John Graham Altman, the sharp-tongued, quick-witted and often controversial Charleston school board member and state legislator, died Tuesday after a long period of failing health. He was 79.
Altman, of Folly Road in West Ashley, was a political force around Charleston for nearly half a century. Fiercely conservative, he often would rile his political opponents with his admittedly less-than-politically correct rhetoric.
As a political animal for decades, it was almost fitting that he died on Election Day 2013.
Altman had been in declining health for some time. His wife, Charm, recently reported that he had taken a turn for the worse and had been admitted to the intensive care unit at Medical University Hospital, suffering from kidney and blood infections.
Friends were quick to rally behind the bare-knuckled figure.
“He had a way of getting people’s feathers ruffled,” state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said Tuesday. “But at the end of the day, he was a consummate public servant.”
Phillip Farley, who operates Farley’s Barber Shop in Hanahan, which doubles as a political gab site next door to Altman’s law practice, called Altman “a patriot.”
“He stood for all the right reasons,” Farley said. “He didn’t bow down to anybody.”
When Altman retired from the House of Representatives in 2006, some friends feared that it was health related, stemming from a habit of heavy smoking and an overweight physical frame.
But Altman kept practicing law and even flirted with a return to the Charleston County School Board, where he made his greatest mark in local politics.
In many ways, Altman was ahead of his time. He fought for lower spending before it was a required stance for a politician, he believed in limited government before it was a catchphrase, and showed no mercy in attacking ideas or proposals he found lacking in merit.
In other ways he was a throwback. On the school board he pushed for a greater focus on reading, writing and arithmetic, and he argued for a greater starting salary for teachers.
But he upset some parents when he lobbied to cut class time for art, music and physical education — “crayons, sing-alongs and roll-the-ball,” as he called it.
After 20 years on the school board, he won a West Ashley seat in the Statehouse and took his brand of bare-knuckle politics to Columbia, where he continued his with-us-or-against-us ways.
When courts shot down a conservative-themed license plate with the slogan “Choose Life,” Altman introduced legislation to create a vanity plate that read “Choose Death.”
He proposed cutting funding for public television after a show on homosexuals aired, and he gained national attention when he said he didn’t understand why battered women returned to their abusers.
Atheists, bureaucrats and liberals were among his favorite targets for his barbs, which sometimes were followed up by quoting examples of scripture.
State Rep. Leon Howard, D-Columbia, called him a racist after Altman killed a Howard bill that would require wrappers on plastic drinking straws. Altman said there were more important issues than “naked drinking straws.”
Even his critics respected his passion and his ability to draw attention to an issue. His politically incorrect remarks on abused women led the state House to pass stringent domestic violence laws.
“John Graham Altman was a true conservative,” said S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston. “You always knew where you stood with him, he never hesitated to say exactly what was on his mind. John was a dear friend of mine and we are all going to miss him.”
Altman took to public life early on. In 1959, when he was only a year out of law school, he took a job as then-Gov. Fritz Hollings’ press secretary. He served in that job for four years, and it was his last public turn as a Democrat.
In the 1970s, Altman came into his own as a member of the Charleston County School Board. Former board member Hillery Douglas remembered having a number of “run-ins” with Altman during board meetings. “But when you look back at it, maybe some of those run-ins were positive or good,” he said Tuesday.
Altman left the Statehouse in 2006 after a 10-year career in Columbia, feisty to the end. His good-bye speech showed him to be as unrepentant as ever, blasting newspaper editors, public schools and illegal immigrants. He also told other lawmakers to stick to their convictions.
“The best politics is no politics,” he said. “Hang in there with what you believe, and do it.”