Sammy Gray, the commodore of the third Beaufort Water Festival and longtime owner of the popular 11th Street Dockside Restaurant in Port Royal, died Sunday, according to former commodore Sheri Little, who called him "truly the patriarch of the organization."
Gray died about 9:40 a.m., said W.R. "Skeet" Von Harten, a longtime friend of Gray's. Gray was 81.
Von Harten said Gray's health had deteriorated after a bad fall about a month ago, requiring a trip to the Medical University of South Carolina and a stay in a Bluffton assisted-living facility.
Von Harten said Gray was only able to return home for six hours before another fall sent him to Beaufort Memorial Hospital. Von Harten and his wife were heading to visit Gray at the hospital after Sunday church service when Gray's family stopped them inside to let them know he had passed, Von Harten said.
Gray and Von Harten had been friends for more than 70 years, meeting when they were children, Gray living in Port Royal and Von Harten in Beaufort. Their friendship continued even after Von Harten joined the Marine Corps, with Gray and his wife, Doris, visiting places Von Harten was stationed across the country.
Gray and Doris were married for 60 years before his passing, Von Harten said. In addition to Doris, Gray is survived by a daughter and a son and was predeceased by another daughter.
"Sammy was my friend for a long time," Von Harten said. "We met when we were young boys. He was a magnificent man -- braver, smarter and wiser than I will ever be. He will be missed by me, his family, and the Water Festival he loved so much."
Gray served as head of Beaufort's marquee summer event in 1958, at a time when its activities were confined to a weekend and centered around a regatta and a beauty pageant. As the event's most senior commodore, Gray was a fixture at the event's private change-of-watch ceremony in recent years, presenting the ceremonial jacket to each year's incoming commodore. Most recently, he bestowed the honor upon his his great-niece, Brandy Gray, who is commodore of the 2014 event next July.
1966 Commodore Colden Battey, a close friend of Gray's, said he had gone to visit him in the hospital Thursday.
"He was a good friend," Battey said. "Sammy was a Beaufortonian his whole life. He loved this place. He was always active, and he was just a great guy."
2007 Commodore Erin Dean said Gray was still active on the festival's executive committee through the most recent event. Dean said despite Gray's failing health in recent days, he still maintained a good sense of humor and the smile he was known for.
Dean said Gray was one of her biggest supporters in 2007, when she became the first female commodore in half a century.
"There are not enough words to express what he meant to me," she said. "As the first female commodore in over 50 years, Sammy was not only my strongest supporter but was my defender and champion. He taught me how to be a leader and even more importantly, how to treat people. I know every commodore that came behind him, myself included, had nothing but respect and admiration for Sammy.
"We will continue to strive to carry out his vision for the Water Festival in the coming years. I know he will be watching us from above and perhaps put in a good word for the weather come each July."
Gray also owned the 11th Street Dockside Restaurant for years, Von Harten said, running it with his son before they sold the restaurant business. Gray still owned the building and rented it out to the new owners, Von Harten said.
In a 2005 article in advance of that year's Water Festival, Gray, then 72, said the running joke was that when someone is asked whether he wants to be a commodore, he answers, "No, I want to be a past commodore."
In that article, he also recalled that John Bigbee, who would become the first commodore, and a handful of friends came up with a big idea in the mid-1950s -- expand Beaufort's summer sailboat races into a full-blown weekend of fun on the water.
Sitting around Al's Steakhouse on West Street drinking coffee on many a morning, Bigbee and company hatched the idea for the first Beaufort Water Festival, using local civic organizations to plan ski shows and motorboat races along the Beaufort River.
That weekend of excitement ultimately swelled to a 10-day festival. Presidents -- the title Gray held in 1958 -- began to be called commodores, a cadre of about 15 volunteers ballooned to the hundreds, and the festival moved to Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park after it opened in the 1970s.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.
- Parade, planes and a new commodore highlight festival, July 27, 2013 http://www.islandpacket.com/2013/07/27/2599669/parade-planes-and-a-new-commodore.html
- 57th Water Festival commodore, Beaufort football coach John Gentry dies, Sept. 30, 2013 http://www.islandpacket.com/2013/09/30/2713442/beaufort-coach-teacher-commodore.html