Work ethic, people skills made Theodore popular politician

people politics


OWEN RILEY JR./Staff

Nick Theodore served as a state legislator from 1963 to 1986, and as Lieutenant Governor under Greenville's Carroll Campbell from 1987 to 1995.


As a teen-ager, working in his father's Deluxe Cafe on East Washington Street, Nick Andrew Theodore learned lessons about work ethic, family, entrepreneurship and the value of education.

He may have learned even more about people, an interest that later guided him through 33 years in public office.

And when he married wife Emilie, a Savannah native just as gregarious as himself, they formed a team with the ideal skills for tackling the storms of political life.

Mrs. Theodore, who loves tennis and artwork, gives the team organizational skills. Theodore, a former Greenville High athlete who at age 73 was running 14 hilly miles a week, brings to the partnership a natural interest in the underdog and the ability to remember names. It's an art he often hides by referring to male friends as “buddy” and female friends as “honey.”

Both have charisma. And sincerity.

“Both seem energized by community involvement,” then-Greenville Symphony Orchestra Director Bob Howard told The Greenville News in 2001. “I think a lot of people who know them for their work in public office would be surprised to know how much they do for projects in this community. They go the extra mile.”

Theodore serves on the GSO Advisory Board, and frequently introduces the symphony to potential supporters. Mrs. Theodore serves on the GSO board of directors, where she has often surprised Howard with her willingness to tackle work.

“She's the kind of board member who calls you with an idea and won't leave it dropped in your lap -- she follows up with the leg work to help implement the idea,” says Howard. “The Theodores have done a lot for us.”

And there are other organizations who would say the same -- among them the Greenville Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, the United Way and the University Center.

The educational theme is no coincidence. Theodore watched his parents, Greek immigrants A.J. and Lula Theodore, work long days to raise five children in the Depression era.

Theodore, the youngest of the five, learned early that education was a high priority in his father's house, eclipsed only by religious matters and rivaled only by hard work.

Thanks to lobbying by older brother John, he was able to enjoy extra-curricular events at Greenville High, where he was senior class president in 1945.

Theodore went from there to Furman University, also working part time for an insurance agency.

“It was only $65 a semester,” he says of his college education, “but it was a struggle every time to put that together.”

By the time Theodore earned a business degree at Furman, the entrepreneurial spirit was strong. He opened his own insurance firm, Theodore Agency.

He also went to work as a volunteer with the Greenville Junior Chamber of Commerce, a work that set the stage for a political career that began in 1962. He thrived in leadership roles with the Jaycees, emerging as president of the Greenville chapter and later the state chapter.

That made public office a natural step, even though his family had no longtime political ties.

“It was probably a little harder,” Theodore says of his 1962 candidacy as a man of modest means and Greek descent, “but Greenville County, to me, has always been open-minded.”

Theodore was elected to the state Legislature on his first attempt and Greenville continued to send him to Columbia through 1994, when he completed an eight-year term as lieutenant governor and ran unsuccessfully for governor.

As a politician, he was a pioneer in the pursuit of better education. Years before it was fashionable or seemed feasible, Theodore was advocating more funding for education at all levels. And he supported a lottery to help generate funding.

“So many problems ... can be traced to a lack of quality education,” he says.

As a legislator, Theodore was the author of the Education Finance Act and legislation establishing the Basic Skills Assessment Testing Program and Restructuring of Higher Education Commission. He served as chairman of the House Education and Public Works Committee and was named Outstanding Legislator by the South Carolina School Boards Association.

His priorities were also apparent at home. “He's absolutely the best family man you've ever seen,” says Mrs. Theodore. “He lives for his children and his grandchildren. Even when he worked in Columbia, he never missed a birthday, a football game or a recital the kids were involved in.”

Each of the Theodores' three children have four children of their own, and the 12 grandchildren are an energizing force for Nick and Emilie Theodore, especially when all 12 visit their home, or when the clan congregates for the annual summer beach trip.

Longtime friend Floride Carter marvels at Mrs. Theodore's continuing penchant for long working days.

“She's on the go all day and never tires. I've never seen anything like it,” says Carter.

Mrs. Theodore apologizes for reducing some of her community commitment in recent years, but she continues to serve on governing boards for the USC Medical School Partnership, the Palmetto Trust for Heritage Preservation and the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.

An expert cook, Mrs. Theodore once made cookbook production a frequent part of political campaigns. She is also an ardent student of local history, which inspired her to produce a coloring book featuring 36 South Carolina historical sites.

Theodore has been a strong supporter of the Governor's School from its infancy. The same is true of the University Center, which now provides Greenville with a convenient link to seven state colleges.

“That was a very long shot in making a reality. On a scale of one to 10,” Theodore admits, “that was about a one. ... But all the institutions have been very supportive, and it's going to be a wonderful thing for Greenville.”

The educational outlet to seven schools -- Clemson, Furman, USC, USC Spartanburg, Lander, South Carolina State, and the Medical University of South Carolina – moved to McAlister Square in 2001.

Theodore, born in March 1928, is now retired. He served as a state legislator from 1963 to 1986, and as Lieutenant Governor, under Greenville’s Carroll Campbell, from 1987 to 1995.

Ironically, it was fellow Greenville resident Campbell who, in 1978, had defeated Theodore in an election to the United States House of Representatives from South Carolina's 4th congressional district.

Theodore ran for Governor in 1994, defeating Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. to secure the Democratic nomination. He lost to David Beasley in the general election.

Four years later in 1998 he tried to regain his former post as Lt. Governor but lost in the general election to incumbent Bob Peeler.

Abe Hardesty