Longtime public servants retire

8 mins read

By Kat Walsh

Two local politicians are retiring after a combined 80 years of serving the public.

George O’Kelley will step down after being on the Beaufort City Council for almost 40 years, while William “Bill” McBride, a Beaufort County Council member, also steps down after 40 years in office.

George O’Kelley

George O’Kelley
George O’Kelley

Beaufort would look and feel very different these days were it not for O’Kelley. As he steps down from Beaufort City Council after almost 40 years, he leaves behind a Beaufort quite unlike the one he first began serving as a council member in 1979.

“George has always been a voice for Beaufort,” Mayor Billy Keyserling said.

In doing what he always thought best for the city, O’Kelley has had to occasionally take unpopular positions or argue against the majority. It’s the nature of the position, and O’Kelley takes it in stride.

“I suppose the citizens will have to judge if I aided or helped Beaufort,” O’Kelley said. “I will say I cherish my years of service and hope I was a positive influence.”

In his nearly four decades on the Beaufort City Council, O’Kelley has done everything from selecting the design of the Government Center to authoring legislation against smoking in city restaurants and texting while driving.

And as a downtown businessman since 1975, he was one of the first to join the effort to revitalize Beaufort when shops were closing right and left.

While much of his life has been spent helping the city and citizens of Beaufort, he is not a native son. O’Kelley came to Beaufort by way of Vietnam.

After attending the Citadel, he graduated from the University of South Carolina Law School in 1968, right around the same time the draft began. So instead of joining a law firm, O’Kelley joined the Marine Corps, attending the Platoon Leaders Class program in Quantico, Va. After six months of training, he was sent to Vietnam.

One positive that happened during his time of service: He met his future wife. O’Kelley was home on leave from the Marine Corps, visiting a childhood friend in Columbia, when the opportunity for a blind date presented itself. The buddy wanted O’Kelley to meet his girlfriend’s roommate, Yancey Heins.

“They fixed me up with a date and that was that.”

After completing his service in Vietnam, O’Kelley was stationed at Parris Island – and never left. With medals and decorations including the Navy/Marine Achievement Medal, Vietnam Campaign and Combat Action Ribbon, O’Kelley retired as a lieutenant colonel and began his career as a lawyer.

In 1975, he opened his firm, O’Kelley and Fordham, at 715 Bay St., where he still practices today.

And from that location, he has seen – and helped author – much of the story of downtown Beaufort’s revival.

The layout back then was different. “The Saltus building was Belk, there was Shines Department Store, Old Bay Market was Edwards Dime Store and I had a little hardware store on each corner of my block,”
he said.

Nightlife was different back then too – it was nonexistent. “Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, we didn’t have any night activity,” he said. “”At 6 o’clock they’d roll the sidewalks up.”

O’Kelley believes one of the big positives that came out of his time on the Beaufort City Council is the growth of Beaufort’s downtown economy, even if that’s not always seen as a positive.

“Now we have a thriving downtown scene with good shops and restaurants. Parking is something people talk a lot about, but believe me, I was here when there was always plenty of open parking spaces – but there weren’t many shops that people wanted to visit. That’s a bad place to be,” he said.

O’Kelley’s last session as a member of City Council took place on Dec. 13.

“How would I like to be remembered? I just hope I did some good things that have benefited our city and its people,” he said.

William McBride

William McBride
William McBride

Dedicated. Rock-steady. Consistent. These are just a few of the words spoken to describe William “Bill” McBride during his final term on the Beaufort County Council.

McBride served a history-making term of 40 years, from 1976-2016, the longest term held by any council member in the history of the council.

His term length is not the only triumph that made Beaufort County history.

“You were the first, and to date, the only African-American chairman and vice chairman of Beaufort County Council,” said Morris Campbell, former Beaufort County council member and retired Beaufort County Community Services director. “You always looked out for human and community services issues.”

McBride served in several leadership capacities as the County Council chairman from 1983-1984, County Council vice chairman from 1991-1992, South Carolina Association of Counties president in 1993 and County Council parliamentarian from 2001-2016.

He also served as a liaison for several boards, including the Beaufort/Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, Beaufort Memorial Hospital board, Joint Initiative Committee of County Council and board of education, and the Northern Regional Plan Implementation Steering Committee.

During his tenure, he was a member of 21 committees, holding four chairmanships and seven vice chairmanships.

At his final council meeting on Dec. 12, several community leaders spoke about McBride’s years of service.

“On behalf of more than 120 agencies comprising the Beaufort County Human Services Alliance, we thank you for always being concerned about the well-being of our community, humanity and heart,” said Fred Leyda, director of the Beaufort County Human Services Department, “and for caring about our residents at all stages of life.”

“My priority was to take the people who felt they didn’t have the power to influence Beaufort County Council’s decisions, and make sure their voices were heard,” said McBride. “I made sure my votes were reflective of what was good for the entire county. My community trusted me. It was an honor and privilege to serve them.”

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