Sen. Billy O'Dell, a Ware Shoals native and businessman who was first elected to the state Senate in 1988, has died at age 77.
O'Dell -- who represented Abbeville, Anderson and Greenwood counties -- likely died Thursday morning from heart-related issues, according to the Greenwood County Coroner's Office.
Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood, said he spoke with O'Dell's son, Billy, Thursday morning about his death and was told O'Dell "was fine at work" the day before.
"They say he had a heart attack this morning," Nicholson said. "It's just hard to explain. I'm just devastated."
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said during a workshop attended by dozens of reporters and editors at the Statehouse on Thursday that O'Dell had died, prompting a moment of silence during the gathering.
"When I think of Sen. O'Dell, I think of his support for The Citadel and his great love of South Carolina," Peeler said during a break in the session. "He brought a calmness to the Senate. He was very reasoned. He didn't talk much, but when he did, we listened."
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said O'Dell was "one of the kindest, most civil guys up here (in the Statehouse). When he spoke, he knew what he was talking about and was very effective because of that."
Massey said O'Dell was not necessarily the point person on particular legislation, but credited him with working behind the scenes "to work out problems" and help build consensus.
"He did a lot of good for a lot of people for a long time," Massey said. "He was devoted to his district, the people who sent him" to Columbia as a lawmaker.
Entering the Senate in 1989, O'Dell served on several powerful committees including finance and labor, commerce and industry. He also chaired the General Committee, which serves as a catch-all for special projects, such as the panel that investigated the Department of Social Services over the past two years.
O'Dell graduated from The Citadel in 1960 and was CEO of the O'Dell Corporation, a mop, broom and dust mop manufacturing company started by his father after he returned from service in World War II, according to the company's website.
He held a variety of positions within the business community in the Greenwood County and at the state level, serving as director of the State Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s, according to O'Dell's legislative biography.
In a statement, Gov. Nikki Haley said she was grateful for the service of O'Dell, who she said had "worked tirelessly for the people of his district and the state."
Haley added that O'Dell "made South Carolina a better place."
O'Dell's death is the second in the tightknit Senate chamber in seven months. Last June, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney was among nine parishioners shot to death during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston.
Several of his senate colleagues responded to O'Dell's passing on Twitter. Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, wrote, "Stunned and saddened to hear that Sen. Billy O'Dell has passed away. He was one of the very best and will be sorely missed by many." Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, wrote "So very sorry to learn of the passing of Sen. Billy O’Dell. The prayers of my family are with his family. God Bless."
Rep. Mike Gambrell, R-Honea Path, said he was in the middle of a meeting in Anderson when he heard the news.
"We were devastated," he said. "He was the rock of this delegation."
Gambrell said he saw O'Dell as a mentor.
"He touched a lot of people, and will leave a lasting legacy," Gambrell said.
Staff writers Damian Dominguez and St. Claire Donaghy and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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