CHARLESTON, SC (AP/WCSC) - The mayor who has served Charleston longer than anyone in the city's 345-year history delivered a short farewell address to the people of the Holy City Tuesday night.
In the roughly 10-minute speech, Riley thanked the people Charleston, the 17,000 city employees and 39 colleagues on city council with whom he has worked in his 40 years in office.
Riley said that during his time as mayor, "a most wonderful thing" happened to him as he communicated with his constituents.
"I got to know you, feel and appreciate your goodness and get to understand your hearts' wishes – and that has been a priceless treasure," he said.
He referenced a long list of achievements, including making the city more welcoming for African Americans and achieving their full participation in government and community, making the city safer and more livable, restoring downtown, building Waterfront Park, West Ashley Park, over 80 other parks, the new Gaillard, the Aquarium, or the baseball park; creating Spoleto, Moja or a host of other popular events; and attracting new, better jobs and creating the Digital Corridor.
"These achievements we accomplished together," he said. "Many became embroiled in controversy. But what kept me going, pushing, having the resolve not to give up was that I had gotten to know your hearts, and I knew that if the goal was achieved, the project or initiative completed, your hearts would be fulfilled and it would make you happy and proud to be a citizen of Charleston."
He then offered three parting thoughts for his beloved city.
First, he said, Charleston must always be guided by the standard of excellence.
That is, we have the responsibility to seek excellence in everything we do," he said. "Medium is beneath the goodness and quality of the citizens of our city."
Second, he said the "long march" for racial understanding and justice is not finished, referencing June 17, the night of the shooting of nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church.
"The International African American Museum is a solemn duty and profound opportunity for this city and our country," Riley said. "It will be an inspirational source of pride for every citizen. It may prove to be our most important building. But in addition to that we must do more and work harder to better understand, love, care for and respect each other."
Third, he said we are at "the dawn of a new age" in which there is a "recognized ability to harm or heal" the planet.
"It is every citizen's duty to heal and protect," he said. "As the old African proverb states, we did not inherit our land from our ancestors, we hold it in trust for future generations."
Riley said the memories of serving as mayor of Charleston will never leave him.
"They will nourish me every day of my life," he said.
For some Charleston residents, the 72-year-old Riley is the only mayor they have ever known. He was sworn into office for his first term in 1975. After so long in office, he said in a recent interview he isn't sure what it will be like to leave city hall on his last day as mayor.
"I really don't know how I'll feel, but I have so much gratitude for the opportunity the citizens have given to me and it serve them in this wonderful city to work in and for," he said.
Riley said he thought he would only serve one term in office, but ten terms later, he wasn't slowing down, comparing his time in office to a road race, much like the Cooper River Bridge Run his city hosts every spring.
"You know how long it is, this one was 40 years, and to be able to finish with a kick and cross the finish line and then collapse," he said with a laugh.
But Riley said now is the time for him to leave office while he is still at full speed.
"I didn't want to get into another term and the risk of saying to myself, 'I'm too tired to do this tomorrow night,' or, 'I don't have the energy to tackle that,'" he said.
Riley is credited with leading Charleston through an urban renewal that has made the city one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. City planners and leaders from across America visit Charleston to learn from what the city has done.
Riley was also the face of the city after Hurricane Hugo more than 25 years ago and more recently following the deadly Emanuel AME Church shootings.
But as far as what RIley himself hopes his legacy will be, he said he hopes people will remember he worked very hard, was honest and opened the city government to everyone, especially minorities in the city.
Riley hired Charleston's first black Jewish police chief, Reuben Greenberg, and first female fire chief, Karen Brack. Now, he said he looks forward to sometimes being an anonymous fly on the wall, as he puts it, at one of the city parks he helped create.
"I like it when I can watch people enjoying themselves," Riley said. "If I go to one of our parks, West Ashley Park, and, you know, on a Saturday doing soccer and see all those kids playing and all the families and coaches and they're not noticing me, you know, no one knows what joy that gives me."
While a new mayor, John Tecklenburg, has been elected, Riley said he still has so much to do.
"I'll miss it," he admitted. "I love the people I work with. I love the people of Charleston I work for."
Riley's last day in office will be Monday.