Norma Cooler's favorite quote is from St. Augustine and reflects her love of nature, literature and world exploration: "The world is a book; those who do not travel read only the first page."
Cooler has lived in Port Royal for a year, returning to her roots after nearly 50 years away from the Beaufort area. She was raised IN Hunting Island State Park, while her father, Norman Cooler, was the park superintendent. Raised in South Carolina state parks, her entire childhood taught Norma a love for nature, people and beautiful places all over the world.
"I was born here. Daddy was superintendent at Hunting Island until my third-grade year. I was always surrounded by nature, and I felt like we owned the park as a child," she said. "My father instilled my love of nature. There were always deer and raccoon in the yard."
Cooler said her father and she were as close as their first names.
"I have never been a television watcher," she said. "My childhood here was all about nature and enjoying the beauty of the outdoors. I would get up every morning and follow Daddy around the park."
The nature lover and her older brother used Hunting Island as their personal playground and backyard when they would get home from the long 90-minute school bus rides each day.
"The lighthouse was like our private playhouse," she said. "We took our swimming lessons in the creeks and rivers and the ocean. There were lifeguards back then, and the rule was we had to tell them when we were going in and out of the water. We had the roam of the park while Mama worked the refreshment stand and bathhouse."
Summer days were filled with games among the deer, while summer nights were filled with a full house of park staff popping in for dinner.
LOVE OF TRAVEL
When she was in the third grade, Cooler 's father was asked to develop the Huntington Beach State Park in Murrell's Inlet near Myrtle Beach. The family left their cozy brick home at Hunting Island for a new adventure.
"The first 18 years of my life were in a state park," she said. "We moved in three years before it opened, when there was nothing there except an old replica of a Spanish castle. Hunting and Huntington parks were different but equally wonderful playgrounds for a child."
Cooler spent her remaining school years at Huntington Beach before attending the University of South Carolina and graduating with a teaching degree that allowed time for vacations all over the world. She remained living in the fishing village of Murrell's Inlet.
"I taught mostly seventh-grade English, geography and culture, which helped my budding love for travel. Daddy and I started traveling together when I began teaching, and our first big trip was Australia and New Zealand for a month."
Australia sparked Cooler's desire for more travel and new adventures with and without her father. Among the places they visited together are Honduras, Canada, Kenya and the Abaco Island.
"Everything about my travels has been based upon water and animals," Cooler said. "My father and I loved the back roads and the real people. It was all about the little places and the people that have made for some of my greatest memories."
Cooler met her match in Wayne Pierce, an old school friend of her brother's. They married in 2004.
Now, Wayne is her travel companion, and they continue to roam around the world.
Three years ago, Norma and Wayne went back to Kenya after her 2002 visit with her father. The two managed to "bump" into her treasured guide, Mwangangi.
"I had saved his phone number and called him when we arrived back in Kenya. We ended up staying at the same place as his tour and met up. One of the most treasured photographs I have is our reunion where we are each holding the picture of each other we had stored in our wallets for five years. It's all about the people."
After living for 50 years in Murrell's Inlet and basing her exciting travels from there, Cooler was ready to come back to the Beaufort area. She and Wayne decided to retire to downtown Port Royal with their golden retriever, Mullet.
"Beaufort and Port Royal still have that small-town feel and sense of community that I wanted to regain from my childhood," she said. "I have family in town, and it is so beautiful here. I can't drive for a mile without seeing gorgeous water and marsh. If you don't have anything to do, just go outside and soak it in."
After all this time, Norma said some things have changed and some things haven't out at Hunting Island.
"Our favorite spot is near the pier. Wayne and I park and take one of the paths to walk the bridge over the lagoon. That's the biggest part of the erosion and change, but it is still the most beautiful place.
"We would come back regularly even after we left and the beach has been washing away, but our house is still there and reserved for the park manager."