Strom Thurmond Turns 100 Years Old Thursday

Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:29pm EDT
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( - The nation's longest serving U.S. senator, South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond, turns 100 years old Thursday. He will leave the Senate in January, ending 48 years of Senate service and a political career that began back in the 1930s.

Friends and family will sponsor a private fete Thursday in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Members of the U.S. Senate and Supreme Court have been invited. The guest speaker is former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, (R-Kan.).

Thurmond's hometown of Edgefield, S.C. will remember his birthday with a party in the town square. Organizers said it would be a free for all, for those wanting to receive "free bookmarks" and feast on red, white and blue cupcakes.

Thurmond will be retiring to Edgefield when his term expires next month. His alma mater, Clemson University, will celebrate his birthday by planting a white oak tree in his honor on the front lawn of the university's Strom Thurmond Institute. Thursday night, Sen.-Elect Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Thurmond's successor, will deliver a lecture at the Thurmond Institute about the senator's life and service. On Friday, President George W. Bush, along with Thurmond's family and friends, will honor the centenarian at the White House.

'I Hear You Are A Racist'

Thurmond's Democratic Senate colleague, Ernest Hollings, said Thurmond has "definitely been a revolutionary with respect to public service." Armstrong Williams, an African-American native South Carolinian, now a syndicated columnist and talk show host, worked for Thurmond as an intern in his Capitol Hill office in 1979. Williams told he first met Thurmond when he was 16 years old when the senator appeared in Williams' hometown of Marion.

"My father thought it would be a good idea to get to know this legendary man. His speech was over and he was walking out and I extended my hand to him and said I hear you are a racist," said Williams.

Thurmond, according to Williams, didn't take offense and chuckled at the remark. "My father thought it was so rude, I thought my father was going to slap me. But he didn't. He asked me to apologize to the senator.

"That's okay, he seems like a bright young man," Thurmond replied. "Why don't you come to my office and be a page and then if you go to college, be an intern and find out for yourself."

Williams said he took Thurmond up on his offer and had a great experience.

"He was wonderful. He loves teaching you about politics, about the way people think, how to build relationships with people, how to honor your word and how to exercise and how to diet," Williams said.

"I actually liked the old guy. I really did. I thought this guy's pretty cool. I tell my brothers and my friends, I really like Ole' Strom," he said.

On Thurmond's Senate longevity, Williams had two words: "constituency service."

Hollings agreed. "I think people back home know Strom best of all for his constituent service."

"Whether it is the job for a constituent, or helping a family get a relative admitted to the hospital, or sending a letter to the deceased family, or helping when the soldier is brought back home, or whatever it is, you can count on Strom," said Hollings.

"He has made his fame looking out for the people of his home state," Hollings concluded.

Did He Stay Too Long?

Some people, however, think Thurmond stayed in the Senate for too long. One former member of Congress who did not want to be identified, told , "He (Thurmond) should have quit 20 years ago."

Dr. Ron Romine, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg believes Thurmond will be remembered more for his Senate longevity than any distinctive legislative record.

"I don't think he will be remembered for a legislative record. There is nothing much there. He sponsored no great legislation. He has never been a real leader in the Senate," Romine told

"He'll be remembered for longevity, for hanging around quite a while." Romine said, adding however, that Thurmond will also "be remembered for his dedication to the people of South Carolina. He was always ahead of the power curve of sensing the political winds and for being a good politician."

Hitting the Century Mark

James Strom Thurmond was born Dec.5, 1902. Strom was his mother's maiden name, and he dropped his first name in 1951. Before entering politics, Thurmond was a teacher, coach and school superintendent. He studied law under his father and was elected to the South Carolina legislature at 31.

He left politics in 1941 to serve in the U.S. Army and was injured when his glider crashed in France during D-Day on June 6, 1944. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his gallantry. Later, he was transferred to the Pacific theatre and was present in Tokyo when the Japanese surrendered on V-J day on Aug. 14, 1945.

Thurmond was elected governor of South Carolina in 1946 and ran for president as a third party, States' Rights candidate two years later. His party was nicknamed the "Dixiecrats." Thurmond won 39 electoral votes, on a segregationist platform, but Democrat Harry Truman won the election, also beating Republican Thomas Dewey.

Thurmond carried South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in that presidential bid.

He was elected senator as a write-in candidate in 1954, resigned, and ran for the seat again in 1956 as a Democrat and has been serving in the Senate ever since. In 1964, Thurmond switched to the Republican Party to back Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in Goldwater's presidential race that year against Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson won in a landslide, but some political scientists and other historians believe Thurmond's party switch helped the Republican Party attain respectability in the South, a Democratic stronghold from the Civil War through the 1950s.

Thurmond still holds the Senate's filibuster record of 24 hours and 18 minutes without taking a bathroom break. He was filibustering against a civil rights bill. But later, Thurmond became the first senator to hire a black staffer and he sponsored legislation making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a federal holiday.

On his longevity in the Senate, Thurmond once joked, "I'm for term limits, but they keep re-electing me."

Thurmond was also known as a ladies' man. He was known for telling women how beautiful they were as well as pinching them. Once, a woman reporter asked him at a Capitol Hill press conference how he felt about women. "Honey, do you want a hug?" Thurmond shot back.

He also thought the present crop of female senators was good. "They work hard, look great and we like to look at them," he said.

Thurmond became a father for the first time at the age of 68. Two of his three surviving children live in South Carolina. A daughter, who died in 1993 after being struck by a car, is also buried there. The senator's 93-year-old sister and his second wife, a 22-year-old beauty queen when he married her in 1968, still live in the Palmetto State. The Thurmonds are separated but still on good terms.

Because of his health, Sen. Thurmond has not been home in two years. He has been commuting to work from the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington where he moved last year so his health could be continually monitored. He is the only senator to make a hospital a permanent home while still serving in office.

When he retires to Edgefield next month, Thurmond's home will be a suite in a community hospital.

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