Sara Echols remembers clearly. She said she was 8 years old riding around Rock Hill with her father.
A neighborhood kid also was in the car.
Sara said the kid was watching people pass on the street and made a derogatory comment.
Sara’s dad — Mayor Doug Echols — immediately stopped the car.
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“And he said, ‘That’s not how we talk about people,’” Sara said. “He said, ‘Don’t use those words, that’s not OK.’ I think children look for a clear definition. It clearly defined what was acceptable and what would be acceptable to me.”
After 28 years of public service in Rock Hill, including the last 20 years as the city’s longest-serving mayor, Doug Echols did not seek reelection.
Friends, family and colleagues say he ran the city like he raised his kids: Respectful, well-intentioned and positive.
When Echols, 72, makes way for Mayor-elect John Gettys Jan. 8, those close to him say he will leave a legacy of being an open-minded negotiator willing to work across partisan divides.
Miriam Hair, who runs the Municipal Association of South Carolina, worked with Echols when he was elected president of the group in 2006. She said he had one key litmus test when figuring out where to land on an issue.
“He’d ask, ‘What do these decisions mean for our children?’ Hair said. “That was an important question for him and for (Echols’ wife) Sylvia, he always had that in his mind.”
“What you see is the way I am in private,” the mayor said recently at his Sumter Avenue home in Rock Hill. “We’ve been here for a long time, since 1970. I get asked every now and then, ‘Wouldn’t you want to stay a little longer?’ I could stay one year, maybe two, but probably not four.”
Echols said he and Sylvia are looking forward to spending more time together at a 35-acre family farm in Waynesville, N.C. They also are considering traveling. They spent a couple weeks in Italy earlier this summer and are batting around ideas about Spain.
Sylvia said she’s never felt overshadowed by her husband. Instead, she said she walks alongside him.
“Doug and I are very interdependent,” she said. “We share and discuss a lot of things, but we can go our own separate ways. He’s never expected me to follow him around and be in his shadow.”
This isn’t retirement for Echols.
He said he’s looking into opportunities around the area to maintain his influence. But it’s important for him to step down while he still feels young, he said.
He likes to go on annual fishing trips to the Lowcountry, where he and six other friends play golf, go crabbing and shrimping and eat steaks. Harold Peeles is among the six.
Peeples met Echols 40 years ago in a Sunday school class. The two became friends and have continued to spend time together, even amid the stressful times of Echols’ terms.
“With the formality that comes with being mayor for so many years, he’s carried that off with great aplomb,” Peeples said. “But he’s not lost his common touch.”
Prior to his mayoral election in 1998, Echols served on the Rock Hill City Council. Echols, who spent five years as athletics director and head football coach at Northwestern High School and seven years as Associate Director of Athletics at Winthrop University, always felt strongly about bringing sports tourism to Rock Hill.
During his first term on council in the early 1980s, he supported and voted for what would become 68-acre Cherry Park. The decision at the time was highly controversial. There was a great deal of public, political and media debate over the wisdom of building the park.
Peeples said Echols knew he could lose his ward seat over the issue. Echols voted with his gut, Peeples said, and was defeated soon after.
“He was devastated when he lost the seat,” Peeples said. “Quite honestly, I think it took him aback because he thought he was doing what he thought was best. It taught him that he was in politics.”
But the forward thinking paid off: Echols won his seat back in 1994.
City leaders often point to Cherry Park as the catalyst that has driven Rock Hill to becoming a player in the Southeast for sports tourism. Among Rock Hill’s other venues are a Supercross track, a Velodrome, Cherry Park and the Manchester Meadows park. The Rock Hill Sports Commission estimates that sports tourism brings in an annual direct economic impact of $21 million.
“If you go back to that time, pre-Hargett Park, pre-BMX World Championships, pre-tennis center, Cherry Park was a cornerstone in its size and scope and ability to host events like baseball and softball,” said Chad Echols, Doug’s son who works as a lawyer on Oakland Avenue. “It wasn’t something the city had experience in, but people understood it was a type of project that could change the scope of what the city could do.”
Running for mayor
It’s a quirky experience to be the child of a mayoral candidate.
Chad said in the summer of 1997 he had to shave his beard and cut his long-flowing hair.
“I looked like a heathen,” said Chad, laughing.
He had to clean up to take a family photo for a political advertisement.
Echols waited until Chad and Sara were in college before running for mayor. Sara said she appreciated that he took their lives into consideration.
“It absolutely meant the world,” she said. “It would have been OK if he chose to run for mayor before, but he wanted to be at my volleyball games and be around for the end of my childhood at home. It speaks to his commitment to the community and the family.”
In the toughest election of his career, Echols faced conservative Kevin Sutton in a runoff, which he won. Sutton now is in his seventh term on city council.
Popular former Mayor Betty Jo Rhea stepped down before Echols was elected. But the two have maintained respect for each other based on honesty and fair dealings, she said.
“If Doug tells you something, you can take it to the bank,” Rhea said. “He’s an absolutely straight shooter, always has been. I’ve never known him to be abrasive, but someone who speaks his truth. If he makes a promise, you can count on it.”
Never taking things lightly
Developer Gary Williams met Echols 30 years ago at a miniature golf course Williams had built in Rock Hill. The two got to know each other when their 5-year-old sons played tee-ball together.
Williams said, in every decision Echols has had to make over the years, whether to build a business park or raise taxes, Echols never takes it lightly.
In 2011, Echols took part in a city council vote over the phone. He was home recovering from heart surgery.
“When I think of Doug Echols, I think of a man who does what’s right for the people,” Williams said. “He’s not a quick decision-maker, he’s a thorough decision-maker. I’ve always respected him.”
Echols said he can always stand proud of initiatives he helped bring to fruition. He said he’s particularly proud of Fountain Park: “We took an ugly parking lot and made a park down there.
And the Knowledge Park project: “The city has earned .... trust because we’re a good partner.”
He said that project set the table for public-private partnerships.
He puts great emphasis on his campaign, “No Room for Racism.” It’s a community slogan he helped promote for decades.
In 2008, he apologized to civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten in a Rock Hill bus station as a Freedom Rider in 1961.
He later spoke to residents of an Idaho town that reached out to him and asked for his guidance for repairing race relations among the community. Chad described that as “a great moment.”
Echols passes credit to his staff whenever possible. The work becomes much easier with city managers like Joe Lanford and David Vehaun, he said.
Chad said his father looks to his staff like they are the players on his old Northwestern High football team.
“Building a team is about how to make everyone better,” Doug said. “You start to see the pieces of teams being formed the more you work with them.”
Sara said she’ll always feel proud of her father’s achievements. Through his connections with the National League of Cities, Doug once had the chance to hear President Barack Obama speak at the White House.
Sara was at the beach at the time, but got a phone call from her dad. Doug had mistakenly dialed her while Obama was speaking.
“I asked him, ‘dad, are you there?’ I could hear Obama speaking and I realized (Echols) had butt-dialed me. I got to hear Obama’s speech..... Later, he thought it was hilarious.”
Moving in as mayor is often an easy transition, Echols said. He said Betty Jo Rhea made it a simple one.
The council, no matter how much turnover there has been, typically hosts a retreat in January to welcome new members and create bonds.
They won’t always agree, but they can be harmonious, Echols said.
“Thank goodness it isn’t unanimous,” he said. “It makes for the democratic process.”
Still, Echols said he feels the need to spend some time on the road so his successor can adjust. He and Sylvia are considering a driving tour to Florida early this year, stay in bed and breakfast spots, check out small towns and see festivals.
Sylvia said it’s important to spend time with their growing family.
“We’re in the stages of life where we have active, growing grandchildren and we want to be part of their lives,” she said. “We’ll spend time there and spend time here, because we have a lot of family and strong roots here.”
Chad said his father always appreciates small-town charm. Rock Hill has exploded from 41,000 people in 1990 to around 75,000. It currently stands as South Carolina’s fifth-largest city.
“He cares about this city,” Williams said. “He’s the same whether you’re one-on-one or before the council. He wants to be inclusive of all people.”
Echols said now is the time to step away.
“There’s always more to be done,” he said. “I can’t reach the point where I can say ‘I’m done, there’s nothing left to do.’ But the city’s in a good place, the infrastructure is getting better every day. This felt like the right time.”