Martha Edens poses with Strom Thurmond at a GOP Reception.

Boundless Energy: Martha Carolyn Edens, 1928-2015

Above: Martha Edens poses with Strom Thurmond at a GOP Reception.

When Martha Carolyn Edens of Columbia, S.C., died on Oct. 9, 2015, Brenau University lost an ardent supporter, Zeta Tau Alpha lost a guiding light and the modern South Carolina Republican Party lost a pioneering founding member.

Brenau, her Zeta sisters and S.C. GOP politics, along with her family, were clearly the greatest loves of Martha Carolyn Edens’ life, although she gave tremendous time and energy to countless charitable and civic causes.

Martha in full party regalia on the floor of the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, Texas.
Martha in full party regalia on the floor of the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, Texas.

Her greatest impact and the measure of her life clearly can be seen in the rise of the Republican Party in South Carolina. Her brother, J. Drake Edens Jr., is often referred to as the father of the modern Republican Party in the Palmetto State for his efforts and service as party chairman in the early 1960s. But Martha Edens had easily as much impact, serving two terms as national committeewoman and countless years in other local and national party offices and raising millions of dollars on behalf of GOP candidates.

In a November 2000 interview with the South Carolina Political Collections Oral History Project, she said, “We (she and her brother) never wanted to run for political office. All we wanted to do was create a situation where other people that were qualified could offer for elective office. We preferred to help candidates organize campaigns and raise money. I am grateful that I had an opportunity to be a part of something that began with such a small number of dedicated people that has grown to its present day position of prominence. Our party has made an impact on our state, as well as our nation. I have loved every minute of my involvement, the good and the bad.”

When she started her efforts, the S.C. Republican Party barely existed. As a volunteer in 1961, she helped send Charles Boineau to the S.C. House of Representatives, the first Republican elected to the General Assembly since 1900. She helped engineer and lived a Republican revival during the next 50 years that saw nearly all statewide and federal offices in South Carolina held by Republicans and the GOP win majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. The only time she ran for election was when her children were in school and she won a seat on the local school board.

‘Gracious, tireless worker’

Edens was a gracious and tireless worker who knew how to get things done, said former Richland County Republican Party Chairman Rusty DePass, who knew her for 45 years. “Martha was an assertive person, but she was very charming,” he said. “You weren’t going to put her down. You weren’t going to deny her.”

DePass recalled that after the GOP suffered a defeat in the 1970 gubernatorial election, a group was discussing who should lead the state party and someone suggested Martha Edens. “I remember Jim Duffy just shook his head and said, ‘That will never work. She will work us to death.’ That was his reaction; we can’t have Martha because she will work us to death. But that was the reputation she had. … She was a person of incredible energy,” DePass said.

Politics was just part of life in their house woven in with her sorority life and the other things that she did , recalled her daughter Dinah Helms Cook. “ I remember Congressman (Arthur) Ravenel (Jr.) coming by the house – ‘What have you got for dinner tonight Martha?’ – many times,” her daughter said. And there would be telephone conversations about party business mixed with highlights of the children’s school day.

Martha Edens and her son, Ed Helms, meet with Richard Nixon during Nixon's 1982 visit to Columbia, S.C.
Martha Edens and her son, Ed Helms, meet with Richard Nixon during Nixon’s 1982 visit to Columbia, S.C.

Dinah is her only surviving child. Martha was predeceased by her son, William Edger Helms III, and her former husband, Edgar Helms Jr.

Her mother had incredible organizing skills. When Dinah began going through her mother’s things after her death, she discovered a remarkably detailed archive of files, memorabilia, old newspaper clippings and photos – not just of her mother’s time in politics, but of her work as a Zeta and her connection to Brenau, as well as family activities.

As a former national president and president of the Zeta Tau Alpha Foundation, Edens received many honors, including being the 1996 recipient of the ZTA Foundation Outstanding Alumna Award. “Martha shaped the progress of our fraternity over seven decades,” National President Carolyn Hof Carpenter said. “She was an incredible icon of noble service, and we will miss her greatly.” Initiated into Omicron Chapter at Brenau in 1946, her leadership and service were immediately recognized and ironically led to her leaving her beloved Brenau. Just two years after coming to Brenau, the national Zeta president asked her to transfer to the University of South Carolina and help lead the Beta Omicron Chapter that was struggling at USC.

A love for Brenau

“My sorority here (in Columbia) was not doing well and I had a good background from a chapter that was very successful, and the national president asked me to come to Carolina. … I transferred to South Carolina and loved it and was graduated in 1948,” she told the oral history. Edens’ daughter is an initiate of the Beta Omicron chapter.

But it’s clear that after moving to USC, Edens’ heart remained at Brenau. “If I had my life to live over, I probably would have stayed at Brenau,” she said.

“Her heart always remained at Brenau. She adored Brenau,” her daughter said, and that is reflected in her personal files which contain copies of commencement speeches and detailed records of other activities.

Her service to Brenau is legendary. She served as vice chair of the Board of Trustees for 30 years, was inducted in 2000 into the Brenau Alumni Hall of Fame and received the prestigious Mary Mildred Sullivan Award given to distinguished alumnae.

Yet she somehow found time and energy during her life also to be involved with countless organizations in South Carolina, including Trenholm Road United Methodist Church, the Advisory Board of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, the Palmetto Society of the United Way, the Salvation Army of Columbia, South Carolina Easter Seal Society, South Carolina Museum Commission, S.C. Law Institute and others.

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