John Bourne first came to what is now North Charleston in 1944 as a left end with the Conway High School Tigers' football team.
"I didn't think I would ever come back," the Pee Dee native remembered as he recently drove past the football field on East Montague Avenue. "They tore us up."
But Bourne did come back — in 1949 — and a huge part of the metropolitan area eventually changed forever because of him.
Today, his name is synonymous with North Charleston. He was the force behind its founding, served as its mayor for nearly 20 years and guided it to become the state's third-largest city not too long after it was incorporated in 1972.
But it wasn't easy. It took several tries over several years by different people to build a city out of the largely industrial and military suburbs north of Charleston.
Now 80, Bourne recently drove around the city he helped establish, talking about how he did it, what the city was like then and what he thinks about it now.
The Park Circle resident hasn't lost his love for the city and believes that everything he did was right for the city to continue its motto of perseverance, progress and prosperity.
"I think it's great," Bourne said of what the city has become. "Think of what would have happened if it hadn't happened. It would be chaos out here. If we had to go back, it would be terrible. That's what city government is for — to create order."
In the old days, dirt sidewalks lay along part of East Montague Avenue's now-bustling business district. Reynolds Avenue teemed with sailors in port who made a beeline to the nightclubs and prostitutes that thrived there.
Trees and wetlands stood where Centre Pointe's Tanger Outlet Center and surrounding retail outlets now add to the city's long-running reign as No. 1 in the state in retail sales. Upper Dorchester Road remained countryside without a hint of Coosaw Creek and other suburbs and the traffic gridlock that followed.
Many of the neighborhoods were built way before the area was a city. Sidewalks were not required. Drainage was a county problem the city inherited. The industrial base and military sector helped paint the North Area as a blue-collar community that was looked down upon by high-brow Charlestonians.
Still, Bourne managed to build a city, helping to lay sidewalks in the old business district, cleaning up Reynolds Avenue's seedy reputation, trying to bring new businesses into the city at Centre Pointe and annexing land — large chunks at a time or parcel by parcel.
Over the years, Bourne used a forceful personality and political smarts to push past opponents and keep city council in check. He battled environmentalists, proudly talked about the city's "developer-friendly" stance and out-maneuvered anyone who put up a roadblock.
He often made people angry, but he nearly always came out on top.
"We didn't let anything get in our way," Bourne said while standing outside the city's first City Hall, now a glass shop with a plaque out front in the Olde Village. "We had to do the city's work. I don't have any serious regrets about how we did it."
One year after the city was founded, Charleston County officials told city leaders its authorities would not answer law enforcement calls inside the city's limits.
"I never asked why," Bourne said. "I bought police cars and hired 16 officers. We became a city to be a city. That just helped us move faster."
He quickly annexed the Navy and Air Force bases, moving the city from ninth-highest in population in the state when it was founded to third-highest within a few years, a distinction it still holds. From there the city expanded north toward Goose Creek and west toward Summerville, taking in large tracts of undeveloped land in Dorchester County between Ashley Phosphate and Ladson roads.
Those areas are now home to Coosaw Creek, Wescott Plantation and other housing developments along upper Dorchester Road.
After building a city from scratch and leading it for two decades, he finally lost his bid for a sixth term as mayor in 1991. It was a rough-and-tumble campaign, like many North Charleston elections in those days.
Bourne, a former state senator and member of Charleston County Council, lost partly because of the move to single-member election districts for council members and because of a controversial policy that all police officers had to live in the city.
Mostly, though, people were ready for something different.
"I felt bad," he said. "I had given the city all that I had. You can't build cities and be bashful about it. People just wanted a change. It was a shocker. I never wanted to be mayor again."
Bourne went back to doing what he did before he became mayor: selling real estate. He recently closed the office he maintained for 20 years on Rivers Avenue near the City Hall he once commanded and helped build.
He now operates his business out of his home.
Although Mayor Keith Summey, a former city councilman who was elected in 1994, doesn't call Bourne for advice, he said they talk when they bump into one another.
The two men often were on opposite sides when Summey was a councilman, sometimes leading to harsh words. But Summey said he still respects Bourne.
"He created a city when nobody else was able to," Summey said. "He was probably the best individual for the start of the city because he was a controlling mayor. It's like when you raise children. When they are younger, they need a lot of hands-on guidance and direction. We owe John Bourne for what we are today."
Summey said there is no doubt that the area needed to become a city.
"There was no master plan for how we developed before we were a city, and we are still doing a lot of cleanup because of that," Summey said.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who was first elected mayor three years after Bourne created North Charleston in 1972, said building North Charleston into a city was the right thing to do.
"People referred to it generally as the North Area," Riley said. "It was undefined. It developed to give citizens a municipal government, an identity and a quality of life."
Riley said there might have been an effort long before he was born to make North Charleston part of Charleston, but Charleston opted not to do that.
"The part of the community that was North Charleston needed to become a municipality," Riley said. "It was the right thing to do. It's a great city. It's vibrant, energetic, sound, well-led and full of energy. It has a great future."
Riley called Bourne a hard worker who gave his full attention to whatever the task was at hand.
"He was an excellent leader and his energy and focus rubbed off on people who worked with him," Riley said.
Though out of the political limelight for nearly two decades, Bourne still supports controversial projects in North Charleston, including the redevelopment of the former former Charleston Naval Base.
"I'm on board the Noisette project," he said. "It is a worthwhile thing. The city needs to see it through."
City Councilman Bob King, who was an elected county official when Bourne was mayor, didn't support everything Bourne did.
While he considers him a friend, King noted that Bourne was criticized for the appearance that his roles as mayor and part of a real estate firm sometimes were too close. He also didn't like that Bourne changed the zoning in some areas to put multifamily housing in single-family districts, something the city is working to change.
While King agrees with Bourne that all city employees should live in the city, he disagrees with Bourne on Noisette.
Bourne said the biggest criticism he ever heard was that council was criticized for being a rubber stamp to his ideas.
Bourne doesn't have any stones to throw at the current administration. He believes the city is doing what it needs to do to move forward on all fronts.
"Everything the city is doing, I support it."
John E. Bourne Jr.
BORN: Dec. 4, 1927 in ConwayFAMILY: wife, Blanche, and three childrenHOME: Park CircleMOVED TO NORTH CHARLESTON: 1949BECAME FIRST NORTH CHARLESTON MAYOR: 1972WAS DEFEATED: 1991PROFESSION: Real estate agent
John Bourne, North Charleston's first mayor, checks out the building on East Montague Avenue on March 11 that served as City Hall in the 1970s.×
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