COLUMBIA -- Robert Evander McNair was the epitome of the New South governor of the 1960s, progressive on racial matters and poised to move South Carolina into the modern industrial age.
But McNair, who died Saturday at age 83 from complications of a brain tumor, found himself at the center of one of the worst confrontations of the modern civil rights era, his administration forever linked to the 1968 demonstrations in Orangeburg that ended with the deaths of three black students.
"It's the one thing that went wrong," his biographer, Philip Grose, said.
As word spread of McNair's death Saturday, his political colleagues and friends spoke of a courtly man possessed of legendary political skills and a sense of his place at a moment of great societal upheaval in the South and the United States.
He was "the man for the times," said Jim Konduros, McNair's law partner and former gubernatorial aide.
In some ways, McNair was the "accidental governor," thrust into the job in 1965 when Gov. Donald Russell resigned to take the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of longtime U.S. Sen. Olin Johnston.
Eighteen months after he succeeded Russell, McNair won a four-year term in his own right. He earned accolades as a chief executive adept at luring new industry to the state and committed to the improvement of education and race relations.
After leaving office, McNair founded one of the state's most prestigious law firms. He remained the S.C. Democratic Party's chief powerhouse throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
"I think there are two takes on the McNair years," Grose said in a 2005 interview. "One, of course, would be the civil rights side, which is very often characterized today by Orangeburg and the 1968 shootings, but which contains much more activity and things that had much happier endings."
McNair's administration is credited with:
• Massive recruitment of new business into the state and greater emphasis on economic development;
• Expansion of technical education, including the granting of college status to technical centers
• Linking education with economic development;
• Creation of the Commission on Higher Education;
• Redefinition of the way the state-financed capital projects;
• Passage of compulsory school attendance legislation;
• Passage of a 1 percentage-point increase in the state sales tax;
• Creation of the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department;
• Establishment of the state arts commission and creation of the state archives and history department, and
• Creation and development of the State House complex of buildings surrounding the capitol building.
In the midst of those achievements, McNair's handling of the events that came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre tarnished his administration.
McNair spoke in the language of a thoroughly modern Southern governor -- never mind that Alabama's George Wallace was in the audience and Lester Maddox held court as governor one state removed -- and counseled moderation in racial matters.
"Today's South Carolina has no time for obsession with either 'black power' or 'white backlash,'" he once said.