Beaufort man's hospitality is as beautiful as his camellia garden

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJanuary 22, 2013 

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Thanks to Deonne Parker of Moss Creek for sharing a seasonal story.

"MR. WRIGHT'S CAMELLIAS"

By Deonne Parker

Winter is the season during which comely camellias bloom in the Lowcountry. To celebrate the season of camellias, my husband and I visited one of the largest private camellia gardens in Beaufort County.

At age 97, Lewis Wright still grows camellias. He has more than 300 camellia plants and just as many varieties and sizes. Mr. Wright said many were past their peak. But many were still in full bloom. Some bushes were covered with buds. Their time to bloom would be soon.

I called Mr. Wright on Jan. 12, and he invited me to come over. My husband, Lynn Castner, brought his camera. We arrived at Mr. Wright's home near Parris Island when the afternoon winter light was almost perfect for photographing the flowers.

We were greeted by Bo, an overeager and over-friendly black Labrador. He then was joined by Mr. Wright, who graciously gave us more than an hourlong tour of his garden, pointing out the different varieties of camellias.

We saw camellias of every hue, white, blush and deep red, and some of mixed colors. The sizes were as varied as the colors: Some were as tiny as a buttercup, others the size of saucers. Some had a few smooth petals, and others had multiple layers of ruffled petals.

Slender and looking fit, this remarkable man also keeps his garden in top shape.

My husband and I were strangers, yet Mr. Wright was happy to share his passion for camellias with us. We were enchanted by his hospitality and his beautiful flowers.

He had more than camellias. Narcissus bloomed throughout his yard. He had kumquat trees and lemon trees with lemons as large as oranges. He also had orange trees and grapefruit trees heavy with fruit so large they bent the branches earthward.

Mr. Wright, recently widowed, said his wife had managed everything else so he could look after the camellias. Now, he lives alone in the house he built in 1968 overlooking the Lowcountry salt marsh. Shortly after building his house, he started planting camellias. He told us one man in Beaufort had more camellias than he does, but that man had passed away.

Mr. Wright is originally from Augusta, Ga. His father was a physician. His mother and her four children spent summers in Beaufort County. He went to college in Georgia and along the way became a pilot. He received a commercial pilot's license and was a certified flight instructor. After Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, 1941, he was eager to join the war effort. He left college in 1942 shortly before graduation. He became a flight instructor for military student pilots, retaining his own civilian status.

After the war, Mr. Wright continued to pilot planes. He was a civilian pilot for commercial airlines that had contracts with the federal government. He flew generals and other bigwigs on transatlantic flights. He was one of the few pilots trained for celestial navigation.

Mr. Wright has been to 45 countries, even India. He is a consummate adventurer and a true Southern gentleman. When he settled in Beaufort County, he continued to fly. He operated an air charter service from Lady's Island Airport, sometimes called "Frogmore International Airport." He flew people to football games and on fishing trips. He flew fishermen from Lady's Island to Fripp Island before there was a bridge from Hunting Island to Fripp Island. There wasn't a landing strip, either. He landed on the Fripp Island beach.

At age 90, Mr. Wright took up gliding in Ridgeland. He queried his much younger instructor about doing a loop. Mr. Wright introduced him to "the loop." The instructor got sick once he was back on the ground. "The Loop" is not for everyone, according to Mr. Wright.

We hated to leave Mr. Wright and his wonderful garden, but we said goodbye to him and to Bo, who had calmed down once he became accustomed to us. We had some beautiful flower photos and headed home with the flower he had cut for me and two giant, golden grapefruits that I put in the fridge to cool for our breakfast.

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