Long before South Carolina politicians used the Internet to hustle votes, or had county headquarters, the candidates would drive around the state and climb atop flatbed trucks, and people would give them the skinny on how to get elected.
In Rock Hill the spot for Democrats for generations was the Williams Gulf station on Oakland Avenue near downtown, and the man who knew almost all about politics – and if he didn’t know it, it didn’t need to be known – was a character named Wade Williams.
That era of politics is long gone. The station closed in 1992, became a restaurant for years, and then closed again.
And now Williams himself is gone. He died Sunday at the age of 96.
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Williams entertained every governor and U.S. Senate candidate in the front of the station, near the Coca-Cola machine. He entertained the rest of Rock Hill on the other days of the year for countless decades through the early 1990s.
“Wade Williams was a character, a man who embodied Rock Hill for so long,” said former U.S. Rep. John Spratt, the York Democrat who spent three decades in office, but learned so much about politics at Williams’ station. “A great sense of humor. First time I ran, I was doing TV spots and told the camera crew to meet us there at Gulf station. Wade was there and he was talking as Wade would do.
“He sat there in a raggedy old chair, and they filmed him and he became a hit across the state with his straight-shooting style.”
Back then, Gov. (or U.S. Sen.) Fritz Hollings might be holding court on a swing through the state. When Gov. Robert McNair or Gov. John West would visit York County, they came early and stayed late at the Gulf station. Even the legendary Strom Thurmond – no matter what party he was in at the time – never missed stopping in. Local politicians and hangers-on could be found talking and maybe arguing under the Coca-Cola clock on the wall.
Cars would run over the rubber cord that rang the service bell and gas would be pumped and the fat would be chewed.
Wade Williams ran the whole show like a carnival barker.
Patricia Sanford said her whole family – especially her father – loved the station and the politics.
“He loved being around people,” she said.
There would be talk and more talk, at what was then called a “filling station.” There were always rumors of a drink other than Coca-Cola being available in the back.
From the 1930s through the early 1990s, every South Carolina politician who wanted to get elected to anything higher than dogcatcher would make pilgrimages to the service station to meet people, plot strategy and shoot the breeze.
Williams was the maestro of the political chorus.
“Wade and that filling station was Rock Hill in those days,” said former Rock Hill Mayor Betty Jo Rhea. “A character – they just don’t make them like Wade anymore. He was an institution. People would always go there and see him and his brother, Harris. Some called it ‘Gulf City Hall,’ because it was where the action was.
“The station was the place to go, and Wade was the man to see.”
When current Mayor Doug Echols came to Rock Hill more than 45 years ago – as a teacher and coach before politics – he learned that to be “accepted into Rock Hill, you had to make a swing through Williams’ Gulf station and meet Wade Williams.”
“Wade was ‘holding court’ then as he had for so long,” Echols said, “and for so many people just like me in Rock Hill and politics, going to the station and talking with Wade Williams was a rite of passage.
“It was almost like you had to get the ‘Wade Williams’ approval.”
Echols said Williams’ love for Rock Hill and South Carolina showed in his decades of involvement in business and political life.
Williams was never a politician himself, but he loved politics. In that era before Republicans came into fashion and then power, he was right smack in the middle of elections and campaigns and politicking and more.
But Williams was more than a political gadfly. He cared about the state and the people, his customers, who lived in it – and he sure cared about the people elected to lead it.
“He was what a citizen needs to be in a democracy,” Spratt said, “engaged and knowledgeable and decent.
“A good man.”
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065; firstname.lastname@example.org