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Rock Hill celebrates life of legendary leader John Hardin

Few people walked away from an encounter with John Hardin without hearing one of his legendary stories.

There was the time he raised money for college by selling Coca-Colas from a wagon. Or the time he shared a stage with Bob Hope. Or the time -- actually, there were seven -- that he met a U.S. president.

Hardin, the former Rock Hill mayor, died Monday at a retirement home in Charleston, just weeks shy of his 90th birthday. The funeral is set for at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. John's United Methodist Church in Rock Hill.

"Everything he did in life, he could make a story out of," said nephew Walter Hardin, an associate vice president at Winthrop University. "Didn't matter whether you'd heard the story before or not. He always added something to make you laugh."

Hardin had plenty of stories to tell because he was involved throughout his life with so many aspects of Rock Hill.

As a businessman, he first led an auto body company and then a bank. He served two terms on both the Rock Hill school board and Rock Hill City Council. He was mayor from 1958 to 1963.

He was past president of eight community or civic organizations, including the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Chamber of Commerce. He was a lifelong member of St. John's United Methodist Church, once serving as superintendent of the Sunday School.

In many ways, Hardin's life paralleled the growth and development of Rock Hill.

He was part of the Anderson family, headed by his grandfather, John Gary Anderson, who made buggies and then Anderson cars.

Elected mayor in the late 1950s, Hardin served three, two-year terms and was credited with buying the property that is now Glencairn Garden and for establishing Bryant Field, now called the Rock Hill/York County Airport.

He helped land Bowater, which opened in 1959 and remains one of York County's largest employers. He worked with former Mayor Ickey Albright to create Come-See-Me, the city's annual spring festival.

"I thought it'd go for a year or two," he wrote in his 2003 book, "It's Been Grand! The Life and Times of John Anderson Hardin." "Well, it's still going, and it's been 40 or more years."

The youngest of three children, Hardin wrote in his book about a store he operated as a boy in the backyard and snacks he sold from a wagon at the Rock Hill Body Co. near downtown.

Called the dope wagon for the Coca-Cola on it, the wagon also carried Lucky Strike cigarettes he got for free through a promotion. He made loans to workers with proceeds from that wagon, which also enabled him to buy several cars and pay his college tuition.

"He was such an entrepreneur," said friend and business colleague Merritt Wilkerson. "He could see the opportunity -- and he seized upon it."

Leader of the band

Hardin was the drum major for Rock Hill High School's first band. During a parade through downtown, Hardin tossed his baton so high it landed on top of Belk's department store.

Later, he led the band at Duke University, where he attended one year. He also attended Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla.

It was in Florida where Hardin met Martha Sims, who became his wife of 52 years.

"I saw her walking down the sidewalk and I said, 'That's the girl for me,' " he said in a 2003 interview. "The boys said she wouldn't have anything to do with me, and she didn't."

Then a buddy assigned him to sell yearbook ads with Martha.

"We'd go to Walgreens and have a Coke, and I tried to tell her how fine I was and what a great pair we'd make," he said. "It took a long time."

They married in 1941. Martha died in 1993.

"Martha was just grand," he said. "She couldn't have been finer."

As a newlywed, Hardin sold tires and appliances, made seat covers and put in glass at the Rock Hill Body Service, the retail end of the family business.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he attended radar school with the U.S. Navy and sailed on the USS Guam through the Panama Canal. Once home, he returned to the Body Service.

Hardin took over at First Federal Savings & Loan amid the post-World War II housing boom, recalled Rock Hill attorney David White. Years later, customers remembered borrowing from Hardin's bank.

"There were people who would come up to him and say, 'Mr. Hardin, you made me a loan on the first house I bought,' " White said. "People who barely knew him thought he was a special friend. It was the way his personality worked."

At least once a week, Hardin got in a round of golf with friend Tom Gettys, often at the Rock Hill Country Club. The pair ran with a group that included George Dunlap and Connie Morton.

They spent most of the time joking, said Gettys' widow, Mary Phillips Gettys.

"Anyone would tell you, they were rather noisy," she said. "They always had a running joke with each other."

Dressed in a brightly colored jacket, Hardin traveled the world in the 1970s as president of the U.S. League of Savings Institutions. He spoke in every state of the union and foreign countries, often using just an outline for his speech.

Hardin once attended an event in California featuring legendary comedian Bob Hope. After Hardin spoke, Hope took the podium, said former Mayor Betty Jo Rhea.

"Bob Hope said (Hardin) was so funny and entertaining that he never wanted to be on a program with John Hardin again," Rhea said. "John stole the show."

Hardin's persona typified the spirit of Rock Hill for many people, said U.S. Rep. John Spratt.

"I never realized how well-known he was until I came to Washington," Spratt said. "If you told anyone you were from South Carolina, they'd want to know if you knew John Hardin."

Hardin met seven of the last eight U.S. presidents. He was in Los Angeles in 1960 when the Democratic National Convention nominated John F. Kennedy for president.

Until the last few years, Hardin maintained an office on Main Street, inside the Wachovia building. He could be seen walking downtown in his brightly covered jackets, greeting passersby and ready to tell another story.

When he passed away Monday morning under hospice car in Charleston, Hardin was surrounded by family members. He would have turned 90 on June 30.

Mayor Doug Echols lauded Hardin for his work in education, business and government.

"John Hardin is very much a part of our history and leaves a great legacy," Echols said. "All of Rock Hill is saddened by his passing and yet honored by the fact that we were able to know him and work with him."

John Hardin - A man of words

"I saw her walking down the sidewalk and I said, 'That's the girl for me.' The boys said she wouldn't have anything to do with me, and she didn't."

-- On the courtship of his beloved late wife of 52 years, Martha Sims Hardin

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"I have found a better way to live."

-- After his first day as head of First Federal Savings and Loan, when he realized employees would henceforth call him "Mister."

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"Please turn off your cell phones. I don't know what that means, but everywhere I go these days, that's what I hear people saying."

-- A favorite line at the beginning of a speech

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"She gave me a recorder and said, 'Start talking.' Well, I did, and I haven't stopped yet."

-- How his girlfriend, Beverly Edwards, convinced him to write a book

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