More than 700 turned out Thursday night to celebrate a well-known Florence renaissance man and some of the area’s top teachers at the School Foundation’s 11th annual gala.
The soirée held at the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology featured live music, a Southern dinner and a special tribute to retired attorney, statesman and philanthropist Eugene N. “Nick” Zeigler Jr.
Though Zeigler was unable to attend the event due to health complications, he addressed the crowd in a video message and got to view a live feed of the event from Methodist Manor.
School Foundation director Debbie Hyler said the organization, charged to provide support and grants to further the mission of Florence School District 1, chose to honor Zeigler with its distinguished graduate award because of the many ways he has bettered Florence since he was born here 92 years ago.
“If you look back at his biography, I can’t imagine anybody in Florence who has done as much for this community as Nick Zeigler has,” Hyler said. “It’s like every 10 years he focused on something different. For one set he was doing civic things with the museum and Little Theatre and so many organizations, his years in government. He’s a painter and has beautiful works. He’s a writer with multiple books, a playwright and he’s truly a renaissance man.”
Accepting the award on his behalf, Zeigler’s youngest son Ben Zeigler, a Florence attorney himself, said it was intimidating because his father is one of the best public speakers he has ever known, and he is a man who got deeply involved in education and the arts because of his belief in humanity.
“He’s very much an idealist. Dad’s a man who’s always acted on principal and always seen it appropriate to aspire to higher ideals,” the younger Zeigler said. “He’s just someone who has a very broad view of the world and of people and appreciates and enjoys life and enjoys all expressions of life be it through art, literature, music, through history.”
Zeigler was born in Florence in 1921, graduate from Florence High School and went on to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. He fought in the Pacific in the Navy during World War II and got a Harvard law degree before working as an attorney at McEachin, Townsend and Zeigler starting in 1949 and continuing until 2006.
He served the Florence area at the Statehouse, first as a representative and then a senator, and helped write and sponsor legislation that led to the desegregation of Florence School District 1. He was also involved in the creation of Francis Marion College in 1970 and the S.C. Arts Commission.
Zeigler helped create the Florence Little Theatre in 1939, the Florence Symphony in 1950, founded the Florence Fine Arts Council in 1954 and was instrumental in the creation of the Florence Museum. Because of his involvement in the courts, he saw a need for impoverished young men to get role models so he pushed to open the Big Brothers of the Pee Dee, which was one of the first Southern and rural chapters.
As dozens of friends, including accomplished legislators and politicians, at the event and in video tributes noted, bettering life for everyone was a priority for Zeigler, and he always felt he owed not only his intellect, but more importantly his character, to his teachers and public education in Florence.
“He is a genuine Southern gentleman and Nick has a very broad experience, is very intelligent, has an excellent education and could have gone anywhere, but his heart was in the Pee Dee so he came back to our great benefit,” said Malloy McEachin, his law partner and cousin.
The event also marked the accomplishments of each Florence 1 school’s teacher of the year, the top four “honor roll teachers” and the district’s new teacher of the year, Alisa Hobgood. The West Florence High School math teacher, who’s been in the position for 12 years, was nearly speechless at the news, only saying, “I know that we have such great teachers in our district. I don’t know that I deserve this honor.”
The runners-up were Dawn Walker, a fifth-grade science and social studies teacher at Timrod Elementary; Dayla Watford, a third-grade teacher at Carver Elementary; and Amy Williams, a Montessori teacher at McLaurin Elementary.