Service honors Ben Racusin, Hilton Head's first mayor

dburley@islandpacket.comSeptember 14, 2013 

Ben Racusin held the first Hilton Head Island Town Council meeting in his house on Twin Pines Road.

"We are now a town," he told the four other council members who sat in his den in 1983, "united in purpose, and that is to ensure the wealth, health and happiness of all people of Hilton Head Island."

Thirty years later, mourners on Saturday paid final tribute to Racusin, the island's first mayor. Racusin died Aug. 11 at 98.

He was remembered by friends and family as a volunteer and a visionary, a humble man who sought to balance the island's potential for development with its natural characteristics.

"There was no playbook, no staff, no budget, no town code for Ben," former mayor Tom Peeples said. "He helped develop the comprehensive plan that's outlined the town's growth for 30 years."

The tributes came at the First Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head Island, where the sanctuary was crowded with current and former town and county officials, friends and family, and where Racusin was a member and elder.

The Rev. John M. Miller, his friend and former pastor, said Racusin's penchant for bringing people together as mayor helped the town cross racial lines at a time when the island was factionalized.

"He had a special touch, to integrate the immigrants and the native islanders," Miller said. "We are grateful to him for the bridges he built."

Racusin, like many on the island he oversaw, was not a native.

He was born on May 19, 1915, in Johnsonburg, Pa., and earned a bachelor's degree in history and political science from Alfred University in western New York state.

During World War II, he served with the U.S. Office of Strategic Service, which would become the CIA. He then worked for the CIA in Shanghai, where he met the love of his life, Helen.

"When he saw her, he was immediately Shanghai'd," Miller joked. "That's where the expression comes from."

The couple moved to Washington, D.C., and both worked for the CIA until their retirement in 1971.

They planned a life of travel, but instead threw themselves into volunteer work on the island.

Racusin was a member of 40 different organizations, Peeples said, ranging from health and the arts to youth and humanitarian causes.

"If there were ever a king of volunteerism, it would be Ben Racusin," Peeples said.

In the early 1970s, Racusin worked on the island's Human Relations Council, a group formed to foster harmonious relations between island newcomers and native-island property owners.

"He had a worldview much broader than the guarded gate," said David Lauderdale, a columnist with the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette, "a worldview that included those who were here before we got here."

In his two-year term as mayor, Racusin advocated zoning, development standards and a comprehensive plan to control growth. He believed sewer and water services should be provided by public service districts. He promoted police protection by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, rather than the town.

He also championed public beach access, beach renourishment, the Cross Island Parkway and completion of water management and land-use plans.

In his later days, Racusin lived at Fraser Health Center in The Seabrook.

" You hear the people at The Seabrook talk about Ben, if your heart could pop out of your chest, it would," said Philip Schembra, the husband of Ben's caretaker and cousin Carol Schembra.

Speakers, including his brother, Herb, remembered Racusin's sense of humor and love of books, spy novels being his favorite.

But mostly, he was remembered for setting the standard for Hilton Head's leaders.

"Often we refer to big people in the community as tall timber," Miller said. "In Ben's death, a giant Sequoia has fallen."

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