Symbol of human search for peace restored on Lowcountry island

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJune 9, 2012 

Meeting at the restored St. Francis of Assisi statue on May 12 were, from left, Jaclyn Appell and Ray Spampinato, granddaughter and son of sculptor Clemente Spampinato; and Betsy Hays Carroll and Lucile Walker Hays, granddaughter and daughter of the man who commissioned the sculpture 40 years ago, former Spring Island owner Elisha Walker Jr.

DAVID LAUDERDALE/THE ISLAND PACKET

  • O Lord,
    make me an instrument of Thy peace.
    Where there is hatred,
    let me sow love;
    where there is injury,
    pardon;
    where there is doubt,
    faith;
    where there is despair,
    hope;
    where there is darkness,
    light;
    where there is sadness,
    joy.

    O, Divine Master,
    grant that I may not so much seek
    to be consoled,
    as to console,
    to be understood,
    as to understand,
    to be loved,
    as to love.
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    it is in pardoning
    that we are pardoned;
    and it is in dying
    that we are born
    to Eternal Life.

Elisha Walker Jr. loved to escape Wall Street to his own world in the Lowcountry.

He bought Spring Island in 1964, turning a wild place between Hilton Head Island and Beaufort into an orderly farm and hunting preserve.

Spring Island burst like a painted bunting into the lives of those lucky enough to be there in its quail-hunting heyday. It reached deep into their souls to pull out feelings of joy, ruggedness and a bond with family and nature. Then that feeling drifted away on butterfly wings, to live within the hearts of a few.

Today, Spring Island is a nature-centered private enclave of high-end homes. It has an Arnold Palmer golf course, a river house and the Lowcountry Institute, which promotes environmental research, education and protection.

But through it all, Walker's spirit still stands tall on Spring Island.

He left behind one of the Lowcountry's most unusual sights, and on a bright Saturday morning this spring it shone in its original luster at an even more unusual gathering.

OUTDOOR CHAPEL

In New York, Walker is remembered as a businessman and investor.

But his mark on the Lowcountry reflects a spiritual man who kept in his dressing room a framed "Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi" with photos he took in Assisi and pressed flowers from the Holy Land.

He wanted a chapel on his plantation, but it was not to have walls.

He commissioned one of America's finest sculptors to create a 10-foot bronze sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi. Forty years later it still stands beneath a canopy of oaks on Spring Island. It rests on pink marble imported from Italy, with a matching round meditation seat on a raised, circular courtyard.

St. Francis' beloved prayer, the one framed in Walker's dressing room, is etched in two bronze plaques on a wall.

The statue looks down an avenue of oaks to the tabby ruins of an antebellum mansion built by a cotton king. Beyond the ruins flows an ageless river.

Sadly, the first gathering at the chapel was a combined dedication of the statue and memorial service for Walker, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1973. He was only 62.

RESTORATION

In May, a much happier gathering took place at the statue.

One of Walker's daughters and the son of the Italian immigrant who created the sculpture met at the statue for the first time.

They brought along two members of the next generation in both families to celebrate the restoration of the statue and its chapel without walls.

Walker's daughter Lucile Walker Hays of Nantucket Island and Spring Island met Ray Spampinato of New York, son of sculptor Clemente Spampinato. Also there was Elisha Walker's granddaughter, Betsy Hays Carroll of Massachusetts, and Clemente Spampinato's granddaughter, Jaclyn Appell of New York.

They were pulled together by third-generation restoration artist Gordon Ponsford, who talked to them as he gathered background information on the statue.

In conjunction with the Spring Island Trust, Hays engaged Ponsford to make St. Francis better than new. Ponsford Ltd. of Acworth, Ga., near Atlanta, has kept the Tomb of the Unknowns and other treasures of Arlington National Cemetery in shape, and assessed thousands of artifacts from the Titanic.

"To see their pride in their parents' work, that's always enjoyable to see," Ponsford said.

As workmen touched up the courtyard, the heirs said they do not know how Walker and sculptor Clemente Spampinato met. But they were from the same vicinity near New York City and the sculptor's work was prominently displayed around town.

Spampinato, who died in 1993, is best known for capturing "the essence of movement" in athletes, from Olympians to golfer Bobby Jones. He created the U.S. Naval Academy's fiercely butting "Navy Goat" bronze statue of its mascot. He developed a passion for the Old West and created a series of Western action sculptures, all so different from St. Francis.

LOWCOUNTRY LIFE

Today, as then, the sculpture is on private property and rarely accessible to the public. On a limited basis, the Spring Island Trust Native Plant Project offers interested groups the opportunity to visit Spring Island.

It's a reminder of a grand Lowcountry phenomenon, when America's elite found peace and refuge in our fields and streams and bought large plantations for hunting.

Walker's wife, Lucile Thieriot Walker, loved to entertain here. She would spend weeks booking the winter hunting season with guests arriving in tandem by boat, each party staying a full week.

The Walkers relished the hunt, the scenery, the poker games, crab boils, friendships and laughter. Lucile Walker carried out rituals of the hunt with great revelry -- bloodied faces for those who got their first deer, and cut shirt-tails for those who shot and missed.

The island's 3,000 acres of "high ground" and 3,000 acres of marsh were hunted the old-fashioned way, with a mule-drawn wooden carriage jostling over sandy lanes to the fields of quail and dove.

More than most plantation owners, the Walkers mixed with the locals.

George and Connie Trask, Dr. Arthur S. Jenkins and Elrid Moody were among Beaufort residents regularly invited to Spring Island. All who visited were under the spell of the legendary story-telling and hunting guidance of Gordon Mobley, Spring Island's general manager and expert dog trainer.

Hays tells all about it in her 2004 book about her family's ownership. That era ended in 1990, eight years after her mother's death. Hays is pleased that it was sold to a group with Hilton Head roots and environmental sensitivity, Jim and Betsy Chaffin, Jim and Dianne Light, and Dr. Peter and Beryl LaMotte.

Hays said that of all the improvements her father made on Spring Island, the statue was his pride and joy.

"I hope that all the owners of the future," she writes, "will experience the peace and beauty that is still here and protect it for eternity."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Tabby ruins at Spring Island a vivid reminder of cotton's power in the South

Spring Island

Clemente Spampinato

The restoration artist

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