Remembering Nancy Moore Thurmond 25 years after death
Nancy Thurmond still wonders if the tragedy could have been avoided.
On April 13, 1993, her firstborn daughter and namesake, Nancy Moore Thurmond, was considering a trip from Columbia, where she was a senior at the University of South Carolina, to her hometown of Aiken.
Nancy Moore — as her family called her — was scheduled to give a speech the next day about child safety at J.D. Lever Elementary School.
But it was getting dark. Nancy Thurmond didn't want her daughter on the road. The two agreed she would make the hour-long drive early the next morning.
A few hours later, the beloved daughter of one of South Carolina's most well-known political families was hit by a drunk driver while walking across Harden Street in Five Points.
“In reliving every moment of that horrific tragedy — all of the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ — it’s very easy to just become obsessed,” Nancy Thurmond, 71, said in a recent interview with The State. “What if I had done something different to get her to come to Aiken?”
This month marks the 25th anniversary of Nancy Moore Thurmond's death — the end of a promising young life in a family that much of South Carolina felt like they knew.
Photographed soon after her birth at Greenwood's Self Memorial Hospital, Nancy Moore's baby picture appeared on newspaper front pages across the state. Her father, then 68, was a former governor and U.S. senator who would go on to be one of the nation's longest-serving and most controversial senators.
The spotlight sharpened as she grew up in Columbia, designing jewelry, modeling and competing in the Miss South Carolina pageant, which her mother won in 1966. The two women looked alike, sounded alike and talked several times each day.
"We were very best friends," Nancy Thurmond said. "I always said she was a better version of me in every way."
Nancy Moore Thurmond was also a serious student. A criminal justice major, she had applied to USC's law school and was mapping out a career championing children's causes. Her acceptance letter would arrive just a few days after her death.
Her ultimate dream was to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, her mother said. In the mean time, she balanced her classes, volunteer work and a part-time waitressing job at Al's Upstairs Italian restaurant in West Columbia.
“All indications are that she was going to be a tremendously capable wife, mother and have an excellent career," said her brother, Paul Thurmond, an attorney with Thurmond, Kirchner & Timbes in Charleston. "She was on that track.”
She had turned 22 a couple weeks before her death.
On the night of the tragedy, she carried a birthday note from her parents, according to media reports at the time. The vehicle's impact knocked the letter onto the street.
"Many more happy birthdays," her mother wrote. "Hold on to your high standards and ideals."
"We love you without end," her father added, signing his name, Daddy.
A promising life
She was the oldest of Strom and Nancy Thurmond's four children. Nancy Moore, Strom Jr., Julie and Paul were born within five years of each other.
A fifth child, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, would come forward in 2003 — the interracial daughter of a teenage maid and a 20-something Strom Thurmond, who never publicly acknowledged her.
“Having four children in five years, we were all pretty darn close,” said Paul Thurmond, who served in the state Senate from 2013 to 2017.
Going to school, attending summer camps, participating in family outings and individual passions — whether sporting events or beauty pageants — they did it all together, he said.
Nancy Moore Thurmond thrived in her role as the big sister and first child, said Julie Thurmond Whitmer, the second youngest and an events and project management consultant in Washington D.C.
“She was the ‘Little Mommy’ of my brothers and me,” she wrote in an email. “She was fiercely loyal and protective of my parents, her siblings and her friends.”
Born into a life of prestige, the Thurmond children were thrust into the public spotlight at a young age.
They often rubbed elbows with Supreme Court justices, dignitaries from around the country as well as a number of sitting presidents, Paul Thurmond said.
“When you’re young, you don’t really appreciate it, but it was really remarkable,” he said, adding that Nancy Moore Thurmond was very comfortable talking to all kinds of people, regardless of their background. “She really did a fantastic job with it. There are some people who kind of shy away from it. I think Nancy Moore was exceedingly comfortable in that position.”
While the spotlight spoils some, Nancy Moore Thurmond used it as a calling to help others, said those who knew her best at her funeral.
She served as a volunteer for a number of causes, including the Special Olympics, the Muscular Dystrophy telethon and the Ronald McDonald House.
She also wrote and produced "Play It Safe," a fingerprinting campaign for children, intended to create a link to a child's true identity in cases of kidnappings. The campaign resulted in nearly 20,000 children being fingerprinted, Paul Thurmond said.
It happened around 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in 1993.
Nancy Moore was jaywalking in the middle of the 800 block of Harden Street in Five Points, trying to get to Eckerd drugstore. She had left her boyfriend’s house to buy a chess set.
Corrine Koenig, 35, was legally drunk and driving too fast in a 1987 Plymouth Horizon. She had been to four bars that night, said Dick Harpootlian, the 5th Circuit solicitor who prosecuted the case.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore, who had attended Nancy Moore’s 22nd birthday only two weeks prior, had just bought medication at Eckerd. His highway patrolman driver, James Peppers, was pulling out of the parking lot when he witnessed the accident from less than 20 feet away.
Koenig got out, ran toward Theodore’s car and shouted through the window, “I didn’t mean to hit her. She stepped in front of my car,” according to The State newspaper reports.
Koenig phoned Henry McMaster, her attorney and chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, now S.C. governor.
McMaster showed up as Nancy Moore was being loaded into the ambulance, Harpootlian said. He lived blocks away and talked to the police, who waited almost two hours before administering a blood alcohol test, according to reports.
McMaster realized he had a conflict of interest after learning who the victim was. He joined the family at the hospital and withdrew from the case.
Memories from that night are “so unbelievably etched in my mind even 25 years ago,” Paul Thurmond said.
The telephone wouldn’t stop ringing, waking him up. His grandmother said there had been an accident. The highway patrol took him and his mother from their home in Aiken to Columbia in “record time.”
“I remember all of that like it was yesterday,” he said.
Nancy Moore Thurmond never regained consciousness. Her parents made the agonizing decision to take her off life support the next day and donate her organs, an unusual decision back then that saved the lives of two people.
'She was his little girl'
Strom Thurmond, deeply shaken by his daughter's death, accepted condolence phone calls from then President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
“(Strom) was as devastated as all of us were. She was his little girl,” said Nancy Thurmond, who had separated from her husband two years prior to the accident. “He buried himself in his work.”
Publicly, Strom Thurmond held himself together as always.
“You never saw him flustered. You never saw his emotions exaggerated,” said Bob McAlister, the senator's assistant press secretary for two years in the early 1970s.
Strom Thurmond, who died at 100, never was outspoken about personal matters, especially the death of his daughter, said Neal Thigpen, a longtime Republican Party organizer.
“Strom was always transfixed with his work,” he said.
Koenig had a blood alcohol level of 0.16 percent, above the limit of 0.10 percent at the time. She was charged with felony drunken driving and faced 25 years in prison.
When the time came to pick a jury, many worried the Koenig's cross with power would land her a lengthy prison sentence, Harpootlian said.
“They felt anyone who killed the daughter of such a powerful man wouldn’t be treated fairly,” he said. “We were shocked by it.”
Confronted with that, Harpootlian said he decided to sit down with the family and work out a plea deal.
“There was a lot of crying, a lot of anxiety and a lot of emotion,” Harpootlian said, expressing how difficult it was to see a man of Strom Thurmond's stature break down in tears. “I’ve never been through anything like that before and I never want to go through anything like that again. It was an emotional, cathartic experience for them and me.”
Koenig served one year of a two-and-a-half year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. She could not be reached for comment.
Life is fragile
Life became drastically different when Nancy Moore Thurmond was taken from the family, Paul Thurmond said.
“There was a lot of grief and a lot of resentment and anger toward the person who took my sister’s life,” he said. “And then, over time, you get into a time of forgiveness. But you still have a tremendous amount of sadness associated with it."
Today, family members say that while their last name is Thurmond, their experience with grief echoes that of others.
“We are no different than anyone else who has loved and lost a family member," wrote Julie Thurmond Whitmer in an email. "The ‘Why her? Why then? Why not me?’ to ‘What would she have been like at age 47?’ Oh, how I wish our children could have known her."
Nancy Thurmond knows she will one day be reunited with her daughter and "that faith helps me get through the day to the next day," she said. "Any parent who has gone through that tragedy would tell you it changes your life forever."
After spending many years volunteering for causes to fight diabetes, cancer, blood shortages and birth defects, Nancy Thurmond now spends all her time with her 10 grandchildren, calling it a full-time job.
"I love it. It's my joy," she said. "Having given so much of my life to helping others, now I need to focus on the grandchildren, particularly since they don't have their grandfather."
Her journey has not always been easy. And she's been open about her personal struggles, specifically being charged with drunken driving and speeding three years after her daughter’s death. She later sought treatment for chemical dependency and alcoholism.
"I'm doing real well," she said recently. "I think that's a wonderful way to remember our daughter is to live a very healthy life."
She urges people to think twice about their decisions. Life is fragile, she said.
“The lady who hit Nancy Moore made a tragic mistake, but nothing will bring our daughter back,” Nancy Thurmond said. “Hug your kids, love your kids and cherish your family.”