My first encounter with this man of ordinary greatness was on the campaign trail for Senator Strom Thurmond. It was the summer of 1996 and we paraded the streets of Darlington passing out stickers and lollipops. I had just returned home after serving six weeks in Washington, DC as a senate page. I had never met the Congressman and only had a brief conversation with him that day; mostly about my time as a page and my hopes of attending Clemson University the following year.
Ten years later, after my time in Clemson had drawn to a close, I returned home. Our paths would cross again. Only this time, it was at church. It was here I learned of his greatness. Not because of his politics or farming or business ventures, but because of his giant heart and great love for all people. I learned that his family and the family of my husband were tightly interwoven. I heard stories of the impact he had on them.
Two of the fondest memories are permanently etched deep in my heart.
In November 2007, he called and asked if we would like to fly with him to a Clemson game. There are still no words to explain my excitement. My husband had only flown once before and neither of us had flown in a four passenger plane. We boarded the aircraft with an 87-year old pilot and 85-year old co-pilot. They were like two kids at Christmas. During the entire flight, he pointed out landmarks. As we approached Oconee County Regional Airport, I almost caught a glimpse of the red carpet. He taxied straight for the front door. Two gentleman opened the doors of the plane and warmly welcomed the pilots. Inside the double doors of the airport - a term I use ever-so-slightly - there was a display case with pictures of the two pilots. On the shuttle ride to the stadium, we got a history lesson in Clemson and World War II. Dropped on the corner of Hwy. 93 and Perimeter Road, we could barely keep up with the two veterans. We made a beeline straight for the concession stand and then directly to our seats for the evening. We took our game-day cues from the men that knew how to cheer loud and proud. We only sat down for time-outs and half-time, never once daring to leave for the restroom. And we did not leave our seats until the team was safely inside the locker room at the end of the fourth quarter. We all but sprinted back to the corner we left just three hours earlier. The plane was already waiting outside those double doors, heated and cleared for take off. Those two pilots were giddy with excitement over the tail-wind and the speed in which we were moving. As we made the final approach to Florence Regional Airport, we were met with complete darkness. No runway in sight. Over the headphones, he told my husband that he would just have to make a break for it. All I saw were the whites of the eyes sitting beside me. The closer we got to the ground the runway illuminated with the brightness of the pilot's smile. Those two veteran pilots laughed until I was certain their sides had split wide open. My eyes leak with joy now as I remember that night.
Sixteen months later, on an unusually warm March afternoon in 2009, a whole host of people arrived at his house for my bridal portraits. Along with my mama and best friend, his precious wife helped us get my dress zipped and veil placed. As we headed outside, I caught a glimpse of him smiling from his office window. He winked. Later, he would joke with my husband that he had seen me in my wedding dress first. As the years passed,, sometimes he called me Jennifer. And my husband, Troy. Didn't matter to us, we just enjoyed talking with him.
He had this way of making each and every person he hugged feel special; individually important and unimaginably unique. His hugs were always given with a wide smile and kiss on the cheek. With each hug, he would whisper affirmation of Truth in my ear.
"You keep doing great things, Jessica."
I am certain he told others the same. Just as I am certain, like mine, their hearts are forever better because of him. Everyone has a story of the impression he left on their heart. Moments they will long treasure and remember with great fondness. His ordinary greatness would light up a room and the hearts of all who were near. His hugs will be missed. But the encouragement he whispered will long be remembered. A man of such greatness can never be forgotten. The stories others will tell of him will only further the legacy he left in his wake. Our community, church and lives will never be the same. This man of ordinary greatness did extraordinary things. And, we are all better versions of ourselves for knowing and loving him. Make no mistake. He will continue to do great things in the hearts of those he encouraged for so many years.
While the world is a little darker today with the loss of such a great man, surely heaven is a little brighter since he landed safe in the arms of the One he so loved.