Bernanke: Product, pride of the Pee Dee

Ben Bernanke waited tables during summer breaks at the South of the Border theme park on U.S. Interstate 95 in in Dillon. The S.C. Department of Tranportation named a nearby interchnage after the Federal Reserve chairman in 2009. (Leroy Burnell/Staff/File)

Leroy Burnell

Ben Bernanke undoubtedly has plenty of options about how to spend his time once he steps down from his pressure cooker of a job at the Federal Reserve.

He easily could slip back into academia. Or hang out a consulting shingle as predecessor Alan Green-span did. Or maybe he'll just decide to actually retire and enjoy life after a stressful stint as the world's most important financial figure during a period of global economic upheaval.

But Fed leaders are skilled at dancing around pointed questions. So when asked about his post-Fed plans at a news conference earlier this month, Bernanke naturally didn't bite, though he responded more forcefully than usual.

“I don't have anything for you on my personal plans,” he said June 19.

But it's a fair bet that the 59-year-old central banker isn't likely to return to the tiny corner of South Carolina where he spent his formative years.

Born in Augusta, Bernanke was raised in the rural Pee Dee town of Dillon, where his immigrant grandfather settled in the 1940s to open a drugstore.

The future Ivy League-trained economist graduated in 1971 from Dillon High School, where he was valedictorian. He also penned a novel on race, taught himself calculus because it wasn't available locally and won a statewide spelling bee.

Between classes and studying numbers, he worked. He helped out in the family drugstore and waited tables at the famed South of the Border tourist attraction along I-95, where an interchange now stands as a minor monument to his lofty accomplishments. One grueling summer, he hauled wheelbarrows of cement on a local construction site.

“There is no such thing as a bad job,” Bernanke said in a 2004 speech. “There is only a beginning job.”

He left the Palmetto State never to look back. He earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard, and later taught and studied economics at Stanford and Princeton. Known for his collection of Hawaiian shirts and a passion for baseball, “Gentle Ben” made his mark in academia as a consensus-builder and for his groundbreaking research on the Fed's role in causing and prolonging the Great Depression.

Both would come in handy.

President George W. Bush tapped him in 2003 for a spot on the Fed's Board of Governors and later to chair his Council of Economic Advisers. Bernanke got the nod to succeed the then-legendary Greenspan in 2006, less than two years before the world became undone, financially speaking.

The kid from the Pee Dee was named Time magazine's “Person of the Year” in 2009 for his handling of that crisis, though the era of cheap money he ushered in since then has won him some new critics.

While Bernanke no longer calls South Carolina home, Dillon High and the rest of the Pee Dee are still proud to claim him. He still has relatives living in the state, and he's been known on occasion to vacation in his old stomping grounds.

His first and only official visit to Charleston as Fed chairman came in August 2010 at the Southern Legislative Conference.

He used his bully pulpit that morning to shoot back at critics of the government's hand-ling of the financial crisis who had groused that the Fed was more focused on helping the fats cats on Wall Street than mom and pop on Main Street. Bernanke defended the steps his and other public agencies took worldwide as “very, very difficult” but “absolutely necessary.”

“Suppose you had a nuclear plant across the river from a major city, and it was about to have a global meltdown, and the government prevented that power plant from exploding. And people on the other side of the river said, 'Well, you just did that to help the shareholders.' That's the kind reaction of we get,” he said.

Bernanke was asked at the end of that talk to revisit his version of the events that transpired in corridors of power amid the near-collapse of the global financial system in September 2008.

“Well, how much time you got?” he quipped.

Add stand-up comic to the list of his post-Fed career choices.

Contact John P. McDermott at 937-5572.