Life of A Legend: Mayor Joe Riley

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The Lowcountry and the State of South Carolina is still dealing with a tragedy that is still difficult to understand. We are also preparing for a change in Charleston’s leadership that will certainly dramatically change the way it operates. News 2’s Carolyn Murray sat down with Mayor Joe Riley’s childhood friend, his 3 sisters, and the mayor himself.

Judge Michael Duffy, A U.S. Federal Judge appointed by President Bill Clinton, says Riley was right for Charleston. Mayor Joe Riley played basketball as a freshman, was on the track team, and passing pigskins for the Battling Bishops.

“I remember it very well was a hot august day,” Judge Michael Duffy said recalling his first sight of Joseph Patrick Riley on the gridiron. “It was 95 degrees and 95 humidity and Joe believe it or not was a guard on a football team.”

Duffy sized up Riley quickly saying “he couldn’t have weighed more than 135, 140 pounds soaking wet.”

Riley wasn’t perfect but possessed a quality that engendered feelings that he was someone who people could trust.

The pair graduated high school, Riley in 1960 and Duffy a year later but, they didn’t part ways. Duffy said Mayor Riley was one of the reasons he went to the Citadel. “He made it a lot easier for me when I went,” Duffy said. “It was animal house without all the trappings.”

Duffy said that during his Citadel graduation, Joe Riley met his match, his wife Charlotte.

“Charlotte was from Camden, she was a DeLoach and her nickname back then was Boo as is still is to many,” Duffy recalls. “It was obvious to us that they were both very much in love and they weren’t going to go much longer without getting married.”

Riley’s leadership in the Charleston Democratic Party kept attention focused on him while he served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1968-1974. When the Mayor’s seat opened, his name was a vote getter.

“I think that all along, Joe was a public servant and he was going to seek the office where he thought he could do the most good,” Duffy said. “When it became obvious the Mayor of Charleston position would be open in ’75 everybody in town urged him to run.”

The Charleston we know today, much different when Judge Duffy and Mayor Riley grew up. “Joe Riley and I grew up in a Charleston when it was literally too poor to paint and proud to whitewash,” Duffy recalled. “We had two hotels and three restaurants, the economy was the shipyard, the state port and a little bit of tourism.”

But his beloved friend turned this quaint city into an international destination where tourists leisurely strolled streets that were safer and boosted the city’s economy. Duffy said Riley’s vision was Charleston Place.

“Joe went to extraordinary lengths to get an anchor hotel of national prominence built. After he started it, people with different interest in the community fought it.”

The project litigated for four years before Mayor Riley was able to build it. “It took tremendous fortitude and persistence on his part to bring it about,” said Duffy. “That was the anchor that changed everything about Charleston.”

So we wanted to know what does he call this man who is a leader in a war of unknown warriors.

Judge Duffy said “I call him Joe!”

Mayor Riley’s three sisters revealed a side of the Mayor Joe we’ve never seen before, even sharing stories about a pony they had growing up.

“Her name was Queenie and she lived in the backyard,” Mayor Riley sister Susanne Emge said. “Joe and I would get on the pony and ride along. It wasn’t that unusual,” Susanne added.

It was their father Joseph P. Riley, Sr.’s idea to bring the gentle sway of the carriage horses to the peninsula of Charleston. But it was the junior’s passion for people and progress that made it work. “Joe is truly a public servant and he is always trying to do more for this city that he dearly love and the people that live in this city” Riley’s sister Jane Gambrell said.

That would keep Charleston ranked among the best cities in the world. “He has just always had this beautiful long vision and instinctively knows what is right,” Susanne said. “He has a moral compass that’s just a real gift,” she added.

Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. gets easily carried away when talking about baseball. At the start of a couple of Riverdogs’ seasons, actor Bill Murray has famously carried the mayor off the pitcher’s mound at the park that bears his name.

While sitting in Charleston City Council Chambers, Mayor Riley explained that there were moments in his career when he knew he was making a pivotal decision that would move this city forward.

“When something important in your life happens you can remember it clearly,” Mayor Riley said. “So I remember when Dr. Marcus Newberry joined me and Chief Conroy in my office to pitch the idea of the Cooper River Bridge Run.”

Riley said he had to keep looking to the future because Charleston is a city celebrated for it’s past. “What I felt was that we should make this a city about is what is happening right now so that it would be revered 50 to 100 years, not resting on any laurels.” Riley said. “How do we become a world class?  I think that was a theme undergirded our efforts”

Progress has always been important to Mayor Riley, he hired the first black Jewish police chief and the first woman fire chief. His more important victory is always making time for his wife Charlotte and their sons Joseph and Bratton.

“I always carefully select what I needed to do but I had to keep my wife and children my first responsibility,” Riley said. “I worked very hard to have meals together with Charlotte and the boys I worked my schedule together so that I would be there, by 6:15 I am shaking hands and out the back door and home in time for supper,” Riley added.

Carolyn asked Mayor Riley what he wanted to accomplish before he leave office. He said the International African-American Museum. “Construction won’t start before I leave office but I am working very hard to move it along so that when I leave office it is well on its way,” Mayor Riley said.  “Hearts will rejoice when the city has the ribbon cutting on this museum it will be a national event when that happens and the citizens of Charleston will be so proud.”

Riley’s sisters watched their brother’s rise through the political ranks. “He has never called us for advice but that’s not to say that we don’t sit around the table having some spirited discussions,” Susanne said. “But he has professionals to give him advice but if there is something going on with one of us or our family he is on the phone with us daily, ‘How are you doing how can I be of help?’,” Susanne added.

“He [Mayor Riley] keeps on an index card in his pocket everything that he has for the day,” Riley’s sister Mary Chambers said. “I am sure that every card has some mention of [the African-American museum] it.”

Mayor Riley reassured this grief-stricken community in the days following the most horrific act of violence in Charleston’s modern history, that the 9 people massacred during bible study at Emanuel AME Church would be honored in the African-American museum when it is finally built.

We asked Mayor Riley if he has spoken with anyone about becoming his successor. He stressed that just as he relied on the advise of quality advisors and committed employees so will the person who is elected mayor of Charleston. The good people of Charleston, he says, will embrace a leader as it embraced him for 40 years. The class of 1965 endowed the Joseph P. Riley, Jr. chair in American Government and Public Policy and he will teach and lecture at the Citadel. Riley will have an opportunity to write his memoirs and give an oral history. Known for being a progressive mayor, Charleston was the first city in the country to enact a preservation ordinance, protecting its many building and structures that bring many tourists and visitors to this community annually.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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