Ben Racusin, Hilton Head's first mayor, dies at 98

bheffernan@islandpacket.comAugust 13, 2013 

Benjamin M. Racusin, who pushed for "full government with limited services" as the Town of Hilton Head Island's first mayor, died late Sunday at the Fraser Health Center in The Seabrook. He was 98.

"He had an extraordinary life," said his cousin and caretaker, Carol Schembra. "And he was an extraordinary man."

A service celebrating Racusin's life will be at 2 p.m. Sept. 14 at the First Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head Island, according to Schembra, who said he died of natural causes. His wife Helen died in 2011 at age 91.

Racusin was elected mayor Aug. 2, 1983, beating his opponents by wide margins. He had been involved in several community groups and spearheaded the 10-year push for incorporation of the barrier island.

Racusin headed the Hilton Head Community Association, and was a member of the Commission for Island Government and the Island Emergency Council. He played a leadership role when a barge knocked the bridge to the island out of service for six weeks in 1974.

He advocated a government that would put zoning rules in place to slow down development. Racusin believed that services such as sewer and water should be provided by public service districts and police protection by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office instead of the town.

"We're not against development. We want quality, planned development," Racusin had said.

He promoted public beach access, beach nourishment, the Cross Island Parkway and completion of water management and land-use plans.

Racusin's two-year mayoral term was not without controversy. Within 14 months of his election, he was harshly criticized for appointing a secret committee to tighten land use rules. He later apologized for the secrecy.

The land-use plan was adopted after Racusin left office in 1985, but his push for change lived long after his term on Town Council.

Although he was not alone in his attempts to slow waterfront, commercial and haphazard development on Hilton Head, Racusin's voice was heard above the others.

Even after leaving office, Racusin left behind a list of recommendations that would prove beneficial to island residents as years passed. Suggestions included water service to rural island areas, better control of Broad Creek boat traffic and development of a volunteer town civil-defense system.

Racusin grew up in Johnsonburg, Pa., and earned a bachelor's degree in history and political science from Alfred University in western New York state. Before serving as an enlisted man and later as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, Racusin taught history and coached football, boxing and track in Oswego, N.Y., public schools.

In 1947, he joined the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for a 24-year career that took him to the Far East and Pacific Ocean islands. In the 1960s, he returned to the United States as a Washington-based CIA training officer. He retired in 1971 as the chief of the CIA language school.

He was active with the Boy Scouts and was president of the Community Association from 1972 through 1974.

Some say his most difficult task involved work on the Human Relations Council, a group formed in the early 1970s to achieve harmonious relations between island newcomers and native-island property owners.

Thomas Barnwell Jr., who served on the group with Racusin, said the two had disagreements. Barnwell, a native-island leader, wanted the town to provide expanded services, such as water, sewer and law enforcement; Racusin favored more limited town services.

However, the two "learned to disagree agreeably," Barnwell said Tuesday.

He said Racusin "was a person that had an interest in providing whatever he possibly could for the benefit of people and humanity."

"I regret very much that an old friend has gone," he added.

The council on which the two served disbanded, but Racusin's dream of unity never faded.

Nearly 10 years later, during his race for mayor, Racusin again pushed for harmony.

"The situation is still strained," he had said during his mayoral race. "That should be one of the goals for the town government -- to bring unity to the island."

Racusin later received a Baha'is of Beaufort County Human Rights Day award for his "undaunted efforts in promoting justice, fairness and unity in our area during his tenure as mayor."

Mayor Drew Laughlin said Tuesday that Racusin's passing "is a loss for the island," as well as a personal loss for him and his wife, Jane.

"One of the benefits of becoming mayor was that Jane and I got the opportunity to know Ben personally," Laughlin said.

"He was one of those people who, as you got to know him, you thought, 'Well, I'd like to be more like that,' " he said.

Laughlin said he sometimes looks back with awe at the leadership and foresight of the men and women who helped form the town -- especially Racusin, who he said was remarkably humble.

"He was just a good man, and a man who lent his considerable talents to the benefits of his community," Laughlin said.

"He will be missed. And I will miss him personally."

Related content:

Arm twisting helped push Hilton Head's first mayor into office, May 6, 2010

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