Quiet lessons from Joe Fraser should shape the future

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 22, 2014 


Joseph B. Fraser

DAVID LAUDERDALE — Staff photo Buy Photo

Who's next?

Who will care for Hilton Head Island now that the last of the original group that came to timber a remote island has passed away?

Three Georgia families -- the Hacks, Frasers and McIntoshes -- sketched on this blank canvas a community that many still consider a work of art.

When Joseph B. "Joe" Fraser Jr. died March 13 at age 88, it symbolized the end of an era.

It was an era that turned the economic fortunes of a poor county.

It helped push the state's top industry from textiles to tourism.

It helped focus a nation's attention on "ecology." The new heavy industry became people living in the woods and tanning on the beach, rather than a chemical plant spewing who knows what into the waterways.

It was an era when developers known as "benevolent dictators" lived and worshiped among their subjects, raising their children here and casting their personal worldly fortunes on the same concepts they were selling.

And for all its splash of big yachts and nationally televised golf and tennis, the era owes a lot to a quiet, steady, peacemaker named Joe Fraser.


Joe Fraser was the elder son of the primary investor in Hilton Head's rich timberlands, the late Gen. Joseph B. Fraser of Hinesville, Ga.

Joe came first to scout the timber in 1949, then to run a logging operation, and finally to help his brother, Charles, execute an unusual plan to turn a swamp into an upscale development called Sea Pines.

The Frasers had for generations been community leaders before ever setting foot on Hilton Head. They had college degrees and large tracts of land. Joe's father was a U.S. Army lieutenant general who served in three wars. His father was a leader in the local and national Presbyterian church, Boy Scouting, civic clubs and business. He served as mayor, like his father before him.

Joe's mother was a steel magnolia, whose large garden was so impressive that Hinesville's school children marched up the street each spring to see it.

This family of four -- the general and Miss Pearl, Joe and Charles -- trusted, loved and supported each other throughout the high wire act that Hilton Head became.

Joe had to run family businesses early in life because of his father's military service. He also had to overcome polio. When others were relegated to iron lungs, Joe's doctor prescribed the opposite -- exercise. He became a champion sprinter.

Unlike his brother, Joe was a man of few words.

"My role was to fire the boiler, not make the speeches," he once told me.

Yet people learned to listen carefully to his few words.

I was listening during his brother's funeral in 2002 when Joe stood beneath the Liberty Oak in Harbour Town and recalled their upbringing in a small town. He said they were taught to believe in God, honor their country, love their fellow man and have respect for the land.


The beauty of Joe Fraser was that he did not mind playing second fiddle to Charles, or the legion of Ivy League MBAs his brother hired.

"And he did it cheerfully, joyfully, happily and with pride," an old-time colleague told me.

Joe was known to be peaceful, compassionate and charitable. He was interested in people and their families. They say that everyone who ever worked for him was given something by Joe.

He was the ballast when the ship was teetering, something it did quite often. His greatest ability was to arbitrate and bring people together. That was never more valuable to the community than when he helped keep Hilton Head's PGA Tour event on the island, guiding the creation of the nonprofit Heritage Classic Foundation to stage the tournament today known as the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.

In the land where he once scouted for timber, he gave $1 million for the new field house at Hilton Head Preparatory School. The building is named for the quiet man whose demeanor hid the steel that beat polio.

Joe Fraser's life tells us that those who care for Hilton Head in the future should focus less on profits and the limelight and more on service, character and preservation.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Joseph B. Fraser Jr., who helped shape modern Hilton Head, has died, March 14, 2014

Joseph B. Fraser Jr. obituary

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