Kershaw County Council held a special 5 p.m. session Jan. 12 for a special reason: to honor former Chairman Austin Sheheen Jr. Sheheen is one of only two former members who served on council for 20 or more years.
The ceremony included the reading of a resolution by former County Councilman Stephen Smoak and the joint unveiling of a portrait of Sheheen by current Chairman Julian Burns and Sheheen’s wife, Joanne.
Burns led off the celebration by joking about how many people he and Clerk of Council Merri Seigler had to plan for.
“I was told there would only be a small guest list, and my clerk of court is wrong. She said, ‘Don’t worry, Julian, it’s just the Sheheen family.’ Well, that’s truly an oxymoron … it is in fact, a small army,” Burns said. “When good things happen in Kershaw County, very often, more than likely, there’s a Sheheen involved somewhere.”
Burns went on to say he often seeks Sheheen’s advice and recounted several stories -- including one about a trash truck during Hurricane Hugo which may still be “out there, sir.”
County Councilman Jimmy Jones said he would not be where he is today without Sheheen.
“The Sheheen brothers have been there for me throughout my life. I just want to say, ‘Thank you,’ from the bottom of my heart for being there when I needed you. That’s the kind of man you are,” Jones said.
Before reading out the resolution, Smoak said even though he didn’t even join council until more than 15 years after Sheheen left office, he still referred to him for advice.
“I was still keenly aware of the impact he had made both to this elected body here and to the county as a whole,” Smoak said. “His impact is a lasting one and I think the evidence of that is in this room.”
He then read the resolution which begins, “Austin M. Sheheen Jr., (a) truly a dedicated public servant and leader of the community, has shown extraordinary leadership by his service as president of the Camden Rotary Club, president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, president of (the) Senior Chamber of Commerce, president of (the) South Carolina Association of SPAs and president of (the) S.C. Numismatic Association.”
It goes on to recount his service through the Camden Jaycees, Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce, Veterans of Foreign Wars, S.C. Association of CPAs, American Institute of CPAs Governing Council, S.C. Board of Accountancy, board member of National Bank of South Carolina, president of the World Society of Paper Money Collectors, board member of the Central Carolina Community Foundation, chairman of Historic Camden, trustee of the University of South Carolina Development Foundation, treasurer of the American Numismatic Association and brigadier general of the Joint Service Detachment of South Carolina Military Department.
The resolution also notes his “superior leadership” on county council, starting in January 1967 and including consecutive terms as chairman from 1975 to 1990.
After the unveiling, Sheheen said the recognition was a great honor and privilege, but didn’t think he alone deserved it.
“The years I served in county government were wonderful. I got a lot more from them than they got from me,” he said, and then proceeded to talk about how his public service began. “Gov. West was a senator in Kershaw County in 1966. He decided that he was going to give up the senate seat, not run for reelection and seek the lieutenant governorship of South Carolina. They passed the first council act for county councils in South Carolina and no council had yet been formed. So, he came to me and said, ‘I want you to run for county council.’ Well, that was kind of bizarre to a 32-year-old who just got home from the military, starting his practice and had a house full of kids. I considered it, and, all of a sudden, my family said, ‘Yes, you gotta do it.’”
Sheheen said, in those days, there were road commissioners appointed by the county’s legislative delegation and the four commissioners were elected to the council, along with him.
“The first meeting we had, we were summoned to the treasurer’s office in Columbia and the treasurer promptly told us the school district owed $750,000. They could not pay it, they could not bond it and the county council had to take it over. The first act we did was to pass a tax increase to pay the $750,000 in school debt, but the people of this community accepted that because everything was transparent -- there wasn’t any politicking behind the scenes,” Sheheen said.
He went on to say nothing on county council was accomplished which was not a group effort. Sheheen also said he ended his public service after 24 years based on advice from his father.
“When my time was up, and the reason I knew it was up (was because) my father, who had been on city council and mayor, said he’d served 24 years. ‘That’s long enough; don’t stay too long so that whatever you do wrong tarnishes everything you did right,” Sheheen said. “My brother, Bob, left the legislature after 24 years. And we’re working on Vincent now -- his time’s going to be up then.”