Former Beaufort County councilwoman and state legislator Harriet Keyserling was remembered by her friends and colleagues Saturday as a woman whose life was dedicated to her family, her faith and to public service.
More than 300 people packed the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Performing Arts Center to take part in a two-hour program celebrating Keyserling's life. The event was organized by Keyserling's son, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.
Harriet Keyserling, who was the first woman elected to Beaufort County Council and represented the city in the S.C. House of Representatives for 16 years, died at 88 in December of kidney failure following knee-replacement surgery.
Saturday's program featured remarks from friends of Keyserling's who spoke about how the well-educated, shy Jewish girl who moved to Beaufort from New York City in 1944 became a pioneering and influential state legislator who fought for public education reform, environmental protection and promotion of the arts.
Former South Carolina Governor Richard Riley trumpeted Keyserling as a lawmaker who cared more about making a difference than playing politics.
"She did not oversimplify issues or appeal to emotions," said Riley, who also served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President Bill Clinton. "She was passionate about serving the public interest. We are so fortunate to have benefited from the knowledge and the power of our friend Harriet Keyserling."
Saturday's program seldom took a somber tone and instead was meant to be a genuine celebration, said the event's emcee and Keyserling's longtime friend, Bud Ferillo.
"We did not come here to bury Harriet Keyserling," he said.
Much of the night's comic relief was provided by author Pat Conroy who became close to Keyserling and her late husband Herbert after being fired as a teacher on Daufuskie Island in the late 1960s.
Conroy moved in with the Keyserlings for a short time and wrote parts of his novel, "The Water is Wide," in their home, he said.
Conroy joked about forcing down Keyserling's notoriously bad cooking during several dinner parties at her home but said she was one of the reasons he fell "in love with Beaufort over and over again."
"If Harriet is looking and listening to all of us today, I hope in her heart she knows that I'm still trying to make her laugh," Conroy said.