Mic Smith/Associated Press
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Tuesday remembered Ernest F. Hollings as “a giant in this state and nation” who evolved to “write the great story of our times.”
Speaking at the funeral of Mr. Hollings, the former South Carolina senator who died this month at 97, Mr. Biden hailed his longtime friend and former colleague, a one-time segregationist, as the embodiment of this state’s growth.
“People can change,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Hollings, who was known as Fritz, adding, “We can learn from the past and build a better future.”
Mr. Biden’s trip here marked his first visit to an early nominating state this year and came just a week before he is expected to make his long-anticipated entry into the Democratic presidential primary.
His somber appearance at The Citadel, South Carolina’s military college and Mr. Hollings’s alma mater, was not the 2020 debut the former vice president and his aides were planning. But his eulogy underscored Mr. Biden’s deep ties to this pivotal state with its high percentage of black voters — and the promise and peril of his candidacy.
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Mr. Biden once described Mr. Hollings as his best friend in the Senate. And as he recalled in strikingly subdued tones Tuesday, it was Mr. Hollings and his wife, Peatsy, who helped persuade him to remain in the Senate when his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after he was first elected in 1972.
“Aside from my family, the first people to bring me back from that black hole I was in were Fritz and Peatsy, that’s not hyperbole,” he said.
That friendship is what first brought Mr. Biden to South Carolina, where Mr. Hollings would introduce him to many of his political allies. Eventually, Mr. Biden began vacationing in the state, usually staying on one of the barrier islands near Mr. Hollings’s native Charleston. The relationships Mr. Biden developed here now form the nucleus of his support network in the first-in-the-South primary state.
Those connections were on vivid display as the former vice president stood before hundreds of mourners in the cadet chapel. It was an audience that included scores of influential state and local Democratic officials such as Representative James Clyburn, a fellow eulogist and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress.
The funeral reflected the era of the man his admirers had come to honor, with gray hair filling the pews and sepia-toned memories flowing from the pulpit, recalling a lawmaker who was first elected to office in the aftermath of World War II and…