Walter Mack grew up on St. Helena Island five miles from Penn Center and passed it daily, never thinking about what went on there or knowing that someone as famous as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might be on the grounds.
“They were dealing with civil rights. They were dealing with equality, and that wasn’t something that a lot of people supported, not even locally, statewide or nationally,” he said.
But after 26 years of working at the center — the last four as executive director — Mack’s understanding of Penn Center has deepened.
“One of Penn’s biggest missions here is preservation — not only for things and artifacts, but for place and community and environment,” he said.
Mack is retiring this year, which is the 150th anniversary of the Penn School’s founding, making it one of the country’s oldest schools originally formed for freed slaves. He says it is an apt time for change, for himself and the center.
“Every organization goes through changes, and I think you need new blood, you need new insights,” he said.
Mack will remain in his role through the end of the year until a replacement is found, and he will help the newcomer with the transition. The center also is recruiting new board members.
Board president John Smalls said he believes the board has a finalist for the director position after a months-long search, but he is not ready to announce who that is. The board is looking for someone who can advance the center to a greater role in the community and to national and international prominence.
“We need someone who can come in and tell the story of Penn, what Penn has done and what Penn can do,” he said. “Let’s let the world know what Penn is about.” Mack intends to spend time with family, fish and farm in retirement. He has about 600 fruit trees and about 25 goats. The center was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974. It also served as a community center used by King as a retreat for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Initially a chemist, Mack saw that Beaufort County was changing and decided he wanted to help shape its future. The center hired him to assist its land-preservation work, and one of his first projects was growing a strawberry field.
“One of the things I knew would happen was that development boom would affect my family, my extended family members, and I said to myself, ‘This would be a good time to work within the system to address some of the issues,’ ” he said.
Mack subsequently worked with Penn Center’s education program and moved up to assistant director and then executive director about four and a half years ago.
Among the center’s changes he is proud of is the increased use of technology to attract attention to the Gullah-Geechee culture. Penn put 190 acres into the Beaufort County Land Trust and provided land for four Habitat for Humanity homes and a branch of the Beaufort County Library.
It has also partnered with Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services’ Leroy E. Browne Medical Center, which is on the center’s campus, to provide health care to area residents, Mack said.
Mack said he also is proud he has helped shore up the organization’s finances.
The center recently announced it has received a two-year, $350,000 grant from Open Society Institute for operations and to start its new mission plan.
Penn Center is continuing to celebrate its 150th anniversary with three years of celebrations, festivals, education events and visits by civil-rights leaders.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeOnPortRoyal.