by Herb Hartsook
We are all mourning the passing of Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings. He was a giant among our political elite, but more important to me, he was an inspiration. I was blessed to get the opportunity to work with Senator Hollings as his archivist. I personally conducted over 25 hours of his oral history interviews with South Carolina Political Collections. I traveled with him. I shared gourmet meals in the kitchen of his Isle of Palms home which had been prepared by his lovely wife Peatsy. Over our association of more than 30 years, I got to know, admire, and love Fritz Hollings.
People often ask, ‘What’s Fritz like?’ I enjoy sharing my impressions. Curiosity was Fritz Hollings’ most dominant trait. He was great fun as a traveling companion. His omnipresent briefcase always held an assortment of daily newspapers and while we were in the car or on the plane, he would read and talk about the major news stories, often adding anecdotes from his personal knowledge of the persons and issues involved. He loved travel because of the wonderful learning opportunities travel presented.
He was a voracious reader and ended each day with some reading. I imagine he might have read some fiction, but when I asked, he was usually reading serious works on the economy, foreign policy and history. When I visited him last, he had a pile of books beside his chair and was enjoying a weighty biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
He had a near photographic memory. His staff had to be careful when providing him with statistics because he remembered whatever number they originally gave him, even if later they realized they’d made a mistake and tried to correct it.
He was athletic and an avid tennis fan. And heaven help you if you seemed to be gaining weight because he would needle you to encourage better habits.
Politics provided a perfect career but wasn’t his initial goal. He trained to be an attorney and could have enjoyed a great career as a trial attorney. And if you listened to him debate, he certainly thought like an attorney. But, as a young lawyer trying to jump start his career after losing years to active duty service during World War II, Hollings ran for the South Carolina House of Representatives. He hoped to build name recognition through his campaign effort to promote his law practice, but he won the race.
Once in government, he discovered that he liked the work and the opportunity to lead. During his fifty years of public service, he became an avid student of government. His second and last book, Making Government Work, outlined his vision of the steps needed to improve our government. Many, myself included, had urged him write a memoir and share the many delightful anecdotes that peppered his conversations. He included a few such stories, but he really wanted to share his recipe for better government. That was Fritz; he was in the game to do things, not to acquire power, or become famous, or to become rich.
Fritz Hollings became expert on issues as diverse as the MX Missile, the federal budget, and nutrition. Throughout his career, he focused on the pragmatic, what government could do, both in the short and the long terms, to make life better for the citizenry. As an example, he often said that it’s better to feed the child than imprison the adult. This led to the nation’s WIC program, a supplemental nutrition program aimed at ensuring the birth and early development of healthy children who would be able to grow up to become contributing members of society.
On announcing his gift of his papers to the University of South Carolina, Hollings said that he wanted his collection to serve as a research tool but also to become the catalyst for the creation of a center for the study of modern society. He was convinced that the UofSC was most likely to develop such a center due to its ability and willingness to support such an endeavor; its central location in the state; and its proximity to related resources including the South Caroliniana Library, the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, and the S.C. State Library. Then-Dean of Libraries George Terry shared that view and we have fulfilled that initial vision. Hollings also helped in recruiting two very important donors — Jim Edwards and John West. Both gentlemen eventually became important supporters of SCPC. Indeed, Hollings and Edwards spoke at our groundbreaking and the SCPC Director’s office is named in honor of West.
Hollings always came across as a man on a mission and in a hurry. He wasn’t outwardly a ‘warm and fuzzy’ man, but he did care deeply about family, friends, and staff. When I suffered my heart attack, Fritz called my wife and counseled her on concerns she would face on my return home. That was typical. I have referred to Hollings as “Fritz” throughout this post, since that is how most folks know him.
I always addressed Hollings as ‘Senator.’ But in my head, and often in conversations with others that knew him well, I often referred to him as ‘Boss,’ as did many senior Hollings staff. I never felt comfortable calling him ‘Boss’ in our interactions, but many did, and that appellation fit. Fritz Hollings was a great man, a wonderful inspiration, and became my good friend. I mourn his passing.