FLORENCE, S.C. – The day after he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and sent home, State Sen. Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. was working to make sure the state appropriated money for mental health.
Leatherman, 90, died Friday morning a few weeks after he was sent home from MUSC Health in Charleston and placed in hospice care.
Fred Carter, Francis Marion University president and a longtime Leatherman confidante, said he went to Leatherman's home in Florence the day after he returned home.
"I went and spent some time with him the very next morning and do you know what he wanted to talk about?" Carter said. "He wanted to talk about the fact that it was necessary in this next appropriation session for the state of South Carolina to appropriate $400 million for mental health programs across the state... Not only did he want to talk about some of those problems, he wanted to talk about some of the ways the money could be used, the way those types of programs could be structured."
Carter said that Leatherman received an engineering degree from North Carolina State University.
"He was educated as an engineer," Carter said. "He had this unique ability to diagram problems and issues and come up with a range of alternatives that allowed those with whom he was working to sort through and better understand the problem."
Carter said he had benefited from Leatherman's unique ability for 33 years as a head of three state agencies, as a governor's chief of staff and as president of Francis Marion University.
"Every time I came upon a problem that I saw as insurmountable very early on, I had the good sense to go talk to my friend Hugh Leatherman," Carter said. "I always came away from that conversation better understanding not only the solution but the problem as well."
Carter said this ability would have made Leatherman a natural at education.
Carter said the district got every dime back on Leatherman's Senate salary "a millionfold."
"I miss him dearly," Carter said. "We've all had a little bit of time to get ready for this but I don't know that you're ever ready for this type of profound loss."
The family announced Leatherman's death in a statement sent out early Friday morning.
"He was a giant," state Rep Roger Kirby said. "It is just incredible what he's done for South Carolina, the Pee Dee and Florence County. He was a true statesman. And he will be missed."
Kirby said that he had spoken with Florence County Council members earlier Friday morning and had told them that Leatherman had never lied to him and had helped him every way he could.
"He was just a great, great guy for us, a giant, really," Kirby said.
State Sen. Kent Williams also called Leatherman a giant.
"It's a sad day for South Carolina losing a great giant such as Sen. Hugh Leatherman who gave more than 40 years of service to the people of South Carolina and especially to Senate District 31," Williams said. "You can look all around this state in every crack, in every corner, in every crevice and you can see his fingerprints."
He added that Leatherman loved the state and its people.
"When I think of Boeing, when I think of the South Carolina Port expansion and deepening and many other things, [they're] synonymous with the name Hugh Leatherman," Williams said. "He was a statesman, a true leader and he was a family man. He loved his family."
Mike Miller, president of the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce, said that from his eight years as the publisher of the Morning News it was clear that Leatherman brought opportunities to the state and the Pee Dee region.
"He had a keen focus on building infrastructure and bringing in the big business," Miller said. "His continued influence in Columbia managed to have a very positive effect on our region of the state at just the right time."
He said Leatherman accomplished so much he couldn't list it all.
"From roads that helped build Myrtle Beach and develop industry opportunities in Greater Florence, to the Boeing plant in Charleston, Honda in Timmonsville and the investment in the Charleston Harbor, which has benefited every business throughout South Carolina," Miller continued. "His support of business and industry will serve South Carolina well into the future."
Former Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela ran against Leatherman for the Senate District 31 seat. After Wukela became Florence mayor in 2008, the two became close friends and allies.
“Among many lessons, Chairman Leatherman taught me that real progress is possible only when rivals become allies, and even friends,” Wukela said. “He was a statesman; and what’s more, he was my dear friend. I will miss him. We all will.”
Florence County Council Chairman Willard Dorriety Jr. said that Leatherman had been good for the county and the source of a lot of improvements made to the county.
“He’s done a lot of good for Florence County,” Dorriety said. “He will be sorely missed. [My] prayers and thoughts go out to his family. We’re saddened by what’s taking place.”
Florence Mayor Teresa Myers Ervin served with Leatherman on the Florence Area Transportation Study Committee. She said it was an honor to serve on the committee with Leatherman but added that she respected his leadership and how he placed Florence on the map and positioned the city for success.
“Personally, I will always cherish our many conversations, professionally and personally. The one that I will be forever grateful was when I won the office of mayor,” Myers Ervin said in an emailed statement. “Soon after, he sat with me to give me excellent advice, as well as said he was looking forward to helping and working with me and was only a phone call away. He will be missed. My prayers are with his family during this time.”
“Florence, the Pee Dee and South Carolina have lost a giant of a leader and a gentleman as a man,” said Don Kausler Jr., who served the past eight years as editor of the Morning News. “He was proclaimed rightfully as the most powerful man in South Carolina. The public knew him as a respected dignitary who got big things done. I will remember him as a warm, extraordinary friend who did little things like call a weary editor on Saturday mornings and say how much he loved his local newspaper and its emphasis on local news.”
Kausler said he was fascinated by Leatherman’s role as chairman of the S.C. Senate Finance Committee and would hear many details about the process of putting the state budget together. But Leatherman wanted to show instead of tell, so six years ago he invited Kausler to spend a day in Columbia. Much of the day was spent at the elbow of Leatherman’s budget writer, and it ended with a seat at a Finance Committee meeting, but the day started on the Senate floor, where Leatherman introduced a guest in the gallery as “the best journalist in South Carolina.”
“It was easy to scoff at the flattery as glowing words of a savvy politician, but it made me instantly aware that flattery could and did get the chairman anywhere he wanted to go,” Kausler said. “He had an extraordinary gift. When he asked me how I was doing, he genuinely wanted to know. When I asked him how he was doing, he always responded, “Great! Always.”
Always, Leatherman will be missed, Kausler said.
“He balanced the wants and needs of his city, county, region and state expertly,” Kausler said. “But his impact will be measured in much more than material terms. His legacy will be how much he cared about the people he knew and the people he served.”
Morning News General Manager Matthew Tranquill said he and his family had spent time with Leatherman and his wife, Jean.
"You could tell the only thing he loved more than South Carolina was her and their family," Tranquill said. "The Pee Dee region and South Carolina lost a giant of a man. My family and I consider ourselves lucky to have met him."
Jermaine Ford, president of Florence-Darlington Technical College, said Leatherman has been a vital factor in the growth of the college.
"From the beginning of his tenure in the Senate, he has been a strong believer in FDTC’s workforce development and technical training mission," Ford said. "Much of his work in the legislature centered around jobs for South Carolinians, and he saw Florence-Darlington Technical College as a key partner in providing the training for these jobs. It is safe to say that the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology would not have existed without Sen. Leatherman’s help. We will never forget Sen. Leatherman, and all South Carolinians will sorely miss him."
Sen. Lindsey Graham called Leatherman a giant in the South Carolina Senate.
“When it came to the needs of South Carolina – from the mountains to the sea and everywhere in between – he was always at the forefront of breakthrough change,” Graham said in a statement. “He had a statewide perspective that served South Carolina well. His leadership was indispensable in recruiting Boeing to South Carolina, and he was a great champion of the Port of Charleston. Sen. Leatherman loved his hometown and the Pee Dee. He was the most effective voice for his region of the state one could have ever imagined. He was a tireless advocate always focused on building for a stronger and better future. Sen. Leatherman was a leader. He was a great friend and a kind and caring man. His leadership, mentorship, and steady hand will be missed.”
Graham said his thoughts are with the family.
“Today, South Carolina has lost a legend,” Graham said.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott said in a statement that he had always respected Leatherman's dedication to the people of South Carolina.
"His tireless service will never be forgotten," Scott said in a statement. "My prayers are with his family in their time of grief."
Rep. Jim Clyburn, majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, called Leatherman a true champion for the people of South Carolina on Facebook. He said Leatherman's service would be truly missed.
Congressman Tom Rice said that long before his election to represent the region in Congress, he had respected Leatherman’s “impeccable” record of delivering for the Pee Dee and the state.
“Since coming to Congress, I’ve had the opportunity to work with him on several occasions,” Rice said in a statement. “Sen. Leatherman didn’t hesitate to work across the aisle to get something done for South Carolinians. I’ve always known him to pursue smart, reasonable solutions and work hard to fix problems. Sen. Leatherman was the epitome of a public servant and will be dearly missed in the halls of the South Carolina Statehouse. Our prayers are with the Leatherman family, his colleagues in the South Carolina legislature, and those who knew his friendship, that they may find comfort in remembering an accomplished, honorable man.”
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster called Leatherman a powerful force for progress and prosperity.
"For over fifty years, Hugh Leatherman poured his life into our state and we are the better for it," McMaster said in a statement. "He loved his work and kept his word. He never quit. We will miss him. May God bless him and his family."
The governor will order that flags be lowered in Leatherman's honor once funeral arrangements are made and announced.
South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas said Leatherman was a mentor and a friend.
"Hugh was a tireless advocate for this state and the Pee Dee for over 40 years," Lucas said in a statement. "His tremendous legacy will never be forgotten and his leadership will be greatly missed by the General Assembly."
He also offered his thoughts and prayers to the Leatherman family.
South Carolina Senate President Harvey Peeler called Leatherman a tireless advocate for the Pee Dee and a legendary Senate leader.
"His family has lost a loving husband, father and grandfather," Peeler said. "I have lost a friend and colleague spanning four decades beginning when we both were first elected to the Senate in 1980."
Peeler said Leatherman's impact on the state cannot be overstated.
"No one worked harder or longer hours than the senator from Florence," Peeler said. "His detailed knowledge of the state budget was unmatched. His imprint on the state of South Carolina is firmly fixed, not only in history, but the future as well. Donna and I and the entire Peeler family thank Jean and her family for sharing Hugh with us, and we pray for the Lord’s peace in the days ahead."
South Carolina Assistant Minority Leader Ronnie Sabb said he will never forget when he first became a state senator and the Senate was debating a hotly contested issue and Sen. Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. rose to speak and called for legislators to put the state's best interests above party loyalty.
Sabb said Leatherman reminded all of the senators that there wasn't time for partisan politics and that the senators were not Republican or Democratic senators but senators for the state of South Carolina. He said Leatherman said it was in the best interests of everyone to put the interests of the state above party.
"I had an enormous amount of respect for him in going to the Senate because I had witnessed his leadership from afar," Sabb said. "But to hear it up close and personal and not only hearing him say that but the manner in which he said it, you know that he was sincere and it helped to shape how I view my politics."
He said that Friday was a sad day and that South Carolina had lost an extraordinary leader who exemplified the best of the South Carolina Senate.
Sen. Gerald Malloy said Leatherman was a state senator "with a Pee Dee heart."
Malloy added: "When our region could have been diminished in Columbia, he worked with me and others to keep us relevant and made us vibrant. While no one can replace Sen. Leatherman, I will work to continue his tireless work for the people of the Pee Dee so that when he is buried his goal of a great Pee Dee is not buried with him."
He added that Leatherman understood partisan politics and played that game well.
"However, he also understood that each senator no matter his party deserved a voice for his constituents and a seat at the table," Malloy said. "And he provided both to those who sought them. It is a great legacy for Sen. Leatherman that future generations of South Carolina’s children can look at Boeing planes in the skies and Volvo cars on the road and know that he or she can do that and that dream is available in South Carolina."
Malloy said that when he thought of Leatherman's service to the state, he was reminded of a quote from President Abraham Lincoln.
"Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.: 'I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me.'"
"Senator Leatherman never lost a friend and also retained in a tough political world his conscience and the personal knowledge that he acted as he should," Malloy said.
State Rep. Phillip Lowe offered his thoughts and prayers to the Leatherman family. He also thanked Leatherman for his years of service to the county, Pee Dee and state.
State Rep. Terry Alexander said Leatherman would be missed as a person but also for the services he provided to the people of Florence and Darlington counties and the state.
"There's going to be a big void in the Senate without his leadership," Alexander continued. "May he rest in peace. I'm going to miss him. Florence is going to miss him. The Pee Dee is going to miss him. The state is going to miss him."
State Rep. Jay Jordan said Leatherman was a true champion for Florence, the Pee Dee and the state.
"His legacy will be just that," Jordan said. He also said that everyone needed to focus on supporting the Leatherman family at a very difficult time.
State Rep. Robert Williams said the state had lost a great, great man.
"He will be greatly missed by the delegation members and certainly by the community at large," Williams said. "It's so tragic that he passed away."
He encouraged the family to keep looking up and to keep their hands in God's hands.
"Sen. Leatherman's shoes cannot be filled but we just have to move on," Williams said. "We're certainly going to miss him from the General Assembly."
State Rep. Lucas Atkinson said Leatherman was willing to help anyone regardless of party.
South Carolina Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said the Republican caucus joined the Leatherman family in mourning Leatherman's passing.
"With four decades of service in the South Carolina State Senate, Senator Leatherman – better known to many as Mr. Chairman – will have a long legacy marked in every corner of the state and mirrored through the Senate chambers for decades to come," Massey said in a statement. "His warm smile, commitment to community, never-stop work ethic, and resolute focus will forever be remembered. We share our love, thoughts, and prayers with his dear wife Jean, children, family, friends, constituents, staff and colleagues. Godspeed, Mr. Chairman."
South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce Director Dan Ellzey called Leatherman a giant among men and a leader not only for the Pee Dee but for the entire state.
"The impact of his commitment to making our state a better place will be felt for generations to come," Ellzey said.
Dr. Edward Simmer, director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Leatherman's service to the state was unparalleled.
"Having occupied positions of authority and influence in the Senate and beyond for so many years, his decisions and positions were always guided by the interests of the people of South Carolina, whether it be matters of education, the economy, public health or environmental safety," Simmer said in a statement.
He said the department always knew it had a friend in Leatherman.
"Our state has lost an advocate and true statesman, and his absence will be felt across South Carolina for years to come," Simmer said. "With great respect and everlasting gratitude for his lifetime of public service, we offer our support to his family and the thanks of a grateful state."
Former Congressman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham also called Leatherman a giant.
“Today, South Carolina lost a giant," Cunningham said in a statement. "Sen. Leatherman spent his entire adult life fighting for our state and the people of Florence County and we are all better off because of his service. Few people have had a more positive impact on South Carolina than Hugh Leatherman. He was more than just an ambassador for the Palmetto State; he lived the values that everyone in public service should strive to uphold: compromise, bipartisanship, and putting people over politics."
Cunningham offered his deepest sympathies to the Leatherman family, the state Senate and the people of Florence County.
"May his remarkable legacy live on forever," Cunningham said.
Florence City Councilman William Schofield said Leatherman was one of the state's most faithful public servants and added that years from now South Carolina residents will learn about what Leatherman was able to accomplish for the state.
"Measuring the life of a man is quite difficult," Schofield said. "Sen. Leatherman is an exception to this rule. His passion, his caring nature, his love for this state and his accomplishments both those seen to the world and those we may never know about because of how humble of a man he was will cement his place in South Carolina’s history."
He said that the community will mourn but should also feel incredibly grateful that someone like Leatherman was able to fight and stand up for the Pee Dee region.
"He never thought of himself first," Schofield said. "He thought of all of us and for that I say, 'Thank you, Sen. Leatherman. May God’s love surround you and bring peace to you and your family."
South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said that Leatherman had dedicated almost half his life to serving Florence and Darlington counties and the state.
"His commitment to the Port and so many other initiatives propelled our state forward," McKissick said. "We're grateful for his decades of service, and our prayers are with Mrs. Jean and the rest of the Leatherman family."
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson credited Leatherman with the renaissance in Florence County.
"Together with business leaders, Democrats, Republicans, and civic leaders, Sen. Leatherman helped reshape downtown Florence and transformed Francis Marion University into a top-notch educational institution," Robertson said in a statement. "Sen. Leatherman always surrounded himself with smart people who, like himself, had the best interest of our state at heart. He led with a quiet voice and strong will. Our hearts go out to Senator Leatherman’s friends and family during this time. South Carolina is a better place because of his decades of leadership."
Florence County Republican Party Chairman Mike Page said Leatherman had a good career as a politician and had helped the Pee Dee region. He said Leatherman's passing was sad and offered his prayers to the family.
Leatherman was reelected to a four-year term in the Senate in 2020. Leatherman has served in the Senate since he was first elected in 1980.
Leatherman said last year he decided to run for an 11th term in the General Assembly because he came to Florence in 1956 and wanted to leave the state better than he found it.
He said he hadn’t really considered retiring.