He was a statesman, a doer of the people’s work, and above all he was a husband, a father and a friend.
Billy O’Dell’s legislative legacy echoes throughout Greenwood and the Lakelands, and his memory was invoked constantly at Thursday evening’s legislative barbecue, hosted by the Piedmont Technical College Foundation at Bermuda’s in Stoney Point.
The Laklelands legislative delegation was there, along with local government officials, educators, business leaders and key figures throughout the community.
The big news of the night, as PTC President Ray Brooks announced, was that they had decided to name the college’s upcoming new building after O’Dell — the William O’Dell Upstate Center for Manufacturing Excellence.
Brooks shared a story about how the decision to honor O’Dell came to a speed bump with a simple question.
“Theo Lane said ‘Well, what does Gayle have to say about it,’” Brooks said to the crowd at Stoney Point.
Brooks hadn’t asked amid the plans, but when they went to seek the permission of O’Dell’s wife of more than five decades, she was touched by the gesture.
“This is quite an honor for him,” Gayle said. “I told my children, he would appreciate the honor, but he never did try to go out and get anything for himself.”
That was the refrain of the evening, with one legislator after another explaining the selfless service O’Dell showed during his tenure in the state Senate.
Sen. Ronnie Cromer said he’d shared an office suite with O’Dell, and they came to call each other by nicknames such as “roomie.” He saw O’Dell work tirelessly to support PTC and Lander University, along with his alma mater, The Citadel.
“One of the first things that I found out about Billy was he was devoted to The Citadel,” Cromer said. “But now, Billy never really looked for any sort of personal credit.”
State Sen. Mike Gambrell echoed this characterization of humility, and said O’Dell was a true southern gentleman. He could get upset, but never showed anger, he said.
And he was experienced — a seasoned politician who knew his way around Columbia offices. State Sen. Floyd Nicholson said he was grateful to move into O’Dell’s office suite when he was elected in 2008.
“The only thing they told me when I got down there was where the bathroom was,” he said.
He said it was good not only to have someone who knew his way around, but someone to look up to.
“If we want to follow in his footsteps, remember: We are public servants, and we are doing things for our constituents,” he said.
Instead of rallying around O’Dell’s many accolades, many chose to remember him with stories. Legislators shared fond moments talking politics, while O’Dell took a break from legislative debates to smoke a cigar, or go on disastrous dove-shooting trips that ended with a laugh.
State Rep. Mike Pitts explained that he was wearing a polo to an event where many wore suits and ties.
“Billy said even if we held this event in January, it would be the hottest damn day of the year,” he said.
In his absence, many state politicians lost the metric they used to measure statesmanship by, said state Rep. Anne Parks.
“What are we going to do without Billy O’Dell,” she said. “In the House, we used to have a saying ... ‘Thank God for the Senate.’ But I had my own saying, ‘Thank God for Billy O’Dell.’”
Building of the center is made possible through $6.1 million of Capital Project Sales Tax money, and construction on the 45,000-square-foot building will start in 2018, Brooks said. For Greenwood County Council, Chairman Steve Brown said it was an honor to help pass the tax that made the building possible.
He commended naming the building in O’Dell’s honor, and called him a helper and a friend.
“We are not here tonight because someone has passed from us,” he said, “but for someone who lived.”
When the building is complete, many manufacturing classes will move to the new facility, which will house new classrooms and lab spaces, along with training space to support workforce development.
Contact staff writer Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.