Retired postal worker proud of back-room clout

Rock Hill City Councilman Winston Searles, left, chats after a debate in October 2003. Searles died Monday at 85.
Rock Hill City Councilman Winston Searles, left, chats after a debate in October 2003. Searles died Monday at 85.

Rock Hill City Councilman Winston Searles, for four decades a proud, often feisty advocate for some of the city's oldest black neighborhoods, died on Monday after years of declining health.

He was 85.

In 1980, Searles became one of the first two blacks elected to the council, along with retired police officer Frank Berry. He spent the next 27 years helping constituents solve everyday problems and pushing city staffers to stay attentive to issues he deemed important.

People who knew Searles say the scope of his impact didn't always come across in council meetings.

"Winston's a very prideful man," said Vince Blackwell, who ran against Searles in 1999. "At City Council meetings, you may have seen a man who wasn't as forceful as you wanted. But privately, Winston would describe himself as a pit bull, a guy who fought for you in the back room. Winston thought that was the best way to get things done."

Searles had been in the intensive-care unit at Piedmont Medical Center for two weeks. Flags were lowered to half-staff at City Hall, and Monday night's council meeting was postponed as a show of respect.

In his trademark slow Southern drawl, Searles would often say that his Ward 1 seat didn't belong to him but to the people in his district. Though he didn't go looking for fights, he bristled when he felt colleagues were shortchanging him or failing to give straight answers.

"We're gonna let some developer come in and stack houses that are going to deteriorate," Searles said in 2005, railing against a proposal for an apartment complex in his district. "This section has been the stepchild of the city in the 20 years I've been on the council. Sometimes, you have to speak up."

Searles focused on bringing improvements to the Hagins-Fewell neighborhood, and more recently, cleaning up its Arcade Mill site, which was gutted by fire in 1997. He also lobbied from Columbia to Washington, D.C., particularly for money to improve Clinton Junior College.

"His motto was, if you weren't at the table, you didn't have a say," said City Manager Carey Smith. "He was willing to go anywhere on behalf of Rock Hill. No one was a better ambassador."

Toward the end, Searles relied on a pair of crutches to help him get around. Still, he attended most Monday night meetings, often getting rides from close friend and fellow Councilman Osbey Roddey.

City staffers knew to have his favorite snacks -- hot chocolate and a scoop of vanilla ice cream -- waiting for him at dinner meetings.

"He just stayed as long as he could," Roddey said. "That was Winston. He loved the city and being involved. He didn't give in to his infirmities, so to speak. He just kept going."

In 1999, Searles announced that he planned to retire at the end of his term. Four challengers already were lined up to run against him -- Blackwell, Jimmy Warner, Thomas Colter and Baxter Tisdale. But Searles' supporters talked him into running again, and he won.

"This was a harder decision for me to make than it was when I asked my wife to marry me because I knew what I wanted when I asked her," Searles joked at the time.

Willia Searles, his wife of more than 40 years, died in 1991.

He was re-elected again in 2003.

A path to Rock Hill

While attending Allen University in Columbia, Searles started working part time for the U.S. Postal Service, a job he turned into a 32-year career that brought him here.

"I had some good friends who convinced me Rock Hill was the best place in the world to live," he said.

Searles retired from the Postal Service in 1977, the same year he made his first bid for City Council.

At the time, council members were elected at-large, meaning they represented the entire city, not a specific ward. Elected officials in Rock Hill had always been white, and they typically came from the eastern and northeastern sections of town.

In his initial bid, Searles ran first among black candidates but finished well down the overall list.

New boundaries were drawn in 1978 -- the result of more than two years of negotiations between the local NAACP and city leaders. Three of the wards encompassed majority black neighborhoods, greatly increasing the odds for a minority to be elected.

Searles became the first Ward 1 representative and -- along with Frank Berry -- one of the first two blacks to serve on the council. Berry defeated incumbent Doug Herlong by 17 votes in a Democratic primary but lost his at-large seat after one term. He died in 1997.

Many families knew Searles through the local Boy Scouts chapter, where he served as district executive for 17 years. He also stayed active in the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

"He was always the life of a party," former Mayor Betty Jo Rhea recalled last week. "He and his wife, they loved to dance. I can see them now at the city parties and things. People really liked him a lot."

A love for pinochle

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

"He did like to win," said John Ramseur, a neighbor and close friend. "He'd argue with you in a minute if he wasn't satisfied with the hand."

After the last election, Searles shared that his current term would be his last, this time for sure. He signaled his support for local NAACP activist Susie Hinton, who appears poised to fill his seat as the only declared candidate in the October city vote.

"Never think anything will fail," Searles said in 2005. "Think you can get in there, roll up your sleeves and make it a success."