Column: Derrick’s legacy is clear
Early in his tenure as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina’s 3rd District, former U.S. Rep. Butler Derrick, D-S.C., was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of the nation’s leading liberal issues group had given his voting record high marks on what it considered key progressive and liberal issues of the day. In fact, Butler was amused that the group’s rating found him tied with his Democratic colleague, the late Bella Abzug. She was a flamboyant feminist and ultra-liberal member of the House from New York.
As a loyal staffer for Butler at the time, I felt that I needed to remind him of the political reality of such a public comparison. I pointed out to him that Bella Abzug represented the Upper West Side of Manhattan, while he represented the conservative Whiskey Road area of Aiken County. His reaction to my statement was simply a flash of his trademark wry smile, and perhaps a little extra twinkle in his eyes accompanying that smile. Yes, my friend Butler was proud of the fact that he was a progressive Southern Democrat representing a conservative district from 1975 to 1995 that was transforming itself into the solid Republican district that it is today.
Butler successfully served 10 terms in Congress because his constituents recognized that he was a person of integrity and honesty, and that he cared about the issues that were important to their lives.
They recognized that he was a true public servant who believed in his obligation to them regardless of politics. They recognized he had a tremendous sense of fair play, and that he could comfortably separate right from wrong and then stand by his convictions.
They seemed to understand how he could champion the Savannah River Site in Aiken, but also try to limit the amount of nuclear waste stored in our state. They understood how he could relentlessly fight for the textile industry and its thousands of jobs, but also question the need for the Russell Dam project. They could see that Derrick always stayed true to himself.
That recognition as a person of conviction, and a public official who stood by his beliefs, brought several hundred family, friends and admirers to his funeral in Trenton in Edgefield County on May 12. They were young and old, black and white, Democrats and Republicans. There were many accolades recognizing his public service career in South Carolina and Washington, his compassion for the people of the 3rd District, his ability to get along, and his always warm and genuine demeanor. They were all richly deserved, and certainly all would have been shunned by Derrick.
His devotion to his family was well known to most of the persons in Trenton, as was the exceptional personal courage he possessed, whether in making tough decisions on issues or inspiring family and friends more recently during his battle with cancer. The beautiful service was a true celebration of his life and career. It was clear to all that Butler Derrick lived a wonderful life of caring and service to his state, his nation, and his fellow men and women.
John D. Gregory is a Columbia attorney. He served as Butler Derrick’s administrative assistant from 1975 to 1982.