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CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — James B. Edwards, South Carolina's first Republican governor since Reconstruction and later energy secretary for two years in the Reagan administration, has died. He was 87.
His son-in-law Ken Wingate confirmed that Edwards died Friday.
Edwards, an oral surgeon, helped build the modern Republican Party in South Carolina, serving as Charleston County party chairman and supporting Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign in the 1960s. He later won a seat in the state Senate and then, in 1974, was elected governor.
Edwards was limited to one term under state law at the time. After leaving the governor's mansion, he headed to Washington as President Ronald Reagan's energy secretary.
Edwards, who was born in Florida but moved to Charleston County as a toddler, returned in 1982 to become president of the Medical University of South Carolina, a position he held for 17 years before retiring.
"South Carolina has lost a statesman and the Republican Party has lost a true pioneer," said Iris Campbell, widow of the late GOP Gov. Carroll Campbell, who worked in Edwards' administration.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said she's grateful for the support and encouragement Edwards gave her.
"Michael and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Gov. Edwards, whose love for South Carolina inspired him to serve until his last day," she said.
Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, a senator since 1981, described Edwards as a "Palmetto gentleman who sought only the best solutions for his community, state, and nation." U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a former Charleston County Council chairman, said Edwards was an early mentor of his, and he'll be "forever thankful for his advice."
Entering the 1974 governor's race, Edwards was not sure of his chances facing well-known retired Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. troops in Vietnam, in the GOP primary.
Edwards, who served in the U.S. Maritime Service during World War II and as a Navy Reserve officer during the Korean War, won the nomination but was still a Republican running in a Democratic state.
That year, however, the Democrats were divided after the state Supreme Court ruled that Democratic front-runner Charles D. "Pug" Ravenel did not meet the residency requirements to run for governor.
Edwards defeated U.S. Rep. Bryan Dorn — who became the Democratic nominee in a special convention — by about 17,500 votes.
In a 1999 Associated Press interview, Edwards said the job he most enjoyed was being governor, particularly working on economic development, education and energy issues at a time when people seemed to work together. During his tenure, the Education Finance Act was passed. It remains the basis for how K-12 public education is funded in South Carolina.
"Anything you wanted, you could ask anyone in the state to help you," he recalled. "I put away partisan politics when I got to Columbia. We had the whole Senate and the House, the vast majority working with us."
As Department of Energy secretary, Edwards served two years working on Reagan's plan to close down the agency — an idea that never made it through Congress.
In 1982, Edwards was recruited to take the MUSC job. He planned to stay only a year or so but ended up staying 17 years during a time when the university's budget grew from $200 million to $840 million. During his tenure, more than 10,000 health professionals graduated from the university.
"God has blessed me with the ability to pick good people," he said. "I choose good people and then I'm smart enough to stay out of the way and let them do their jobs well."
Multiple media outlets report his funeral will be 1 p.m. Monday at St. Philip's Church in Charleston. Visitation will be 5:30-7:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Luke's Chapel on the Medical University of South Carolina campus in Charleston.
Seanna Adcox contributed to this report from Columbia.
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