J. Willis Cantey
J. Willis Cantey distinguished himself as a soldier, businessman, and banker. But what his family, friends, and acquaintances remember most about him was his spontaneous wit, his extremely generous nature, and his genuine concern for others.
His way with people was a special gift. After Willis Cantey engaged you in conversation, whether you were the lofty or the unlettered, you went on your way feeling like the most important person in the world.
James Willis Cantey was born March 3, 1917, in Columbia, the son of John Manning and Elizabeth Childs Cantey. His father worked at the University of South Carolina, and the Canteys lived at 1011 Bull Street, within walking distance of the university.
His family took boarders into their home, one of whom was Nancy Moorer of Walterboro, who, after graduating from Agnes Scott College, was attending school in Columbia. Cantey and Miss Moorer later married, and together they reared three sons, Jim, Joe, and John.
Cantey attended the University of South Carolina, where he served as president of the freshman class, was intramural boxing champion, and played varsity basketball for three years. While he was a student at USC, he joined the South Carolina National Guard, and upon graduation in 1938, he was commissioned an infantry lieutenant.
For two years, he worked as a salesman for McKesson & Robbins, Inc., before his National Guard unit was mobilized in 1940 as part of the 30th "Old Hickory" Division. He served in the Army until World War II ended in 1945.
He received many recognitions for his military accomplishments. A lieutenant colonel at age 24, he was the youngest battalion commander in the United States Army. His decorations included three Silver Star medals for gallantry in action, four Bronze Star medals for heroic achievement, the Legion of Merit for exceptional meritorious service, the Purple Heart, and the French Le Croix de Guerre for bravery. After the war, he remained in the Army Reserves, retiring in 1955.
In 1981, he was appointed the Civilian Aide for South Carolina to the Secretary of the Army. In 1985, he received the first award for distinguished service given by the Palmetto Chapter of the Association of the United States Army.
Cantey joined Columbia Outdoor Advertising in 1945 and later became president and then chairman of its board of directors.
In 1957, he was invited to serve on the Columbia Advisory Board of the Citizens & Southern National Bank, and in 1958, he joined the C&S organization as assistant to the president. He was named president in 1960 and became chief executive officer of the statewide banking institution in 1968. In 1971, he was elected chairman of the board. He served as chairman until his retirement in 1974.
During his tenure with C&S, the bank grew substantially. In 1958, loans were $56 million, deposits were $110 million, and total assets were $121 million. There was a net operating profit of $950,000. C&S then operated in five cities.
By 1974, loans totaled $344 million, deposits were $464 million, and assets were $604 million. There was a net operating profit of nearly $5.2 million. C&S Corporation had been formed, with seven subsidiaries operating in four states. There were 76 branches in 25 cities. Cantey was credited with negotiating seven mergers.
He served as president of the South Carolina Bankers Association and president of the association's Past Presidents' Club. The Southern Banker magazine named him its Banker of the Year in 1971.
During his years as businessman, banker, and retiree, Cantey was an active force in many business, civic, and religious organizations. He was a director of The State-Record Company, Columbia Outdoor Advertising Company, Liberty Life Insurance Company, Standard Federal Savings & Loan Association, and Carolina Freight Carriers. He was a member of the Banking, Monetary, and Fiscal Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States and a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Charlotte Branch.
He served as president of the United Way campaign in Columbia and worked to bring business investment to his home city. The Columbia Chamber of Commerce named him Ambassador of the Year in 1972, and he was chairman of the Capital City Development Foundation.
He was a member of the South Carolina State Ports Authority for eight years, the last two as chairman, and was also a director of the National Safety Council.
Growing up in the USC neighborhood no doubt inspired Cantey's lifelong love for his alma mater. He was a founding member of the University of South Carolina Business Partnership Foundation, served on the USC President's Council, and was president of the University of South Carolina Alumni Association. He received USC's Algernon Sidney Sullivan Award for distinguished service in 1970 and the university's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1984. He also received an honorary doctoral degree from USC. The J. Willis Cantey Endowment Chair for National Security Studies was established by the USC Educational Foundation.
Cantey was a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, where he served on the vestry and was a member of the Trinity Foundation Board.
Willis Cantey died October 15, 1986, and was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1987.
© 1999 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame