Opinion Columns & Blogs

Sad time for Rock Hill

TOP PHOTO: Martin Rosas, a union official, stands outside the National Beef complex in Dodge City, Kan., while members of the United Food and Commercial Workers local hand out fliers in April. Rosas, 36, a Mexican immigrant, is now an American citizen. ABOVE RIGHT: A sculpture of a longhorn steer, stands along Wyatt Earp Street near downtown in Dodge City in April. The city has long been a center of the meatpacking industry.
TOP PHOTO: Martin Rosas, a union official, stands outside the National Beef complex in Dodge City, Kan., while members of the United Food and Commercial Workers local hand out fliers in April. Rosas, 36, a Mexican immigrant, is now an American citizen. ABOVE RIGHT: A sculpture of a longhorn steer, stands along Wyatt Earp Street near downtown in Dodge City in April. The city has long been a center of the meatpacking industry.

A sister-in-law of mine says that people always die in threes. I pooh-pooh that wives' tale but find my skepticism challenged at times, such as last week when Rock Hill mourned the passing of Jimmy Rhea, Jimmy Leitner and Winston Searles.

At first glance, they had little in common. Leitner, 61, was a generation behind the other two, who were in their 80s. Searles was African-American; the other two white. Only Rhea was a native of Rock Hill. Their obituaries reflected pastimes ranging from golf to pinochle, duck hunting to football.

So why did the passing of these three citizens, different in so many ways, merit so much attention?

For one, they were beloved. When you consider the turnout for three services, funeral parlor visitations, home visits and the countless dishes of fried chicken, fruit salad and casseroles, it seemed like half the town was mourning at least one of the deceased.

Affection and respect

How do you account for such affection and respect?

They were well known, for sure, although Searles was the only bona fide public figure in this trilogy. One of the first two blacks elected to the Rock Hill City Council, he was nearing the end of his seventh term when he died.

In their day, however, Rhea and Leitner were star athletes. Rhea was one of the best golfers ever to come out of Rock Hill; Leitner quarterbacked the Chester High School Cyclones to a state football championship.

Even though I had any number of conversations with them over the last 20 years, I don't recall either of them ever boasting about past glories.

All three battled debilitating illness but never let their physical condition dictate how they would live. It was painful to watch them at times, but I would walk away from a mutual encounter with one of these friends feeling that perhaps my problems weren't insurmountable after all.

In recent days, The Herald, their ministers, families and acquaintances have chronicled their many accomplishments more than adequately, so I'll limit myself to a single reflection about each.

He loved The Citadel

Years ago, Jimmy Leitner and I had several good-natured arguments over whether The Citadel should admit females. I came to understand that his position was based -- not on chauvinism -- but on a deep love for his alma mater. He helped me understand that a college doesn't earn that kind of affection and devotion without good reason.

Jimmy Rhea was retired by the time we first met. I knew him mostly as the spouse of our then mayor, Betty Jo Rhea. He was Prince Phillip to Rock Hill's Queen Elizabeth, accompanying her everywhere, attending ribbon cuttings, receptions and other functions. Even though he left the spotlight to his wife, he was an astute observer of the political scene. His affection for and pride in Betty Jo were obvious.

Ever wonder why more women don't hold public office in South Carolina? In part, it's because there are too few men like Jimmy Rhea.

Winston (nobody but the news media used his surname) already was an old lion by the time I met him more than 20 years ago. While his body failed him, his mind and spirit never flagged.

From time to time, political opponents would try to paint Winston as an Uncle Tom, too quick to side with the white majority on council. His rivals learned that the lion still had sharp claws. More to the point, he took care of constituents, many of whom lived in Rock Hill's poorest neighborhoods. When the chips were counted at the end of the game, Winston's stack was as high as anyone's at the table.

What did these men have in common? They loved Rock Hill and never ceased striving to make it a better place. In his homily at Jimmy Rhea's memorial service, Charlie Foss, his preacher, said that even though he himself was a native, Jimmy personified the community ethos that welcomes any newcomer willing to roll up his sleeves.

He could have been speaking for all three of these men. They truly were men of good will.

This city was blessed by their presence.

Last week was a sad time for Rock Hill.

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