To understand the life of William Brantley Harvey Jr., the native son of Beaufort and former South Carolina lieutenant governor who died Wednesday, you need to know Big Momma.
That’s what he affectionately called his grandmother Ella Harvey from rural Hampton County.
In 1930, she ran for county probate judge, only 10 years after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.
One of her political ads read: “I’ve always voted for a man, so why don’t you vote for me now?”
She finished fourth in a seven-person race and never let anyone forget she beat three men.
Big Momma studied art at Columbia College, making her one of the rarest of Lowcountry women in her era. Her husband was a beloved country doctor, but not a good businessman, so she went back to school in Savannah to get a nursing degree to help run the practice.
Education, and public service, ran in Harvey’s blood.
It ran thick as his friendships with other river rats in The Point neighborhood who were born blocks apart and died blocks apart and in between became things like an actual rocket scientist and the mayor whose name is on the town park.
When Harvey came into this world in 1930 as an only child, arriving with an imperfect heart, his father, who was also known as Brantley Harvey, was a state senator. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he was one of the most powerful people in South Carolina.
And when Brantley Harvey Jr. left this world with family around him at Beaufort Memorial Hospital 88 years later, he had made history, just like Big Momma.
“He was one of the most important people of the 20th century in Beaufort County,” said historian Larry Rowland. “Brantley’s was a life of great consequence.”
Big Momma isn’t even the half of it.
On his mother’s side, his grandmother ran an 800-acre farm in the Hampton County community of Crocketville after her husband, who had been an actual Confederate soldier as a teenager, died.
She put her girls -- including Harvey’s mother -- through the Due West Female College before it combined with Erskine College.
And when Thelma Lightsey married the young lawyer William Brantley Harvey Sr. and he took his shingle to Beaufort in 1922, she and her boy would visit home, chugging through the Lowcountry to the rhythm of the old Port Royal Railroad that used to sing “Black an’ Dusty, Goin’ to Augusty” -- faster and faster.
At home on Federal Street, young Harvey was surrounded by books and news magazines and nightly gatherings around the radio for the likes of the “Lucky Strike Hit Parade.” Besides the river and Scouting, the neighborhood boys found entertainment at the blacksmith shop, lumber yard, and 5-cent movies at The Breeze.
At age 4, Harvey was ring-bearer at the wedding of one of the longest-serving solicitors in history, Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr.
At 5, he broke his leg in a wreck with his daddy coming home from a Beaufort High state championship football game in Orangeburg. As a result, his grandmother came to stay with him and taught him to read and decipher before he ever went to the little kindergarten across from the house.
His mother was 32 when Harvey was born. He was the focus of her attention. Also watching him was Edna Williams, an African American cook and nurse who he called “Deda.”
Harvey was in the Beaufort High School class of 1947, the last one to graduate completing only 11 grades.
And he was latched like a barnacle to First Presbyterian Church, where his mother led the choir most of her adult life, and where his memorial service will be held Monday out of sheer principle because it’s not nearly big enough for all who would pay respects for a beloved native son.
Harvey met Helen at a Presbyterian student gathering at the University of South Carolina.
She was a beautiful cheerleader from Darlington, and he was a Citadel graduate studying at the USC School of Law.
Their wedding on Dec. 30, 1952, had seven bridesmaids and seven groomsmen. She had another year of college to go, but they were off to his duty at Fort Bliss, New Mexico. He promised her daddy she’d get her degree. When she walked across the stage at USC in June 1954, they had a baby girl and she was six-months pregnant with son Bill, who arrived the week his father got his law degree.
The Harveys would have five children, 18 grandchildren and 13 great-grands.
By 1958, Harvey was in the state House of Representatives. In 1974, he won statewide office as lieutenant governor. In 1978, he sought the Democratic nomination for governor. He placed first in the primary, but lost to Richard Riley of Greenville in the runoff.
When he came home from Columbia at the end of 1978, he had three children in college and a $50,000 campaign debt to repay.
Current state Sen. Tom Davis, who was hired by Harvey into the Beaufort law firm in 1984, said, “Ironically, the best thing that ever happened to Beaufort is that he did not win that election because for the last 40 years he has focused all of his energies on improving Beaufort County rather than the whole state.”
He was there pushing when the University of South Carolina Beaufort became a two-year institute, and then when it expanded to four years. He also supported the technical college.
He was on the right side of the integration issue when that was a courageous thing to do. His father, unlike other professionals of the time, did not have a segregated waiting room at the law office.
He took what many of us think was the wrong side of the BASF fight, when a petrochemical plant and related runoff and dredging was proposed for Victoria Bluff on the Colleton River in Bluffton. It did not happen, but Harvey stayed the course, pulling for a Chicago Bridge and Iron plant and later a boat-building plant in that area. And at the time of his passing, he favored drilling for oil and gas off the South Carolina coast.
BASF was the game-changer in his lifetime, Harvey said. It split the county back in 1970. When Harvey published his memoir in 2015, I asked him about it. He still believed the “good-paying jobs and benefits (of industry) would have greatly benefited the average working family.”
Like everything else in his life, the clash did not create enemies. He had no enemies.
And even though he preferred industrial jobs over the tourism/real estate economy that won the day at Victoria Bluff, he gave the keynote address when the 10-story oceanfront hotel opened on Hilton Head in Palmetto Dunes Resort in 1976, itself a game-changer for the new economy. And 10 years later he spoke again after it was renovated and expanded.
“The vision of those who built this fine hotel 10 years ago can take credit for making this little island and this little county what it is today,” he said.
Love and loss
For almost 100 years, the people of Beaufort have had a Brantley Harvey to look up to, and instinctively follow.
They knew Brantley Harvey Jr. as a smiling man who -- without opening a file or getting a fee agreement -- would help anyone who called him or caught him on the street with their legal problems.
They knew him as someone who genuinely liked to be with people, not a politician who checked the box by making an appearance.
They knew him as an avid sailor, a maker of fig preserves and pear chutney, and an important man who had the same summer jobs packing tomatoes and paving streets that they did as kids.
They never saw him play golf. “I never hit the white pill,” he would say.
They knew him as the owner of the breathtaking mansion called Marshlands that has been looking out to the Beaufort River since 1814.
They watched him play the violin in the Beaufort Symphony Orchestra, his bow not always in synch with the others.
They watched him nurse the love of his life when Helen’s health deteriorated for a decade prior to her death in 2010. They saw his hurt when the ailing Helen, a successful business owner, was voted off the USC board of trustees by the state legislature after serving 14 years.
They saw him put his money where his mouth was when he and Helen donated $1 million to USCB when it expanded to a four-year baccalaureate university.
They saw him find a second love and marriage to Alice Deforest Klatt in 2012. She is an ordained Lutheran minister, so she and Harvey alternated Sundays between First Presbyterian and St. John’s Lutheran.
They saw him serve in many different ways as a champion of education, and the underprivileged.
They didn’t know Big Momma. But they knew what was in his blood.