State Sen. Bill Mescher, former president of Santee Cooper, died early Sunday after suffering a massive stroke. He was 79.

Mescher, who lived in Pinopolis with his wife, Kitty, is recognized for modernizing the state-owned utility. He also earned a reputation as a straight shooter who shook up the good ol' boy system in Berkeley County and the state Senate, where he served since 1993.

"He found out you 'got to play along to get along' and he wasn't going to do it," said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau. "He had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong, and he voted that way," Grooms said.

"You knew exactly where he stood on an issue, whether you agreed with him or not. He was professional enough to know how to disagree and do it agreeably," said Rep. Shirley Hinson, R-Goose Creek.

In May 2000, Mescher was criticized during a re-election campaign for butting heads with other senators. In an interview with The Post and Courier, he said, "I don't think I've been controversial. I'm just nobody's puppy dog ... I don't like some kingfish of the county to say, 'OK, Mescher, this is what we're going to do.' I don't jump in line."

Mescher was a native of Illinois who moved to South Carolina in 1976 to become president and chief executive officer of Santee Cooper after being heavily recruited by its board. He retired in 1989 and worked as a consultant before running for the District 44 Senate seat, which includes parts of Hanahan and Goose Creek, stretching from southern Berkeley County to Moncks Corner. He was the first Republican elected to the seat since Reconstruction.

Mescher was a champion of individual rights and had a quick sense of humor, Grooms said. Among his most publicized achievements, Mescher built support for legalizing tattoo parlors in the state. He launched a 10-year fight for the legalization because he was concerned about the unsanitary conditions of underground parlors and the potential for disease. He also fought for six years to allow ferrets to be sold in South Carolina pet stores after a constituent called him and asked him for help.

This year, Mescher's big push was to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. He introduced a bill after seeing his first wife, Shirley, suffer through a losing battle with cancer. The bill is being considered by the Senate Medical Affairs Committee.

Mescher sat in the back corner of the Senate chamber, although his seniority would have allowed him to pick almost any desk. He rarely took the floor because he didn't like to be in the spotlight, Grooms said.

However, he took the podium late last month to make a case for the state Department of Transportation to be restructured to look more like Santee Cooper, an argument Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell said helped persuade the Senate to do so in its proposed bill.

Rep. David Umphlett, R-Moncks Corner, said Mescher was known throughout the county for his constituent service, especially for senior citizens. Kitty Mescher played a significant role in her husband's political life, serving as his campaign manager.

"They knew they could call him and he would respond. He was a people's senator," Umphlett said.

"Bill Mescher was exactly the type of person we need in public service," said Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, whose district includes part of Berkeley County.

Robert Tanner of Pinopolis, former chief operating officer at Santee Cooper, said Mescher leaves a long legacy behind at the utility.

"He brought new ideas, new thoughts, a new style of management," Tanner said. "He brought a new light to Santee Cooper."

Tanner and Lonnie Carter, the utility's current CEO, credited Mescher with turning the utility around and helping it become what it is today. Under Mescher's watch, Santee Cooper saw a growth of generating stations and transmission lines and an explosion of new customers and new industries lured by cheap electricity that helped the state's economic development.

Mescher was raised on a farm in Illinois and educated at the University of Illinois and Northwestern University. He also worked as a prison guard, served as a staff sergeant in the Korean War and held many volunteer positions.

"He genuinely loved Berkeley County," Supervisor Dan Davis said. "When he believed in something, he worked very hard for it and didn't mince words that much. I am sure it's going to cast a dark cloak over the county."

Mescher's seat will be declared vacant when the Senate returns Tuesday. It's unlikely that an election will be held to replace him before the Senate adjourns for the year. Mescher had been routinely re-elected by 2-to-1 margins.

His funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Moncks Corner United Methodist Church, 200 N. Live Oak Drive. Visitation will begin at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Russell Funeral Chapel, 107 W. Main St.

Memorials can be sent to Moncks Corner United Methodist Church, the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association.

In addition to his wife, Mescher leaves behind a daughter, Barbara Mescher Dear Micheau of Moncks Corner; two stepdaughters, Kathy Tanner Johnson of Georgetown and Karen Tanner of Hanahan; a stepson, Reed Clifton Tanner III of Goose Creek; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.