years, I grew, really, to have great fondness for Senator Thurmond," Stevens continued, "despite our original, really, antagonism."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) called Thurmond "a man whose commitment to his country was unwavering.
"He lived through a complete change in the South. He reflected the change that went on in our region of the country and I think he did it in a positive and especially important way," Sessions said. "His leadership in moving from the days of segregation to a new era of relations between the races was very, very important and positive throughout the South."
According to his official Senate biography, Thurmond was born in Edgefield, S.C., on December 5, 1902. He attended public schools and graduated from Clemson College in 1923, after which he taught high school in South Carolina for six years before becoming Edgefield County superintendent of education. He studied law and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1930, after which he served as a city and county attorney, a member of the state Senate and a circuit judge.
Though he was 40 years old and serving as an elected judge when World War II began, Thurmond "insisted that he be allowed to be on active duty," Sessions recalled. Thurmond served in the United States Army between 1942 and 1946, both in Europe and in the Pacific.
Participating in the Normandy invasion, he volunteered to fly gliders, considered at the time to be one of the most dangerous assignments available. Thurmond was injured when his glider crashed in France during D-Day on June 6, 1944. He was awarded the Bronze Star as a result.
He was known as "James" Thurmond while serving as governor of South Carolina from 1947 to 1951. He began using his middle name "Strom," which was his mother's maiden name, in 1951.
Thurmond, then an arch-segregationist, launched an unsuccessful bid for the White House as a States' Rights or "Dixiecrat" candidate in 1948. His views changed over the years, according to Sessions, who noted that Thurmond was the first southern senator to support establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. day as a federal holiday.
"He was beloved in his state," Sessions added, "respected to an awesome degree."
Thurmond sought but did not receive the Democrats' nomination to the Senate in 1950, but was appointed to fill the seat of resigning Sen. Charles E. Daniel (D-S.C.) until January 3, 1955.
First elected to the Senate as a write-in candidate in 1954, Thurmond resigned on April 4, 1956, in order to fulfill a campaign promise to voters. Sessions believes Thurmond was the only senator ever elected by a write-in vote.
Again elected as a Democrat in November 1956 to fill the vacancy caused by his own resignation, Thurmond was re-elected in 1960, and - after switching from the Democratic to Republican Party in 1964 - again in 1966, 1972, 1978, 1984, 1990 and 1996.
"I'm for term limits, but they keep re-electing me," Thurmond once joked.
He served three times as president pro tempore of the Senate and chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1981-1987. James Strom Thurmond died June 26, 2003 in his hometown of Edgefield, South Carolina. He was 100 years old.
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