By Bill Rauch
As the tributes roll in for South Carolina’s late U.S. Senator, Ernest F. (Fritz) Hollings, I am reminded of the steady, businesslike manner with which the Senator helped Beaufort 20 years ago.
Those were different times.
In 1998 as Beaufort’s Mayor pro tem I could talk to the offices of both Hollings’ and Senator Strom Thurmond, and I did regularly. Thurmond was a Republican and Hollings was a Democrat. The notion is almost unimaginable in today’s politically polarized environment.
During the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) rounds of 1991, 1993, and 1995 Beaufort’s leadership worked regularly with Senator Thurmond, who was then the senior member and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to ensure the future of MCAS Beaufort and the MCRD Parris Island.
But in 1998 we faced a problem that posed another challenge to the business community.
Here’s the story.
In those days, sitting in the little shack atop the Woods Memorial Bridge from which the bridge is operated was a bridge operator named Malcolm McGregor. Bridge operators are employees of the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), known in 1998 as the Highway Commission.
McGregor was a letter-writer whose letters appeared regularly in the papers, and from them, it became clear he was a better friend to the sailing community than he was to the rest of us who from time to time had reason to drive our cars over the Woods Bridge to and from Lady’s Island.
Then, standard operating procedure was that the bridge could be opened for sailboats on the hour, at 20 minutes past the hour and at 40 minutes past the hour. The bridge could then, as it can now, be opened at any time for barges. But most of the bridge openings were, then as they are today, for pleasure boats, mostly sailboats.
What do people who have things to do do when they get stuck at the bridge while one guy skippering one sailboat under power passes slowly against the tide through the opened bridge?
They look at their watches.
Sitting regularly in the line of traffic at the bridge, looking at my watch and knowing the schedule, it became apparent to me that the bridge operators were swinging the bridge pretty much any time they felt like it.
What do Mayor pro tems do when they think something’s amiss?
They tell the city manager.
John McDonough, a can-do guy and one of the city’s great city managers, was the manager at the time. He said, “Well, I’ll check it out,” and the next day he climbed up the ladder to the bridge operator’s shack to visit with the operator on duty, who happened to be Malcolm McGregor.
“Well I got to the bottom of it,” McDonough reported the next day. “There were three clocks up there: one on the wall, one on the desk and Malcolm’s wristwatch, and all three had different times. They were altogether nine minutes apart. So I suggested to Malcolm that he synchronize the clocks to the correct time which he did while I was there. So maybe that will fix things.”
Maybe. But it didn’t.
So the next step was to bring in the big guns: Senator Hollings who was then the ranking member on the Interior and Environment Subcommittee of the all-powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, the subcommittee that then had oversight over the U.S. Coast Guard’s budget. The Coast Guard is the federal agency with exclusive control over Intracoastal Waterway bridge opening times.
In discussions with Hollings’ staff it was determined what opening times for any Intracoastal Waterway bridge in South Carolina were the most generous to the motorist: every hour on the hour and on the half-hour with several hours off to protect the motorist during the morning and afternoon rush hours. Then we asked the Senator to get us those times.
The Senator was coming to Beaufort for Water Festival, and he suggested a meeting. The meeting was in my office. I invited several prominent members of the downtown business community.
Duncan Fordham, who had Fordham Hardware right there at the foot of the bridge, Tony Royal from Bay Street Outfitters and several others were there. The gathering was very good-natured, low key and business-like. The Senator was running for re-election in the fall. He didn’t mention that. We all knew it, and he knew we knew it.
After the formalities the Senator took charge of the meeting and went around the room soliciting statements from the participants. Everyone said the same thing: “What we have now isn’t working. It’s like no schedule at all. You never know when they’re going to open the bridge. We need the hour and half hour schedule.”
Then the Senator said, “I’ll get it changed, but it won’t be until next January because that’s when the Coast Guard comes to me for their budget, and as a part of that process they ask if I have any issues, and I will raise these bridge opening hours, and they will change them.”
That was it. We all thanked him. He thanked us for alerting him to the problem, and – Fritz Hollings being who we knew he was – there was never any thought he might not keep his word.
Sure enough, the Senator won re-election handily in November, and the next February, a notice appeared in the Federal Register that the Woods Memorial Bridge opening hours had been changed to the hour and half hour with two hours off weekday mornings and evenings to protect the motorist at the rush hours schedule.
No fanfare, no press releases, no speeches, no ribbons cut. No bells rung nor whistles blown. Not even a phone call.
And that’s the way it’s been ever since.