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Councilman remembered as champion for city

Pallbearers carry the casket of Winston Searles to the hearse after a service celebrating his life was held Friday at New Mount Olivet AME Zion Church in Rock Hill.
Pallbearers carry the casket of Winston Searles to the hearse after a service celebrating his life was held Friday at New Mount Olivet AME Zion Church in Rock Hill.

Down the street from the City Hall where he presided for nearly three decades, friends honored Winston Searles on Friday as a man devoted to service to the end.

Some 300 people from church, college and three levels of government filled Mount Olivet AME Zion Chuch to remember Searles, who died Monday at 85.

"This was a man who had no axes to grind," said U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C. "His only standard was doing what's right for Rock Hill. I consider him one of the finest friends I ever had."

Searles, two months from completing his seventh term on the Rock Hill City Council, had battled declining health for years. He picked out the songs for his funeral, from "May the Work I've Done Speak For Me" to "I'll Fly Away" as mourners filed out of the bright, airy sanctuary on south Dave Lyle Boulevard, just outside downtown.

Friends and colleagues paid tribute to a champion not only for Rock Hill, but also Mount Olivet and Allen University.

"Time and again, I watched him, I learned from him and I saw him do what was right for all the people," Mayor Doug Echols said. "With each thoughtful public decision and act of kindness, he built a legacy that will continue on."

Years ago, Searles was among the first to put up $1,000 toward restarting the football program at Allen University, the historically black college in Columbia where he graduated. The school now has a One Thousand Plus Club of fellow donors.

In Rock Hill, the board at Mount Olivet struggled for a time over whether to spend $40,000 to install an elevator so that elderly members could get to the sanctuary.

"Winston's attitude was, how can we afford not to do it?" recalled Sam Foster, a former state House member. "We've got people who can't come to church."

Searles brought a similar dedication to the City Council, where he fought for neighborhoods such as Hagins-Fewell and Sunset Park, places he believed were too often overlooked.

"He was not loud. He was not radical. But he was effective," said Bishop George C. Battle, a graduate of Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill.

Searles used to joke that long council meetings got in the way of his social life. On Monday nights, he met with Foster, John Ramseur and friends to play the card game pinochle, sometimes staying up until 2 or 3 a.m.

"John and I lost a pinochle player," Foster said. "He loved to play that game. Occasionally we'd be playing and he'd drive up himself and say, 'You thought I wasn't coming, didn't you?'"

Searles came close to retiring from public life eight years ago. But supporters talked him into running for his seat again, and he won.

"I don't know that I had the interest or the endurance to serve as long as he did," Foster said. "He endured to the end."

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