The Passing of a Darlington County Hero
By M B Spears, Special to the News & Press
On the 10th of June one of the heroes in UNSOLVED: A MURDER IN THE SOLID SOUTH left this life.
Robert Culp Beckham was born and grew all the way up in Darlington County. Though he lived in Georgia from 1960 on, he never stopped thinking of South Carolina as his home state. When he left the Army his parents were dead, the farm was already gone, and he didn’t come back. “The way Darlington County was tied up, I couldn’t’ve made it the way I have. I’d’ve had to make deals I couldn’t have lived with.” (Unsolved, p. 450.) If you understand the politics of our place and time, you know what he meant.
In Georgia, he built Beckham Oil Company after repeatedly winning national recognition as Texaco’s Top Salesman. Devoted all his life to family, he and his wife Susan established their own. (They were seldom omitted from his conversation.) He nurtured the fledgling Georgia Republican Party, served in the Georgia legislature, and in ’76 he had the honor of nominating Ronald Reagan to run for President. His memorial service and visitation were postponed a full week because so many Georgia legislators asked to attend. The American flag is part of his obituary.
But this tribute, here at home, is needed because all his life, Bobby Beckham remembered the kids and the adults he worked with here in Darlington County, and cherished them. One was James Bunch, my research man and FOIA expert. Another is James Buie, who thinks of Bobby “almost as a father.”
If you’ve read UNSOLVED, you know his Depression Era background:
Bobby grew up on the family farm (which was soon lost for taxes) and graduated from Hartsville High in the Class of ’49 as an outstanding athlete. When Paul T. Beckham became our County Jailer, the family was glad to move into the steam-heated jailhouse in the middle of Darlington, where “Mama’s cooking” won high praise from prisoners. Bobby went to University of South Carolina on a double sports scholarship, but abandoned formal education because he was needed to help out at the jail: “Papa” had had a stroke.
Bobby was working as Office Deputy for Sheriff Johnny Stokes when Bill Cain became aware of him. The Principal of St John’s High suggested he find time to assist new Phys. Ed. teacher /coach Charlena Chewning with the girls’ basketball team. Soon enough, boys began asking him to coach them in baseball.
The photo above is one Beckham kept with him for 60 years. As soon as he saw me name some of the boys, he gave it to me, somehow trusting I’d know how to use this picture of him with his baseball protégés. And now I do. (See caption under the picture.)
At Francis Marion, I met basketball standout Jacquie Moody, Joe’s daughter, who had learned free throws and guarding from Bobby. Her younger sister Becky received the first sports scholarship awarded to a female at FMC. I know because I won it for her in the Financial Aid Committee by arguing hard against the men’s coach; he said, “Nobody pays to see a women’s game.” What a contrast. To Bobby Beckham, money was never the point. What mattered was your determination to improve your skills in the worthwhile activities you enjoy. That, and an openness to learning from the best.
Readers saw Bob Beckham of Darlington County as a courageous lawman in UNSOLVED. Only a few, like James Bunch, knew that before. Today, we can celebrate the open, generous nature that grew up in a loving family that never bowed to challenging circumstances. It was the secret behind his lifelong success.
What a man. His many friends join me in saying we are honored to have known him.