WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- Surrounded by current and former Senate colleagues, Supreme Court justices, family and former staffers, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., celebrated his 100th birthday on Capitol Hill Thursday.
Thurmond -- who is set to retire next year -- has served the Senate since 1954, making him both the longest-serving and oldest member of Congress.
Thurmond first won his seat as a Democrat -- and was the only member of Congress to win as a write-in candidate -- after a career as a local judge and governor of South Carolina. In 1948, he briefly left the Democratic Party to challenge President Harry Truman and Republican candidate Thomas Dewey for the presidency. Angered over the expansion of federal power and opposing his party's support for racial desegregation, he left the Democrats for the GOP in 1964.
The event was organized and hosted by Thad Strom -- a former staffer and distant cousin -- who after serving Thurmond for 20 years as chief of staff and chief counsel now works as a consultant and lobbyist.
"There are several things Strom would never miss, a (South Carolina) Peach parade, a Senate vote, or the opening of a new Hooters franchise," Strom quipped, referring to Thurmond's legendary affection towards young women.
Jokes about Thurmond's age prevailed as former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole recounted telling Thurmond in 1996 that he would be leaving the Senate to run for president.
"He looked at me and said 'But Bob, you just got here,'" said Dole, who joined the Senate in 1969. "Then I asked him if he remember when I first came to the Senate, and he replied, 'Bob, I remember when Kansas was admitted to the Union.'"
Dole pointed out that Thurmond -- at 100 -- had been present throughout the entire 20th century and witnessed and participated in the changes that took place in the country. Referring to Thurmond's start in politics as a vehement opponent of racial desegregation and his eventual transformation into the first southern Senator to hire an African-American aide, Dole said, "Strom himself symbolizes that transformation."
Former and soon-to-be current Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said in jest that he never thought Thurmond would voluntarily leave the Senate and talked about the icy snow storm that hit the nation's capital Thursday.
"I always thought that Strom would never leave the Senate until the Capitol froze over," he said. "And I'll be darned, here we are."
Lott also pointed to Thurmond's 1948 presidential run, in which Thurmond won 1 million votes and over 30 electoral votes.
"When Strom ran for president, my state voted for him," Lott said. "And if the rest of the country had followed Mississippi's example, we wouldn't have faced many of the problems we have since."
Speakers at the celebration also recounted Thurmond's career in public service, which started as a school board candidate in 1928, service as a delegate for President Franklin Roosevelt's first White House bid in 1932. At the age of 41, he resigned as a state judge and used his political connections to skate around the 35-year-old age limit for military service so he could fight in World War II. He served as a paratrooper on the frontlines of the war in Europe, including parachuting behind enemy lines on D-Day. He received 18 medals and saw action in every major battle in Europe.