Cheering Riverdogs fans filled the bleachers of the Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park during the team’s season opener on April 9. Hot dogs and peanuts appeased hungry stomachs as an early spring breeze caressed the crowds from the banks of the Ashley River. The crowd was cheering neither for the herculean hitting nor the fine fielding. Rather, they cheered for the stadium’s namesake as he inaugurated the final season for his home team as mayor: Joe Riley.
Riley’s relationship to this city and its inhabitants is intimate, defined by far more than a typical public servant’s devotion. He won the hearts of his constituents 10 times over, defining his tenure over the course of 40 years and earning a spot among the longest presiding mayors in the United States. Among his laundry list of accomplishments while in office: constructing Waterfront Park, creating the Piccolo Spoleto festival and spurring the development of high-end shopping and restaurants on King Street. His tally of honors and awards affirms his achievements.
All good things must come to end, though, and Riley will celebrate his last day in office this December. So how did his journey begin?
The year was 1974. Riley was finishing his first term as a legislator in the South Carolina House of Representatives – a position he won after graduating with a law degree from the University of South Carolina. He intended to practice law full time but this path was deterred when he was urged to run for mayor. “In ‘75 … either there was going to be a candidate that could be a racial bridge builder or it was going to be a divisive election,” he said. “So people urged me to run because they felt I could be a racial bridge builder and so that’s why I ran for mayor.”
The very first City Council meeting he attended was the one over which he presided, but it was far from the last. Riley continued pursuing his vision for a better Charleston, one not defined by suburban-flight and violence as it was when he took office. He saw past the city’s frayed edges, recognizing its “beautiful bones” and knowing that it “had a wonderful future.”
Riley’s plan for achieving his vision was unconventional. He took risky real estate investments, including what is now Charleston Place Hotel, and insisted on developing parks and improving public transportation. Opponents could be fierce, but Riley persevered, confident in decisions guided by “studied, thoughtful input.” Once he established assurance in a decision, no obstacle was too big to overcome. “You’re confident that it’s the right thing to do and you know [obstacles are] just part of your job,” he said. “So if it’s lawsuits or criticism or controversy, you have this clear, earned assurance that what you’re doing is correct so you just hang in there.”
Although 40 years have passed since Riley first walked through the doors of City Hall, his vision has remained constant. Particularly vital to his dream for Charleston is racial harmony. It is why he ran for mayor, and he seeks to constantly improve upon this goal. The racial progress he has made while in office was tested this summer when nine people were shot while praying at Emanuel AME church. Addressing racial harmony, he said, “We must continually work on inclusiveness and understanding of each other, and so that’s the most important work in progress and I’m very proud of where we are, how far we’ve come.”
Riley attended every funeral.
The Emanuel tragedy shook everyone to the bone, spurring anger and passion and a newfound impetus for change. Riley is building upon the energy of these emotions, constructing a just future from careful study of the past. By the end of his term, he hopes to raise $75 million to construct the International African American museum, which will be located on Gadsen’s Wharf on the Cooper River – the entry point for over 100,000 slaves to the United States. He believes the museum will educate everyone about African American lives, experiences and contributions that “haven’t been well presented.” A special exhibition will focus on the Emanuel shooting.
Raising $75 million is not an easy feat, but for Riley, it is just part of the job. He defines success in his career as “helping make important and worthwhile things happen” – a definition he lives up to every day. So what advice would one of the most successful people in Charleston give his twenty-year-old self? Learn. Work. Have good values. Take care of family. Treat people nicely. Give back to the community … Not that any of this is different from what he actually did.
And that’s just the kind of person Riley is. His life philosophy is simple; its composition is that of adages and values we’ve all heard before. But to carry out those life tenets so gracefully, thoughtfully and consistently creates greatness.
Riley is confident that the direction he created in Charleston is the way it should be going. In another 40 years, he hopes that his vision for the city will be further advanced along the same lines, but with even better public education, public transportation, historic protection and parks. These were all components of his original platform in 1975. His mission is clear, and now he just needs someone to carry on the torch.
Perhaps his ultimate secret to success, one that he has epitomized throughout his career, lies in this final piece of advice: “Seek something that you like to do. [It’s] really more important than money because life is – it’s finite. So seek to do something in a good way.”
*This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Yard