Community mourns passing of 2 special people

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The Sumter Item family had a sad week in the wake of the death of Gail Mathis, who was just 58 years old.

Gail was our ambassador in Clarendon County, where she worked for more than 30 years as a sales representative, writer and customer service manager, doing whatever was needed to serve our Manning, Clarendon County and Lake Marion readers and advertisers.

We all loved her and enjoyed her funny and vibrant personality, and her passing is something none of us will soon get over.

We offer our condolences to her family - husband, Jimmy, and sons Jamie and Chris and their families. She will be missed by everyone and will be remembered as a generous, thoughtful, professional person who always had other people's best interests in mind.

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The Sumter community also mourned the passing of a local legend, Ramon Schwartz, who died this week at the age of 92.

The services at Church of the Holy Comforter in Sumter were well attended and included two former South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justices - Ernest Finney and Jean Toal - as well as the newest member of the Supreme Court, Sumter's Buck James, who, like many of us in attendance, grew up playing in the Schwartz home. It was an interesting multi-generational gathering.

There were many dignitaries given Mr. Schwartz's long life of public service, and it was noted that most in attendance likely had a "Ramon story" that may or may not be appropriate for a public setting.

I was recently talking to his son Milton about a story from our childhood.

It was about 1973 or 1974, and Milton, the late Clarke Bynum and I were in the same cabin at the YMCA's Camp Sea Gull in North Carolina.

We knew Mr. Schwartz was coming to visit one Sunday and that he would be riding with the legendary Sumter lawman Leon "Wheel" Dollard, who drove Ramon and his best friend Kirk McLeod everywhere.

Stories about Leon Dollard in The Sumter Item go back to the 1930s and can be found by searching our archives. There are some especially entertaining episodes captured in the "Yesteryear" columns put together by my father, Hubert.

Leon Dollard was an intimidating presence who looked like the Hollywood version of "The Muscle" or "The Wheel Man" who accompanies someone of great importance, which then-S.C. House Rep. Schwartz was. He would become House Speaker a few years later.

So, like any normal, mischievous 12- or 13-year-old boy would do, we told our Camp Sea Gull cabin mates that Milton's father was in the Mafia, and we could prove it when he got there.

You can imagine the excitement when a long, black Lincoln or Cadillac or whatever they were driving came rolling up in this quiet, pristine summer camp on a Sunday afternoon.

"Wheel" Dollard was, of course, at the wheel, and Mr. Schwartz was in the back. They had on dark suits, and "Wheel" had on some sort of Panama gangster-style hat. It was classic.

Everyone crowds around to see what's going on, and "Wheel" backs the car up to the cabin in order to unload. Sure enough, when he pops the trunk, there are a couple of shotguns mounted on the underside, plain as day. And they didn't look like bird guns.

Milton gained instant notoriety, and we did nothing to tamp down the excited speculation of our friends, adopting a "no-big-deal" attitude for the rest of the summer.

Ramon would like that story.

Graham Osteen is Editor-At-Large of The Sumter Item. He can be reached at graham@theitem.com. Follow him on Twitter @GrahamOsteen, or visit www.grahamosteen.com.