A Towering Legacy: Remembering Bryan Dorn

Bryan Dorn

Bryan Dorn campaigning from the back of a pickup truck

William Jennings Bryan Dorn has been on my mind lately.  In truth, I think of Mr. Dorn often.  I got to know him well, late in his life.  He made a big impression.

Bryan Dorn was born for politics.  He entered the arena as a very young man, served in the state legislature and then for twenty years in Congress.  He ended his public service in a role perfect for his nature and abilities – four years chairing the state Democratic Party.  Champion of veterans and the textile industry, his name is familiar to many today as the namesake of Columbia’s Veterans Administration hospital.

This week we approved a small Dorn Research Award for a young PhD candidate at Cambridge.  USC’s Dorn Endowment supports graduate assistantships with SCPC as well as the awards program.  The latter provides awards of up to $1,000 to scholars drawn to Columbia to study SCPC collections, and these researchers are reimbursed for travel, lodging, copying, etc.  Many of the best repositories offer such awards.  Over the years, each recipient has excited us during their visit — both about their research topic and in the shared excitement as they mine our collections for nuggets of fact and insight.  We are looking forward to the visit of this young woman later this summer.

Dorn at VA hospital

Congressman Dorn visiting patients at a Veterans hospital; he was a staunch supporter of American veterans.

Our experience in raising the endowment proved some fund raising principles, but disproved another.  It is often said that once a politician retires from office, their fund raising potential dies.  Mr. Dorn proved an exception to that rule.  When we set out to raise the endowment we looked for volunteers to help us.  Volunteers are crucial to much of what we do and nowhere more needed than in our efforts to raise money.  Dorn relative Steve Griffith and textile association leader Jerry Beasley became the primary drivers of our effort.  They appreciated that the old textile families would remember Mr. Dorn’s heroic efforts on behalf of their industry.  Within about a year, the endowment stood at over $75,000.

1974 primaries in SC

Cartoon depicting the crowded field in the 1974 primaries
(Walt Lardner)

But that wasn’t the only thing that has made me think of Mr. Dorn.  In 1974, Dorn decided to seek the office of Governor, foregoing certain reelection to Congress.  He became a key player in one of the most memorable gubernatorial elections in South Carolina history.  1974 saw a large Democratic primary field and our first statewide Republican primary.  USC holds the papers of six of those candidates – Democrats Dorn, “Pug” Ravenel, John Bolt Culbertson, and Nick Zeigler, and Republicans Jim Edwards and retired Vietnam War commander William Westmoreland, the latter’s papers at the Caroliniana.


Oral history narrator Hal Ravenel (right) with his brother Pug and President Jimmy Carter

Earlier this week we mounted the transcript of my oral history interview with Pug’s brother.  Hal Ravenel was a key campaign aide and wanted his reflections on record.  He proved a superb narrator and I found the interview inspiring.  Also, Associate Director Dorothy Walker is finishing her long project arranging and describing the papers of former governor and U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley.  And in reviewing her excellent work, I have been thinking of Mr. Dorn’s strong selfless support of Riley in the 1978 campaign that elected Riley governor.

One of the great perks of this job is that I get to meet many of the movers and shakers in South Carolina government.  I become close to some of these men and women and those relationships are richly rewarding on a variety of levels.  I find many to be inspirational.

I was lucky to get to know Bryan Dorn, and hope readers might like to learn a bit more about him through his collection description and the four hours of his speeches that are available in our digitized selection, Dorn: In His Own Words.

Herb Hartsook

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