In all too rare instances, the words "public servant" come together to hold real meaning.
That was the case with Ben Racusin, Hilton Head Island's first mayor. Adjectives that describe him -- smart, honest, diligent, modest -- aren't usually invoked for a politician. But politician isn't the right word for Racusin. Neighbor, friend and community leader are better words to use.
Racusin died at age 98 on Sunday, almost 30 years to the day he was sworn in as mayor of the newly incorporated Town of Hilton Head Island. In some ways, he was Hilton Head's George Washington (although he would probably object to being called that). He set the tone and the style for town leaders to come. He listened. He responded. He admitted when he made a mistake. He could laugh at himself. We would all do well to follow his example.
Life doesn't often hand us a blank slate on which to make our mark. The first chapter of the Town of Hilton Head Island's story was largely Racusin's to write. But with such an opportunity comes responsibility. Racusin recognized his duty to the people who followed him on the path to incorporation. He also recognized his duty to those who had fought it.
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Hilton Head was breaking new ground with its "limited services" government, a concept of its own making. Many in the native islander community opposed it. They saw more taxes, but few services in return for those taxes, and limits on what they could do with their property. It helped that Racusin's contributions to the community also included his work in the early 1970s on the island's Human Relations Council, a group formed to improve relations between the native islander community and newcomers to the island.
At the first Town Council meeting on Aug. 5, 1983, just three days after he was elected and just three months after voters said "yes" to incorporation, Racusin said: "We are now a town; united in purpose, and that is to ensure the health, wealth and happiness of all people of Hilton Head Island. It is with humility and singleness of direction that I, together with the newly elected council members, accept the challenges that have been given to us; to establish a sound and effective government, to ensure the future well-being of this island and its residents. We will make mistakes for sure, you can count on that; but we hope the public will bear with us."
Racusin said in a 1999 interview that the first council wanted to lay a strong foundation for the nascent government.
"We tried to put the building blocks in place," he said. "We worked hard and figured subsequent administrations could correct whatever mistakes we did make."
The recognition that no one person, or small group of people, has all the answers or that their answers will stand for all time is key to a government's -- or any institution's -- ability to respond to changing circumstances and thrive.
In describing Mike Malanick, the town's second mayor, who died in 1995, Racusin turned to a quote he said came from a 1940s issue of Life magazine:
"If you treat a man as he is, he will stay as he is. If you treat a man as he ought to be and should be, he will become what he ought to be and should be. If there was anyone I know who followed that axiom, it was Mike Malanick. We will miss him terribly."
The same can be said of Ben Racusin. We will miss him, too.