Josephine McNair dies just days after husband's burial

COLUMBIA -- The night before her husband's inauguration, Josephine Robinson McNair said, she was up until 12-30 a.m., polishing shoes and ironing clothes, making sure her family was ready.

An astute planner, admitted stickler for detail and unabashed devotee to her husband and four children, McNair died Sunday night at her family home in Berkeley County, just a week and a day after the death of former Gov. Robert E. McNair.

She was 84.

"She was gracious, and one of the most popular first ladies in the state," said Claire Fort, a longtime family friend and employee at Columbia's McNair law firm. "She passed very peacefully at home with her family surrounding her."

Josephine McNair had been ill for a number of years, Fort said.

She served as first lady from 1965-71, after then-Lt. Gov. Robert McNair was elevated to governor. Former Gov. Donald Russell unexpectedly resigned to take the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Olin Johnston, who died.

A devout Christian, devoted to church work and her family, Josephine McNair also made her mark on state government.

"As first lady, Mrs. McNair undertook the first real modernization and refurbishment of the Governor's Mansion, really following what was going on in Washington at the White House," said noted S.C. historian Walter Edgar, who eulogized Gov. McNair one week ago.

Saying she wanted to bring South Carolina back to the mansion, Josephine McNair in 1966 set up the first Governor's Mansion Committee, designed to make acquisitions for the house.

One of her husband's first acts as governor was to sign legislation making that a permanent commission, supported by a Governor's Mansion Foundation. "The work that has gone on since with subsequent first ladies and administrations can be traced back to her efforts in the late 1960s," Edgar said.

The auburn-haired first lady once held a surplus sale, on the grounds of the mansion, of various items that had been moved out over the course of changing administrations. Her efforts garnered $7,000 to buy S.C. artifacts for the house.

Among McNair's (and the commission's) most appreciated acquisitions for the 17-room house, which was built in 1856, and grounds are: a four-poster bed built in Charleston for Arthur Middleton, who signed the Declaration of Independence; a dining room chandelier given to an early S.C. governor by a Russian czar; wine bottles, acquired from two sisters, that were wedding gifts to John C. Calhoun; and the Lace House.

McNair said her dream was to have a 125-seat banquet room in the Lace House, and have streets within a two-block radius of the mansion closed off.

McNair, who graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1944, was married to the governor for 63 years. They have four children, who survived: Robert Jr., Robin Lee, Corinne and Claudia. Also surviving are six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Fort said the family wanted to thank the public for its outpouring of sympathy and kindness during the death of their parents, but for now are grieving together in seclusion. McNair had remained at the family's farm near Jamestown since her husband was buried there Nov. 20.