Strom Thurmond dead at 100
(CNN) -- Former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the longest-serving member of the upper house of Congress, died Thursday night. The Republican was 100.
"He carried out a life clearly unmatched in public service," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, in announcing Thurmond's death on the Senate floor. Senators then paused for a moment of silence in his honor.
"A giant oak in the forest of public service has fallen," said Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-South Carolina, who served with Thurmond for 36 years.
The colorful and sometimes controversial Thurmond, who held his first public office in the late 1920s died at 9:45 p.m. at a hospital in his hometown of Edgefield, South Carolina, where he had been living since retiring earlier this year, family members said in a statement released to local media.
He was best known for his longevity in public office and his once-fiery opposition to civil rights -- a stance he abandoned, like many one-time supporters of segregation, in later years.
Asked once to recount his career, Thurmond was blunt and brief: "I tried to be honest. I tried to be patriotic. And I tried to be dedicated."
Thurmond retired from the Senate in 2002 at the end of his eighth term. He served 47 years and five months in the Senate. He also was the oldest person to serve in Congress, turning 100 on December 5, 2002, just a month before his retirement from the legislative body.
Before his retirement, he had been hospitalized on numerous occasions for a variety of low-level but persistent ailments, including stomach upset, back pain and exhaustion. But he always returned a scant few days after his admittance to open the Senate's daily sessions with a strike of his gavel.
Thurmond was a political legend in Washington and in South Carolina. In his twilight years in the Senate, he was regarded as a grand old man whose longevity, old-fashioned Southern courtesy and tenacity brought bipartisan respect.
Fellow politicians also respected the fact that he won his first Senate race, in 1954, as a write-in candidate -- the only U.S. senator ever elected that way. He went on to win eight terms.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware, once said, "He is absolutely, totally, completely honest -- his main contribution is his legislative political integrity -- and that's a big deal."
In recent years, Thurmond attained something of legendary status in Washington and was treated with widespread deference and affection by his colleagues. His segregationist past was rarely mentioned; more often it was his office's attention to constituent service that drew comment.
But his segregationist presidential bid returned to the news when then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, speaking at a December celebration of Thurmond's 100th birthday, suggested the nation would have been better off had Thurmond been elected. In the ensuing firestorm of criticism, Lott was forced to step down as majority leader.
Thurmond said he never ran a racist campaign but also never apologized for his 1948 presidential bid, said Jack Bass, co-author of "Ol' Strom," a biography of the senator. However, Bass also noted that a statue honoring Thurmond in Columbia, South Carolina, lists many of Thurmond's accomplishments but not his presidential campaign.
"I think he is embarrassed by it," Bass said in a 2001 interview.
War service included D-Day landing
Born in Edgefield, South Carolina, on December 5, 1902, Thurmond graduated from Clemson College (now University) in 1923 with a horticulture degree. After farming and teaching in his hometown, he became the county's superintendent of schools in 1929 and the state's governor in 1946.
The son of a judge, Thurmond studied law under his father and won a seat in the state Senate in 1932, the same year Franklin D. Roosevelt became president.
During World War II, Thurmond -- a longtime Army Reserve officer -- landed in France with the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day and emerged from the war as a highly decorated lieutenant colonel. He retired from the Army Reserve as a major general in 1960.
Thurmond married twice, the first time in 1947. His first wife, Jean Crouch, died in 1960.
In 1968, he married Nancy Moore, a former Miss South Carolina. He was 66; she was 22. They had four children and had lived apart for several years.
A fitness buff who neither smoked nor drank alcohol, he entertained reporters on his 65th birthday by doing 100 push-ups.
"Other than exercising, I don't do anything else but work with the Senate," he once said.
For years he campaigned for stronger government controls on alcohol. And alcohol abuse brought the senator heartbreak in early 1993, when his eldest daughter Nancy, 22, was killed by a drunken driver in Columbia, South Carolina.
Thurmond was the third Southern politician from the turbulent civil rights era to die this week.
Former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, who, like Thurmond, was a segregationist but who never backed away from his views, died Wednesday. Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, the South's first black big-city mayor when he was elected in 1973, died Monday.
Walking away from the hard line
Thurmond reflected much of the conservatism of the rural South, and it was his opposition to moves toward racial equality that put him on the national political map.
In 1946, he ran successfully for governor of South Carolina as a Democrat and gained national attention by fighting against President Harry Truman's decision to end racial segregation in the military.
When Truman pushed a strong civil rights plank in the Democratic Party's 1948 platform, the action prompted some Southerners to walk out of the Democratic National Convention.
The discontented group formed the short-lived States Rights' Democratic Party, the "Dixiecrats."
Thurmond became the party's candidate for president, carrying Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina and winning 39 electoral votes. But Truman managed to win the presidency, and two years later, Thurmond lost a bid for the Senate.
As a Democrat during his first decade in the Senate, Thurmond once filibustered a civil rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes, stopping only when the Senate physician threatened to drag him from the floor. It was the longest filibuster in Senate history.
In 1964, with the Democrats throwing their weight behind civil rights measures, he backed Barry Goldwater for the presidency and finally became a Republican himself.
But Thurmond eventually walked away from his opposition to civil rights. Once blacks in the South won the right to vote, Thurmond reached out to them politically and personally: In the early 1980s, he supported a national holiday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he often claimed his actions as a politician were misunderstood.
"Time brings changes, and you can't go too far ahead of your people. You have to lead the people as best you can," he said.
"Did he have his eye turned toward history? Perhaps," said Dr. Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "Perhaps he did not want to continue to be either the only or one of a handful of poster boys for unreconstructed Southerners. Maybe he didn't want to have that as his legacy."
Known for constituent service
As the South became more suburban and more Republican, South Carolina voters returned Thurmond to the Senate again and again.
A physical fitness buff, Thurmond would sometimes demonstrate exercises in his office for visitors -- doing so even well into his 90s. At 93 -- in 1996 -- Thurmond insisted he was fit enough to serve an eighth and final Senate term.
"No matter how tough the going gets, I don't give in and don't give up. After all, they don't call me Thurmond-ator for nothing!" he said.
He was not noted for any particular legislative achievement; it was in his longevity and attention to South Carolina that he made his mark.
He was ahead of his time when he switched to the Republican Party in 1964. He was one of a few Republican office holders in the South then but by his retirement, the South was almost solidly Republican in presidential politics and Republicans had won many statewide offices in the region. He "widened the path to two-party politics" in the South, Bass said.
Thurmond relished his reputation as a ladies man and flirted with women young enough to be his great-granddaughters.
"I love all of you -- and especially your wives," Thurmond told his colleagues in a November farewell address on the Senate floor.
On December 5, 2002, his 100th birthday, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said Thurmond was the "patriarch" of the Senate and called him "a man who has honored us through his friendship and his extraordinary example of service."
He returned to South Carolina upon his retirement, which became official once the 108th Congress convened in January 2003.
He was replaced in the Senate by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who won the seat in November 2002. It was the first open Senate seat in South Carolina in 36 years as Thurmond and Sen. Fritz Hollings -- who only became South Carolina's senior senator with Thurmond's retirement -- are the holders of an unusual record.
The two men represented the same state in the Senate for more than 36 years, longer than any other pair of senators in history.
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