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York attorney Bill Brice last presided over the city as mayor more than 40 years ago, but for many residents, he was forever Mayor Brice.
Eddie Lee, who has served as mayor of the White Rose City for the last decade, recalls a conversation on his first day in office in 2002. An older woman visited him and asked for help with a neighborhood problem. Lee listened politely, then explained that he didn’t have the authority to help her.
“‘That’s Ok,’” the woman told Lee. “‘I’ll go get Mayor Brice, and Mayor Brice will take care of it for me.’”
William McCaslin Brice Jr. — York’s city attorney and its longest-serving mayor — died Friday at the Wayne T. Patrick Hospice House in Rock Hill. He was 84.
“To a lot of people,” said Lee, “he remained until he died, Mayor Brice.”
Brice served as York’s mayor for a dozen years — from 1956, when he became the city’s youngest mayor at age 28, until 1968. After that, he dispensed legal advice to the York City Council as its attorney for almost 40 more years. He practiced law for 60 years, working up until just days before his death.
Although his health was declining in recent years, he still showed up dilligently at each council meeting.
“Bill is like a landmark in the city,” said council member Harmon Merritt. “He’s really going to be missed. He served the city throughout his life.”
Merritt remembered Brice as a man generous in his time and his resources. “He would do most anything for anybody. Bill was the kind of fellow who didn’t keep tabs on what he did for people. He just did things and that was it.”
Merritt said some people who benefitted from Brice’s legal services “more than likely never received a bill. He was just that kind of person.”
Council member Bill Miller, who has served on the council on and off since 1976, called Brice a mentor who “took me under his wing and taught me stuff.” He said Brice helped guide him through some tough council decisions with his rich understanding of the city and its past.
“Anything you went to him about, he could tell you the background, who was on the council when those decisions were made,” Miller said. “You just got the whole picture. It helped you understand where we are today.”
Lee said Brice served as the city’s mayor and legal counsel during years of rapid growth and change. He had an avid interest in history, Lee said, and recognized its importance for the historic community.
“He and I worked hand and glove to make sure the distinctive character of York was preserved,” Lee said.
He also served as a calm and steady leader during the civil rights years, when restrooms, restaurants and other public facilities were integrated, Lee said. Brice knew “the time had come, and Bill Brice as mayor was determined that it be handled in an orderly fashion,” Lee said.
“He has a lot of African-American law clients as well as white ones,” Lee said. “He really knew a lot of people of all colors and ethnicities, and he was going to make sure it was very calm and smoothly handled.”
Lee remembered Brice as an ardent believer in democracy. The walls of his York law office were decorated with prints by George Caleb Bingham, a famous 19th-century artist whose works included renderings of early American elections and stump speeches.
“He handled our elections in the city of York for years, until we got the county to do it,” Lee said. As city attorney for other small towns in Western York County, he also handled those elections, Lee said.
Brice was an early riser, and Lee said their talks about city business often took place in the predawn hours. “He said, if we ever needed to talk, ‘just come and knock on the back door of my office,’” Lee said. “The sun wouldn’t even be up and he’d be there working.”
Brice was a lifelong member of York’s First Presbyterian Church, and served in a lay leader position as clerk of the Sessions, Lee said. “Clerk of the Sessions kept the minutes from Sessions meetings,” said Lee, who is also a church member. “And his minutes were perfect month after month. They were flawless.”
He was active in other community organizations as well, including the York Chapter of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, where he was the charter president. He also served on the board of the Bank of York, with the Foundation of the Carolinas and the Greater York Chamber of Commerce and York Rotary Club. He was a past member of the Crusbreakers Club of York and a member of the York Investment Club.
He graduated from the University of South Carolina and its School of Law, and was an avid Gamecock fan.
His son, William “Mac” Brice, followed his father into the practice of law and has worked with him at Brice Law since finishing law school. The younger Brice said his father served people “from birth to death with a lot of clients.”
“He gave his full attention to every person that came in this office,” Mac Brice said. “There have been people who would come in and say, ‘I know you’re an attorney, but I need to see Lawyer Brice.’”
A memorial service was Tuesday at First Presbyterian. Memorials may be made to First Presbyterian Church of York, 10 W Liberty St., York, SC 29745 or the Wayne T. Patrick Hospice House, 2275 India Hook Rd., Rock Hill, SC 29732.