Andrew Dys

Bessie's on the road back after beating breast cancer

State Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence does physical therapy last week at NovaCare Outpatient Rehabilitation in Rock Hill.
State Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence does physical therapy last week at NovaCare Outpatient Rehabilitation in Rock Hill.

She has fought breast cancer, but said her latest screening showed she is cancer-free. She needs physical therapy. But the thing Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence most wants people to know is, "There's nothing wrong with my head."

Then, the Rock Hill Democrat proceeded to tell me a lot of other things. Which is rare because for a woman who has been in public life for 15 years, only the second black woman ever elected to the South Carolina Legislature, Moody-Lawrence is a private person who avoids attention.

"I'm 66 and proud of it," she said when I asked her age.

"In January, I'm going back to the Legislature," she said when I asked if illness would push her to leave her District 49 office.

Her battle with cancer and its after effects kept her out of the entire 2007 legislative session, except for voting for Don Beatty for Supreme Court near the end of the term.

Now among the most senior members of the House, she received a standing ovation at the state capitol from her peers that day. She deserved it.

"The first day I took office, I felt I was just as important as anyone else," she said. "Not more important, but just as much. I still feel that way."

Last year, the retired teacher and Winthrop University professor found out she had cancer but held no news conference. Instead, she started chemotherapy.

But chemotherapy led to neuropathy, a fancy word for problems using her hands and feet. Moody-Lawrence spent a month in a hospital, and four months at rehabilitation centers. She didn't get home until March 10.

Longtime Democratic legislative peer and friend Herb Kirsh of Clover came to one rehab center and administered her oath of office.

"This is a lady who might be the staunchest supporter of education there is," Kirsh said. "She's important to people in York County. She's important to the whole state."

Sam Foster, who held the seat before her, would pick up mail at her office and bring it her. Through a computer, she kept up on the status of Statehouse business.

Through the illness, Moody-Lawrence's family did what families do whether the patient is a bigshot politician or not. They took care of her. Friends and neighbors and many from Hermon Presbyterian Church and more visited.

"I was never lonely," she said.

Constituents would call her or come to see her. She would help if she could and not if she couldn't.

One of the reasons there is a landfill fight in York County is Moody-Lawrence started the ruckus. The proposed landfill for Vernsdale Road is in her district: She worked with people who live nearby and a church that has been there for 140-plus years.

"I'm just a participatory leader," she said. "You believe in a cause, people will get involved."

Years ago, I saw for myself what Moody-Lawrence means to regular people. A quiet avalanche.

A deaf hairdresser in the business more than 30 years had her license taken away because she didn't renew it after a mix-up. Moody-Lawrence helped lead the charge to get her license back, even got a law passed to help similar people in the future.

I was at a cosmetology board hearing one time where more than 1,000 signatures were on a petition for that hairdresser.

That's leadership, even if Moody-Lawrence didn't want any credit for it.

Some politicians help a person, they call the press. Moody-Lawrence leaves through the back door and helps somebody else.

Her critics have claimed she doesn't move and shake enough in Columbia where all the deals are made, isn't accessible to her constituents at home. For sure, her legacy isn't bill sponsorships.

But people call her. A lot. She is the only black member of the area delegation. People who need help, many of them black, call her.

This state of 4 million-plus people is at least 30 percent black. Half the 4 million or so population are women. But just 14 of 170 legislators are women, and just three of 170 are black women.

"I just happen to be a woman, a black woman," she said. "I've been saying this for years: My mission is to improve the human condition."

Kirsh, the longest-serving House member of all 124 men and women, said he doesn't always agree with Bessie Moody-Lawrence. But he said something vital, and important.

"You don't have to agree with somebody all the time, or vote with them all the time, to know that they care about children and people," Kirsh said.

What Kirsh means is Moody-Lawrence in 15 years of public service has already has improved the human condition. And she will improve it some more, too.