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U.S. Sen. Ernest 'Fritz' Hollings, D-S.C., talks to supporters at the Galivants Ferry Stump in Horry County in 1996.  AP file

Fritz Hollings was a frustrating interview.

Entertaining, yes.

But if you expected a straight answer out of him, you'd be fooling yourself. 

I once asked him his thoughts about how the Charleston region had recovered following the closure of the Naval Base and Shipyard in the 1990s. 

"He's looking for a stoooreey," came the booming response, his accusatory finger pointing at me from behind his desk at the Medical University of South Carolina.

He proceeded on a 20-minute tangent about the Panama Canal before describing a subcommittee meeting he attended in the 1960s followed by a listing of four or five backroom politicians from the past I'd never heard of.

It was like asking someone the time of day and instead they explain — in great detail — how the parts of a watch get assembled.

The only clue he was interested in the interview came at the end, when he asked about my family's health history and brought up how some of the testing for Alzheimer's and dementia was advancing.

"Get tested," he encouraged.

It was not long after his wife, Peatsy, had been overtaken by the disease. 

A day after Hollings passed April 6 at age 97, I sent an email query to his former staffers asking what it was like to work for the senator during his 38 years in Washington.

My email basket quickly blew up.

Some 500 people worked for Hollings over the decades, either in Washington or his in-state satellite offices. They helped him on issues across the board, from commerce to matters of airline safety, his re-election bids and constituent service.

Most spoke in warm, appreciative tones or of the optimism he gave them about working in government.

Some called themselves "Hollings Kids."

They also spoke of a love and dedication not seen in most other political offices in the state today.

The ex-staffers won't be among those giving speeches at his funeral Tuesday when he is eulogized by former Vice President Joe Biden at The Citadel.

Here's some of their reflections, wisdom and life lessons they took away from working for Hollings:

"He was a very tough boss for a very young female lawyer in 1980. He treated us all the same: He was difficult to all of us."  — Lorretta Dunn Schmitzer, whose expertise was trade. "I loved the man," she said.

"When I first worked in his D.C. office as a young intern, I put tons of time into a bill that we ultimately lost. I thought he’d be furious but instead he said, 'We worked hard, everyone played fair but we lost. No sour grapes. Move on and tackle what’s next.'” — Tiffany Provence, who worked in Hollings' Columbia office until 1998 and on his final Senate campaign. 

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"When he got bent out of shape over something the staff had done, he didn’t hold a grudge or make them think he thought less of them. He did expect you not to make the same mistake again though." — Steve Skardon, part-time file clerk while in college, 1970-74.

"I think the military was a great influence on Sen. Hollings. He led from the front. ... He took care of his troops. There’s a certain urgency that comes from having seen war, and clearly his time as governor gave him agency on tackling hardships faced by the poorest of society." — Julia Krauss Torrey, who started as a special assistant in 1996.

Republican U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond "was out there a long, long time. Fritz was watching him and told me: 'We are not leaving here before I see him safe.' This is the honest truth. I think that pretty much says much about Fritz." — William Ralph Garris, who started as an intern, relating how Hollings distantly guarded the aged Thurmond, who was waiting for a ride following a joint appearance.

"With all of his military and political experience, he never used fear or intimidation with his staff. He could be tough, but with integrity. He hired great talent and trusted people to perform, and he credited us when we did well." — Kem Carter Anderson, special assistant 1987-94.

The staff was there "because Sen. Hollings wanted them, used them, relied on them in a way most senators never know how to use staff. He was demanding in all the right ways. If you didn’t know your stuff, you had to go — just how it should be in public service." — Liz Tankersley, a committee counsel, 1980-85.

Schedule for Hollings' funeral:

All events are open to the public.

Visitation: 3-6 p.m. Sunday, James A. McAlister Funerals and Cremation, 1620 Savannah Highway, Charleston.

Statehouse public observance: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday in Columbia.

Funeral: 11 a.m. Tuesday, Summerall Chapel, The Citadel.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.