Martin Sauls, center, holds a plaque designating him as a recipient of the Order of the Palmetto. He is accompanied by his wife, Diane, to his right; other family members and friends; and Gov. Henry McMaster, who bestowed the honor Sept. 28 at the State House in Columbia. PHOTOS COURTESY MARTY SAULS

It is the highest honor given to civilians in South Carolina. Those of us in the Lowcountry have known for a long time that the award and everything it stands for had Martin Sauls’ name on it. It just took the powers that be a bit longer to catch on.

The 76-year-old community champion was presented the Order of the Palmetto in a ceremony at the State House in Columbia on Sept. 28. The award is given to a select few who warrant recognition of a lifetime of service and success in their community.

“I just never expected to be nominated for something like this, let alone receive it. I’m just a redneck from Jasper County,” Sauls said of receiving the award. “That’s a league I never considered myself in. That’s the big leagues right there.”

Sauls was presented the award by Gov. Henry McMaster, surrounded by friends, family and supporters. The award reads, “In grateful recognition of contributions and friendship to the State of South Carolina and her people.”

“This man, with his military service, with his memberships in various organizations, including several historical organizations, his participation in building various organizations and a variety of service, including Jasper County Council, it is befitting that he has been nominated and recommended for this recognition,” McMaster said at the ceremony.

“Little Martin” had a large shadow cast by his father, long-time coroner L. Martin Sauls, Jr. He served in the Navy from 1964-70, twice serving as medical corpsman in Vietnam during his tenure. He came back to Jasper County and was elected to the Jasper County Council in 1975.

As momentous as it was to win election to the state House of Representatives, where he served from 1977 to 1980, Sauls said an achievement in the middle of his time in Columbia had a much longer-lasting impact.

“Marrying Diane in 1978, that changed everything for me. She has been my rock and my inspiration,” Sauls said of his union to former Hilton Hotels executive Diane Punzel Sauls. She has become a core part of the family’s funeral home business ever since.

Sauls left the House in 1980 after the passing of his father. Gov. Dick Riley appointed him to serve out the remainder of his dad’s term as Jasper County coroner, a role he held for the next 40 years.

State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews and State Rep. Weston Newton were on hand to witness Sauls being presented with the award.

“This Order of the Palmetto is only reserved for only a select few in South Carolina’s history, but I think it should have had your name on it a long time ago,” Matthews said. “For that, I congratulate you on behalf of the state of South Carolina Senate.”

“As my tenure both as a House member and a county councilman in Beaufort for as many years, I don’t know that I have ever seen or had the privilege of getting the support of the applications in to the governor’s office for this award that were more well-deserving than yours,” Newton said.

Sauls is just the second Jasper County recipient of the award, joining 1996 honoree Ervin Floyd, the long-time U.S. Department of Agriculture official and founder of the first Republican Party in the county who passed away in August at the age of 87.

The nomination for Sauls’ award was spearheaded by the Jasper County Historical Society. Led by Jasper County poet laureate Rita Livingston and Society president Steve Rountree, the group gathered 17 letters of recommendation over the course of a year to complete the nomination process.

“I can’t thank Rita and Steve enough. I was so honored that they even made the effort. The things I’ve been able to do in my life, they are not done by one man alone,” Sauls said. “You have to have friends that stick by you and that you can depend on and I have had those people day in and day out for 50 years.”

Sauls has been active in many civic and religious organizations on top of owning funeral homes in Bluffton and Ridgeland. He served as deacon at Ridgeland Baptist Church, a board member of Bluffton-Jasper Volunteers in Medicine, a lifetime member of the Jasper County Chamber of Commerce and the Gopher Hill Festival grand marshal in 2015.

He said of all his accomplishments, he is most proud of his time as board chair of the Palmetto Electric Trust. He helped create Operation Round-Up, which allows the more than 75,000 Palmetto Electric co-op members to round up their bill to the next dollar. The average member donates more than $6 per year. Since 1989, the effort has raised more than $8.2 million in grants in Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton counties.

“When the land was available for USCB on U.S. 278, the counties were being asked to contribute a good sum to make that happen. And you know, there’s not a whole lot of nickels to rub together in Jasper at any one time. But with Operation Round Up, we began giving $100,000, then $200,000 a year and we made that campus happen.”

The trust donated nearly $592,000 back to the community in 2020.

Sauls said that, as he accepted the award from McMasters and looked around the room, he felt so blessed to have so many chapters of his life present to witness the presentation. He was especially happy to have former St. Gregory priest Father Gregory West, his niece Catherine Stoner and Martin “Schaffer” Sauls V in attendance.

“Father Gregory, he meant so much to our family. We saw him two or three times a week with funerals and he became so important to all of us,” Sauls said. “To have Catherine and to have Schaffer there, the next generation, it just brought this full circle for me. What a blessing.”

His son, Marty, was in awe of watching his father at the State House.

“His love for the people he serves comes through in everything he does,” Marty said. “He never did any of this for praise, he did it to help people. He sets an awesome example to follow and I’m proud to try to follow that example.”

“Little Martin” said that while he knows this is a lifetime achievement award, he still has work to do in the community.

“I’m not sure I’m around the three-quarter pole yet. There are still plenty of people left to help,” said Sauls, speaking in between multiple services and consultations at Sauls Funeral Home. “This wasn’t the plan for this little redneck from Jasper,” Sauls said. “I’ve done my best to selflessly help others. To see folks band together to do this for me, it’s just such a humbling experience.”

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.