Steve Patterson on Senator Fritz Hollings: The last of the Mohicans

New Albany MS Sen. Fritz Hollings

“I’m the last of the Mohicans.”
     —South Carolina Senator Ernest “Fritz “ Hollings,
       Farewell address to the United States Senate


The roar of the last of the old Southern Democrat lions of the United States Senate has been silenced. My friend and role model, Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina is no more.

Steve Patterson, at his home in Como, MS.

As South Carolina Governor in the late 1950’s, “Fritz” Hollings helped shepherd South Carolina’s public schools to a smooth transition into racial integration. He then spent the next 38 years in the United States Senate as a strong Southern voice for disadvantaged, impoverished, suffering American citizens. On April 6, 2019, at his home in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, Fritz Hollings found his peace in the restorative presence of his Heavenly Father.

Ernest Frederick “Fritz” Hollings, the silver-haired Democrat with the movie star carriage and deep low-country southern drawl was my hero. I genuinely loved the man, and greatly admired his caustic wit, devotion to principle, and unfailing loyalty to his friends.

A Southern Democrat lion

Senator Hollings had a long and colorful career in politics, including a brief run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1984. In 2005 Senator Hollings retired from the Senate. He was the last of the gentle, well-educated larger-than-life Democrats who once dominated our beloved southland and the United States Senate. As the senator himself said, he was “the last of the Mohicans.”

I first became acquainted with Senator Hollings as a young staffer for Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis. When I joined Senator Stennis’s staff I replaced a gentleman from Laurel, Mississippi, named Mac Cameron. Cameron left the Stennis staff to become the tennis coach at Ole Miss. He was a world-class tennis player and a frequent tennis opponent for Senator Hollings. Mac’s departure did not faze Senator Hollings, as he simply — and mistakenly –assumed I could replace Mac as his regular opponent on the tennis courts. Not being a tennis player, I could not, of course, competently replace Mac Cameron.

Nonetheless, I gave it my all. With the energy of youth, I made a respectable effort. However, I can’t remember winning a single match and definitely never won a set. I often wondered if Senator Hollings might actually have preferred playing me, because I’m pretty sure he was really no competition for Mac. Mac is a pretty savvy guy, though, and I’m certain he gave a little ground. After all, Mac realized that he was playing a United States Senator. The difference is Mac had to slack up to allow the senator to win. I gave it my all, yet still got shamed by the senator, who was thirty years my senior.

An easy-going personality, a formidable debater

Around his friends and staff, Senator Hollings had a relaxed and easy-going personality. At least that was my perception of the man. However, he could be brutal in debate. I vividly recall brashly challenging him once on something he’d said. He patiently listened to what I had to say. Then with a devious smile retorted, “Son, you may be right, but when I was your age I was governor of South Carolina. So what do you know?”

His biting wit was quick and sometimes venomous, but always clever. In the 1984 presidential campaign, after listening to former astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn reminisce about his time in outer space, Hollings retorted. “That’s all well and good, but what on EARTH have you done?“ An even more scathing attack came when the hard-hitting, toupee-wearing news reporter Sam Donaldson pressed him on his protectionist positions on trade. Donaldson asked, “Where did you get that Korean tailored suit?” Hollings responded, “Well, Sam, if you want to make it personal, I got it next door to where you got your wig!”

The courtly Senator could also be self-deprecating and quite charming. When asked about the key to the success and longevity of his second marriage, he quickly responded, “It’s easy. We are both in love with the same man!”

An unabashed truth-teller

Perhaps the thing I admired most was his willingness to turn that acid tongue of his, time and time again, against anyone who sought to exploit the downtrodden, voiceless citizens anywhere in America. Hollings was a truth teller throughout his career. Sometimes his honesty was brutally frank. Like when he publicly told his Senate colleagues what they all knew, but were afraid to say out loud. He courageously said that their fellow senator, John Tower of Texas, was a “drunk“ and should not be confirmed as Secretary of Defense.

He once shocked the Senate, and indeed the nation, by graphically detailing incidences of chronic hunger and malnutrition in his own state. His passion for the issue of Hunger in America led him to introduce legislation in 1972 that created the supplemental food program for women, infants, and children, commonly known as the WIC program. It was one of the crowning achievements of his extraordinary legislative record. The following year he published his first book, a compelling treatise and call-to-action titled The Case Against Hunger.

I can’t help but smile when I recall my last visit with Senator Hollings. It was 2005, just prior to his retirement. I was recruited by the step daughter of famed civil rights leader Vernon Jordan to accompany her to lobby Senator Hollings on behalf of some legislation she was seeking, and in which I had a significant financial interest. As we entered his private office he greeted me with exuberance. “Steve, what can I do for you? I’m about to leave this place, you know. So tell me how I can help you before I leave. You know I’ll do anything I can.” I began my pitch. I had said no more than a few introductory phrases when he abruptly stopped me dead in my tracks and said, “I can’t help you with that. I will not help you with that — think of something else I might help you with!” All we could do at that point was laugh and say our goodbyes.

An advocate for the Ship of State

After leaving the Senate, Senator Hollings wrote a book in 2008 titled Making Government Work. The book came at a time in our country when the institutions of government were first coming under attack. People were beginning to lose faith in their government, and Hollings agreed that the federal government had “gone off course.” His book was a prescription for righting the ship of state. “The greed of capitalism has reached compatibility with the greed of politics,” Senator Hollings wrote. “The capitalist is divorced from country to seek profits and the politician is divorced from country to seek contributions.” Truer words have never been written.

Senator Ernest F. Hollings will be laid to rest in a few days. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Senate with him for many years, will deliver the eulogy. My bet is Biden will be roundly criticized by the hard left, as well as the extreme right, for honoring this great man, because of his “lack of ideological purity.” That’s how politics seems to work these days. Even death will not silence ideological mobs. But if I know my old Irish Catholic friend, Joe Biden, he will not be deterred!

In this era of degradation, divisiveness, and demagoguery we must ignore the extreme voices if we hope to ever remember what true leadership looks like.

Fritz Hollings was a patriot who never retreated. He saw problems and tried to fix them. His accomplishments are many, and his legacy is that of an unabashed warrior for truth.

May he Rest In Peace.


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1 reply
  1. (MR) Britt says:

    I remember when you attempted to teach this left to play tennis in tupelo many moons ago. We teamed up with two other lefties & and try as you may I never was able to learn the game. that was 1963 to 1965…WONDERFUL MEMORIES, BUT I MUST ADMIT I FEEL LIKE I FAILED YOU WHEN YOU GOT TANGLED UP IN POLITICS. A few years alter my adopted son (also a leftie) finally gave up on me as a tennis player. Yoe was an important part of my life and I will never forget the great times we spent togethe. May God bless you and keep you…(MR) BRITT…


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