Our hearts go out today to the family and friends of Rita Louise “Peatsy” Hollings, who passed away Sunday evening.
Peatsy, wife of retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, served as the gold standard of a senator’s wife. Not content to simply write thank you notes for social occasions, she was a full participant in Hollings’ political career, his most trusted advisor. As past aides note, Peatsy “grounded” Fritz — she kept him in touch with what people felt, what they dreamed. She did it with aplomb and a streak of humor that served well as she and her husband traveled the halls of power and backroads of South Carolina.
A 1984 story from when Hollings ran for president serves as an example. Seems that the senator had an appearance on a national morning news show. The phone rang in the early morning hours to wake him up. (One version claims this was in New Hampshire; another says it was in California during the Democratic convention.) When Peatsy answered the phone, the caller asked, “Umm, is Senator Hollings there?” Without missing a beat, Peatsy replied as if talking to the senator, “Honey, your name Hollings?”
Born Rita Louise Liddy on the last day of 1935, Peatsy became a teacher. Often at events in Washington or Charleston, former students would approach “Miss Liddy,” grasp her hand and tell her how much she meant to them and how she made civics come alive during classes at St. Andrews High School. In 1964, her zeal for politics poured over into her after-school life as she chaired the Charleston County Democratic Party.
In the late 1960s, then an aide to Hollings, she helped research and edit what became a groundbreaking policy book by Hollings, “The Case Against Hunger.” That book helped change the debate about need for maternal feeding in the country and led to the creation of the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, supplemental nutrition program for low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women. It has provided help for millions of American children and gave them the fuel to allow their brains to develop as babies. According to a USDA Web site, WIC serves 53 percent of all infants born today in the United States.
Married to Hollings in 1971, Peatsy helped with numerous charitable causes, such as the American Heart Association, March of Dimes and American Cancer Society. From 1990 to 2000, she co-chaired an annual gala salute at Ford’s Theatre for the President and First Lady. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated her to a four-year position on the National Advisory Mental Health Council, which she tackled with enthusiasm and passion.
But public education was always her chief passion. As related in a 2004 story on how Peatsy redefined the role of being a senator’s wife, she didn’t hold back when asked what issue she would trumpet if Hollings became president: “Public education. I am definitely against a tax exemption for private schools. Private schools are one reason people are unequal — they don’t take everybody and most people can’t afford them. Public schools should be the main concern of this nation because they teach different types of people how to live with each other. Certainly the cutbacks in education are criminal.”
Soon after Hollings retired from the Senate in 2004, Peatsy started a long struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. For years, she’d be with him in an office on Calhoun Street at the Medical University, where the senator continues to champion funding for cancer research. In later years, she enjoyed drives through the countryside.
Rita Louise Liddy Hollings, 1935-2012. You enriched the lives of South Carolinians. We’ll miss you. Rest in peace.