If you’ve lived in Beaufort long enough, you know Wilson Lane “Tootie Fruity” Bourke.
He didn’t become so locally famous through political power or money.
Nor was he a standout athlete or a movie star.
But for many who call Beaufort home, he shone just as brightly.
With his unmistakable gait and cheerful disposition, Tootie walked into Beaufort — and into the hearts of its people — by taking joy in helping children cross the street after school, sweeping the sidewalks of Bay Street each day and by proudly leading many Beaufort Christmas Parades. Despite the physical and mental limitations that were with him from birth, he “was a symbol of what’s good about a hometown,” Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said Saturday, the day Tootie died at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. He was 81.
Tootie was born in New Jersey, according to Dee Renwick, who wrote a short version of his life for the Beaufort Gazette in January 2011. He “attended school until second grade, when his mother decided he was better off at home,” the article said. He moved to Beaufort with his family in 1952.
He got his nickname in 1978 from the Beaufort Police Department. He used the whistle the department gave him to make sure school buses made a safe exit from Robert Smalls Junior High School, according to a November 2010 piece by Island Packet columnist David Lauderdale. A variation of another of his nicknames, “Mr. Fruit,” can be found in Pat Conroy’s novel “The Prince of Tides.” Conroy based that character on Tootie, Lauderdale said.
But Tootie did more than help children, sweep Bay Street and lead parades.
In 1962, he took what was then a historic step forward.
“The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life,” tells the story of how Tootie integrated Harry’s restaurant on Bay Street long before such things were done.
Conroy, who got the story from a local resident, wrote it this way: “He came in (to Harry’s) for the first time and things got pretty quiet. Harry sat Tootie down and tried to explain to him about integration and segregation, and Tootie didn't know what Harry was talking about, so Harry said the hell with it and just brought him lunch.”
“He would sit at Harry’s restaurant and drink coffee,” Keyserling said. The mayor said Tootie’s physical or mental challenges or growing up in a small southern town before integration could have dampened his enthusiasm for life.
However, “Tootie looked at adversity and not only accepted it, but embraced it,” Keyserling said.
Hit by a car in the early 2000s, Tootie spent his last years in hospitals and nursing homes.
In 2010, however, he led one last Christmas parade after several Beaufortonians arranged for him to ride in an open vehicle and wave to his fans.
Despite Tootie’s absence from downtown for several years, his uniquely Beaufortonian spirit remains.
“The world could use more Tootie Fruity,” Keyserling said.