James B. Edwards, South Carolina's first Republican governor since Reconstruction and later energy secretary for two years in the Reagan administration, died Friday. He was 87.
His death at home in the Charleston suburb of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., was confirmed by his son-in-law Ken Wingate.
The oral surgeon served in the state Senate and helped build the modern Republican Party in South Carolina before becoming governor in 1974.
Edwards was limited to one term under state law at the time. After leaving the governor's mansion, he headed to Washington as President Reagan's energy secretary.
Edwards, who was born in 1927 in Florida but moved to Charleston County as a toddler, returned in 1982 to become president of the Medical University of South Carolina, a position he held for 17 years before retiring.
Entering the 1974 governor's race, Edwards was not sure of his chances in the GOP primary facing well-known retired Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. troops in Vietnam.
Edwards, who served in the U.S. Maritime Service during World War II and as a Navy Reserve officer during the Korean War, won the nomination but was still a Republican running in a Democratic state.
That year, however, the Democrats were divided after the state Supreme Court ruled that Democratic front-runner Charles D. "Pug" Ravenel did not meet the residency requirements to run for governor.
Edwards defeated U.S. Rep. Bryan Dorn — who became the Democratic nominee in a special convention — by about 17,500 votes.
In a 1999 Associated Press interview, Edwards said the job he most enjoyed was governor, particularly working on economic development, education and energy issues at a time when people seemed to work together. During his tenure, the Education Finance Act was passed. It remains the basis for how K-12 public education is funded in South Carolina.
"Anything you wanted, you could ask anyone in the state to help you," he recalled. "I put away partisan politics when I got to Columbia. We had the whole Senate and the House, the vast majority working with us."
As Department of Energy secretary, Edwards served two years working on Reagan's plan to close down the agency — an idea that never made it through Congress.
In 1982, Edwards was recruited to take the MUSC job. He planned to stay only a year or so but ended up staying 17 years during a time when the university's budget grew from $200 million to $840 million. During his tenure, more than 10,000 health professionals graduated from the university.