Governor, diplomat. Born in Camden on August 27, 1922, to Shelton J. West and Mattie Ratterree West, West was reared in the Charlotte Thompson community near Camden. West’s father was killed in the Cleveland School fire of 1923, and his mother then gave up teaching to run the family farm. West graduated from The Citadel in May 1942 and shortly thereafter entered the military. Later that year, on August 29, he married his longtime sweetheart, Lois Rhame. The couple had three children. West was selected for intelligence work in the Pentagon, where he deciphered Japanese signals. He went overseas after the war as part of the U.S. Strategic Bomb Survey. On his return to South Carolina, West enrolled in the University of South Carolina (USC) School of Law. He passed the bar exam while in law school, entered into a partnership with the attorney Allen Murchison of Camden, and completed his course work at USC while teaching in the political science department. He received his LL.B. degree in 1948.
West’s political career began with his election in 1948 to the State Highway Commission. He won election to the state Senate in 1954 campaigning on the need for better health care. He represented Kershaw County in the Senate from 1955 until November 1966, when he was elected lieutenant governor.
The hotly contested 1970 gubernatorial general election featured candidates with clear and important differences in their visions for South Carolina’s future. West defeated Republican congressman Albert Watson with 53.2 percent of the major party vote. His humane and progressive administration, from January 19, 1971, to January 21, 1975, assured a peaceful improvement of affairs for most South Carolinians. Among his major accomplishments were passage of mandatory automobile insurance for all drivers and the creation of the Coastal Zone Planning and Management Council, the Housing Authority, the Health Policy and Planning Council, the Social Development Council, and the Commission on Human Relations. West also reorganized the governor’s office and Departments of Labor and Wildlife and Marine Resources. When asked what gave him the greatest satisfaction as governor, West cited improved race relations and noted that “in a fairly critical period we made a transition and changed a lot of attitudes.”
After leaving office, West returned to his law practice with the goal of building it into a statewide firm with national and international interests. The election of his friend Jimmy Carter as president brought rumors that West might return to public life. West accepted an appointment as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, which administration officials called “the key diplomatic post in the world.” West served as ambassador from 1977 to 1981, a tense period in the Middle East.
After retiring from public life, West served on several corporate boards, including a term as chairman of the board of the Seibels Bruce Insurance Company; lectured on government and international studies; and remained active in service to the community. After a year-long battle with liver cancer, West died at his home on Hilton Head Island on March 21, 2004. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Camden.
Carlisle, Douglas H. The Administration of John Carl West, Governor of South Carolina 1971–1975. Columbia, S.C., 1975.
Hartsook, Herbert. “Elect a Good Man Governor.” Ex Libris (1996): 26–29. Sheinin, Aaron Gould. “‘Colorblind’ Governor Championed Racial
Reform.” Columbia State, March 22, 2004, pp. A1, A4–A5.
West, John C. Oral History. Modern Political Collections, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
–––. Papers. Modern Political Collections, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.