When we think about famous marriages, one that comes to mind is that of former Isle of Palms residents Ernest “Fritz” and Rita Liddy “Peatsy” Hollings. Their union is the definition of a true “power couple.”
When Peatsy died in 2012, one of the mourners wrote to Fritz, a former South Carolina governor and U.S. senator saying, “You and Peatsy were an unbelievable team, who did so very much for the people of South Carolina and the entire United States. Her work to benefit those less fortunate is a living memorial to her enormous heart and endless compassion.”
Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley echoed a similar sentiment when he told The Post and Courier that, “She (Peatsy) was never elected, but her role in public policy and achievements and progress and leadership in the state and certainly in Washington was huge.”
There’s no doubt that Fritz and Peatsy were a Capitol Hill power couple. But at the heart of the matter was their affection and respect for each other. A former employee wrote to Fritz acknowledging, “I was a witness to the love and caring relationship that the two of you had.”
Fritz and Peatsy were both native Charlestonians. He began his political career in 1949, serving six years in the South Carolina State House, followed by a term as lieutenant governor in 1954 and as governor in 1958. But it was when he became a U.S. senator that he and Peatsy met.
After graduating from the College of Charleston, Peatsy taught civics and history at St. Andrew’s High School in West Ashley and was known for “making government come alive,” a former student recalled. Peatsy became interested in politics while attending graduate school at USC and in 1964, became chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party.
She worked on Fritz’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1966 and subsequently joined his Washington staff as a research assistant where she helped with his 1970 groundbreaking book, “A Case Against Hunger.” The work led to the establishment of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program which supports nutritional needs for pregnant women and children in low-income households.
Peatsy’s marriage to Fritz in 1971 was the talk of the town—or rather two towns, Charleston and Washington—not just because of the list of “Who’s Who” among the 700 guests who attended the reception at the Officer’s Club at the Charleston Navy Base. But Peatsy was raised Catholic and since Fritz was divorced, Catholics were cautioned by the vicar general of the Diocese of Charleston not to attend the wedding. However, other local Catholic leaders dismissed the notion that those who attended were committing a sin by witnessing the marriage. The wedding was performed by a Lutheran minister and took place at the chapel at The Citadel, Fritz’s alma mater. Fritz’s son was his best man.
The marriage seemed to have been a match made in heaven. The joke on Capitol Hill was that Peatsy and Fritz were both in love with the same man – Fritz Hollings! Political strategist Bud Ferillo explained, “Peatsy adored Fritz. And what a loyal and loving husband he was to this blessed woman, especially in the years she needed him most.”
Shortly after Fritz’s retirement in 2004, Peatsy began an eight-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Upon her death, mourners recollected that Peatsy “loved and was loved by everyone who came in contact with her—an amazing woman who had style, wit, charm, grace and beauty.”
Riley explained, “Everybody loved Peatsy—republicans and democrats,” adding that “She never lost her ability to make people feel good.”
Ferillo predicted, “We’ll not see the likes of Peatsy Liddy Hollings again in our lifetime, but each of us who were her mentees can carry on her passion and love of life.”
Peatsy could be funny, too. According to former campaign spokesman Andy Brack, when Hollings entertained a brief run for president in 1984, the phone rang very early one morning. Peatsy answered. “The caller asked, ‘Umm, is Senator Hollings there?’” Without missing a beat, Peatsy replied as if talking to the senator, “Honey, your name Hollings?’”
Hollings was known to be long-winded when he took to the Senate floor. But fellow democrat Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont reported, “When he’d get carried away, Peatsy would say, ‘Nooooowwwww, Fritz!’ And that would be it.”
After Peatsy’s death, Hollings continued to reside at the couple’s island home until he died in 2019. He will be remembered as one of the longest-serving U.S. senators in history, more than 36 years from 1966-2003, a champion of the military and advocate of a balanced budget. In 2008, he co-authored the book “Making Government Work,” a guide for returning the institution to its former workability.
The story of this “power couple” is itself one for the books, both for their accomplishments as well as their special relationship. One mourner mused, “I hope a historian will capture the intelligence, dignity and charm of this remarkable and devoted couple.”
By Mary Coy