Arm twisting helped push Hilton Head's first mayor into office

May 6, 2010 

Ben Racusin didn't want to run for mayor when the Town of Hilton Head Island incorporated in 1983.

He recalls getting his arm twisted by a group with expertise in arm-twisting: Martha Baumberger, who became the town's third mayor, the first female chairman of Beaufort County Council, and founder of the island Zonta club; Donald V. Bennett, a retired four-star general who landed at 0720 on D-Day and had a Distinguished Service Cross to prove his contributions to establishment of the Normandy beachhead; newspaper columnist Katie Callahan; and retired entertainer Garry Moore.

Racusin pulled out his dog trick to throw them off the scent.

"Finally, I told them we'd let Titi, our schnauzer, decide," Racusin told me Thursday morning during a reception honoring his 95th birthday hosted by CoastalStates Bank.

The dog's name, pronounced "Didi," means "little brother" in China, where Racusin served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II before a career with its successor, the CIA.

"We'd hold a cookie in our hand and ask Titi a question," Racusin said. "I asked Titi, 'Would you rather be the mayor of Hilton Head or a dead dog?' and she went down into that dead dog position."

The arm-twisters weren't fooled.

Racusin outpolled two other candidates in a congenial race. And then, at age 68, he set out to establish a town that didn't yet have a stapler, much less growth-control ordinances. More importantly, Racusin wanted to unify a community divided by the long study and debate on whether to incorporate.

Just like in those days of calm, steady leadership, Racusin was sharp and erect as he stood for two hours in the bank lobby, greeting well-wishers by name. He said his life has been a series of good fortune, except for the recent failing health of Helen, his wife of 63 years.

The Racusins bought a lot on the island in 1967. Helen was a strong supporter of the public library. For Ben, being the first mayor was almost the least of his contributions. He led the Human Relations Council to bring together native islanders and newcomers. He led the Community Association, a forerunner to local government. He led the Island Emergency Council and played a leadership role when a barge knocked the bridge to the island out of service for six weeks in 1974. He was on Harriet Keyserling's "kitchen cabinet" when she was on County Council, driving to Beaufort to help people throughout the county better understand each other.

Several of the six announced candidates for mayor dropped by to wish Racusin a happy birthday. They all should worry about living up to the standard he set. But one thing they don't have to worry about: Racusin said his arm won't be twisted again.

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