CHARLESTON, S.C. – People who experienced the phenomenon of Charles D. “Pug” Ravenel can’t have helped wondering what might have been – if only he had won.
But Pug, who died last week, didn’t win. In his political career, he lost and lost – and then lost some more. Which surprised everyone who knew him because Pug had always been known for winning. He was the winning quarterback in high school here and later at Harvard, to which he won a full athletic scholarship following a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy, compliments of the local newspaper he had served – winningly, no doubt – as a paperboy.
Nothing could stop that kid, not even the telephone pole he once ran into while scrambling for a baseball. His broken nose that day resulted in a nickname that stuck.
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After receiving an MBA from Harvard, Pug continued his winning streak on Wall Street. Then, in 1972, he and his wife, Mollie Curtis, decided to move south to raise their children. Trading the hustle of New York for the gentler pace of Charleston’s susurrating streets was a hinge point in their lives, as well as in South Carolina’s.
In 1974, Pug decided to run for governor on a platform called “Program for Excellence in South Carolina.” A hope-and-change candidate before it was fashionable, he defeated six fellow Democrats in the primary, but the state Supreme Court ruled him ineligible to be governor for failing to meet an archaic five-year residency requirement. Ultimately, Republican James Edwards won, ushering in a long run of mostly Republican governors.
Thus also began the dimming of that bright light that appears once in a generation. South Carolina had never met anyone quite like Pug. Dashing, smart and charismatic, he burned with an intensity so hot that one instantly understood the origin of ladies’ fans. Pug was passion personified – passionate about life, family, friendship, the less fortunate, the arts, sports, travel, you name it – and, of course, love. He was utterly beguiling, to men and women alike.
And, he was contagious.
I caught the bug in 1978 during a breakfast with a handful of other reporters and Pug, who this time was running to unseat Sen. Strom Thurmond. As usual, he wore his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. It’s a familiar, iconic image in the political world, but you knew Pug’s sweat was real. He’d clawed his way to the top and respected hard work in others. What he described at that meeting – the abiding faith that a better, more just society was within our grasp – was the world I wanted, too.
Pug lost to Thurmond, of course. He also lost a congressional race in 1980. In between, he worked in the U.S. Commerce Department. He later served a brief stint in prison for bank fraud. Nevertheless, Pug left a legacy of hope, charity and love – and he really meant it. I remember him once telling me that when he felt down, he’d do something for someone else to lift his spirits.
As friends and family gather to celebrate his life, the question lingers: Why couldn’t Pug Ravenel, one of the South’s leading protagonists, get elected in his home state? I wouldn’t underestimate the “Yankee-fied” factor, what with all that fancy education and Wall Street money. Never mind that he was the author of his own success. To a certain sort of resentful Southerner, Pug was a carpetbagger like any other. It was like that then. In some parts, it is like that now.
And, of course, he was reaching out to minorities and women without clocking in with the old pols. Just who did he think he was, anyway? There are stories – great Southern tales – about what really went on behind the scenes during his run for governor, about how the votes really went on the court, about how Pug was never going to be allowed to win.
Pug always knew who his enemies were, but he never gave up, not even at the end. As he became physically diminished by cancer, he still roiled with energy from some mysterious inner source. He never ceased caring.
I last saw Pug in January when I joined him and his infinitely lovely wife of 25 years, “Susu,” for dinner. His eyes were bright as ever. And though Alzheimer’s had begun to trip his sentences, his ears were perked and his attention riveted. When Susu picked up the check, I protested that next time would be my treat.
Would that, my friend, would that.
Kathleen Parker can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.