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It's been 15 years since Ernest F. Hollings, better known as "Fritz" Hollings, left the U.S. Senate after nearly 40 years of service.

With Hollings having been largely out of the public eye since, many in our state today may know too little about a great leader who has died at age 97.

The man for decades had the distinction of being the nation's longest-serving junior senator. After 38 years and less than half a term as South Carolina's senior senator, a distinction he gained upon the retirement of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, Hollings retired in 2003. He left politics after a career that also included serving as South Carolina governor.

Always one to speak his mind in that deep and memorable Hollings voice, he could be pro-Democrat or pro-Republican. You could say he was a maverick before mavericks were cool.

He chastised his colleagues about budget deficits, long railing against raiding the Social Security Trust Fund. He warned about foreign trade and selling out American industry before anyone was talking about it. He preached about military needs in a changing world before 9-11, and he was a champion of the oceans and preservation when only so-called environmentalists would listen.

Many in South Carolina's now three-decades-old Republican majority criticized him as too liberal, a man voting conservative only when his election was on the line. With his record on defense and fiscal conservatism, the charge was unfair.

In a final speech to the Senate in 2003, he let lawmakers know his roots were in the Democratic politics of the South. But there was no misinterpreting Hollings' credentials. He cut his political teeth in the old, segregated South but worked hard for the new in a different day.

Hollings' departure from the Senate ended an era. He and Thurmond were dominant forces in Palmetto State politics for the second half of the 20th century. One a Democrat, the other a Republican, they were more often united for South Carolina than divided by party.

Divisiveness abounds in today's Washington. Power and decision-making are more fragmented. Gone are the days when one lawmaker can have the kind of influence of Fritz Hollings.

Back in 1997, he spoke in Orangeburg, where his support was crucial to the likes of South Carolina State University and Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. On that day, Hollings addressed things achieved by elected and appointed officials in the so-called old system.

Orangeburg back then got lots of attention in development.

He addressed the days of bringing Smith-Corona to Orangeburg, an industry few remember. And he made clear that's part of the problem faced in development now. There are too few people around to merge the realities of today's development process with the rules of the game from year's past.

We know, there's a time and a place for everything. The Thurmond-Hollings era in Washington is no more. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott are today doing admirable jobs of representing the state in the nation's capital.

But today it is appropriate that the state remember Ernest F. Hollings for just what he was -- a great South Carolinian.

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