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Marvin Chernoff, public relations mastermind, dies at age 82

Columbia ad man Marvin Chernoff, who began his career running political campaigns and founded one of South Carolina’s most prominent public relations firms, died this week after a yearlong battle with throat cancer. He was 82.

A longtime supporter of the arts and a pioneer in the revitalization of Columbia’s Vista, Chernoff, who died Wednesday, was hailed as an innovator who helped reinvent South Carolina’s capital city.

“Marvin was Columbia’s imagination,” former Mayor Bob Coble said. “He was always thinking of new ways of promoting Columbia from the arts to politics to economic development – all across the board.”

Chernoff’s public relations firm has offices in Charlotte, Charleston, Columbia and Orlando, Fla.

Coble remembered Chernoff coming up with a slogan for the city in 1998: “Columbia – It’s Happening Now.” The City Council rejected the slogan, but it foreshadowed a renaissance that occurred a decade later.

“He saw it 10 years before it came true,” Coble said. “He was ahead of his time and one of the most unique, talented and gifted people who ever lived in Columbia.”

Chernoff was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and worked as a delicatessen clerk, carnival and fair barker, cab driver, yarn salesman and office equipment salesman.

In 1968, while selling the newly invented calculator in Cleveland, he volunteered for the political campaign of Carl Stokes to become the first black mayor of a major American city. Chernoff said in his recently published autobiography, “Unlikely Success: How a Guy Without a Clue Built One Hell of Business,” that his life took new meaning and shape because he had the opportunity to work alongside the Revs. Jessie Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr.

After working in campaigns throughout the Midwest, including the presidential primary for U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey and the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. George McGovern, both Democrats, Chernoff came to Columbia in 1974 to run the gubernatorial campaign of Charles “Pug” Ravenel. Ravenel won the Democratic primary that year, tantamount to election in those days, but then was disqualified because of a residency requirement.

When the election ended, Chernoff opened an advertising and public relations agency in Columbia, Marvin Chernoff and Associates, which morphed into Chernoff/Silver and then Chernoff/Newman.