Beaufort lost one of its full-blown characters with the passing of Dottie McDaniel.
She once said, “I was born to be a person of good cheer.”
She even brought cheer to the gathering at her gravesite Tuesday as the ancient bells tolled at the Parish Church of St. Helena.
She told me once that Hurricane “Gracie blew me into Beaufort, and I lit, and I never have blown back out.”
She was reared on the Lumber River in North Carolina, one of eight children born to a mother with the lovely name of Minnie Magnolia Boone. Her home was stacked with books, magazines and newspapers. She told me it “was a broken down farm with a garden, fruit trees and a lot of romance.”
Dottie fit right in on the big bend of the Beaufort River.
And she stood out, riding on a three-wheeled bicycle, mowing grass in a two-piece swimsuit, swooping into yoga moves on the beach, swimming in the Beaufort River in her 80s, or entertaining in her “Sky Room” — a “garden” with chairs, a fountain, statues, boxwoods and a metal arbor in a parking space outside her condominium that was supposed to be for her car.
When we met four years ago, Dottie had just celebrated her 90th birthday, and cars were on her mind.
“I gave up the automobile in 1984,” she said. “Friends turned to me in utter astonishment in looks and tone.”
She once had a 1969 Chevrolet convertible and a Volkswagen with no floorboards. But she cut her driver’s license into a thousand pieces, saying automobiles are “so over-rated in America in importance. People will pay more for a car than a living place.”
When she first saw Beaufort in 1952, it was the beauty she could never forget. She recalled the avenue of palmetto trees lining U.S. 21 as she came into town, but they’re gone. “So much has changed,” she said. She blamed the “damn automobile.”
She said, “I love to use profanity in reference to cars.”
To which her good friend, the late Chloe Martin Pinckney, said, “She doesn’t mind getting in my damn automobile to get groceries.”
Dottie went to the river in a straw hat so enormous she said the Marine pilots would think there were mushrooms in the water. She swam with Chloe and other good friends “in what we humorously call Chloe’s Creek, the loveliest place to swim that anyone could conceive.”
Ray Stocks recalled that, the first time he met Dottie 45 years ago, she was riding her bicycle to visit friends — with a bottle of vodka in the basket.
Dottie was always planning things and having “readings.”
Sandy Somerall framed her invitation to Dottie’s “Jester’s Party.”
“Wear dancing shoes, tuck your musical instruments under your arm and enter the garden gate while whistling,” it read. “If you never learned this fine art, humming a tune will suffice. Allow yourself to be escorted by a jester to the tree yard, where you’ll hear a trickle from a mock waterfall (courtesy of the city taking out a sidewalk. Jesters believe in recycling).”
Apparently, as city workers apologized for making so much noise taking up a sidewalk, Dottie was overjoyed to see them and asked that the old cement go in a pile in the back yard. She put a water hose on it, and it was a waterfall.
Sandy and Rick Somerall moved into Dottie’s basement apartment 45 years ago, after passing an interview. They said Dottie could appear instantly down secret steps but would always ask, “Are you receiving?”
Sandy said, “I was thinking, ‘What year is this?’ ”
On another occasion, they were taking her out to dinner, and Dottie asked, “Shall I go unencumbered?”
That meant, “Am I going to be paying for my dinner?”
Dottie married two men, both named Cecil.
She wrote a lot of letters to the editor. Artist Rebecca Davenport, one of Dottie’s good friends, recalls her standing up at a public meeting about redoing the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. She said in her Southern lilt that it must be a place for everyone, including “the homeless, the regulars and the uppities.”
“Dot was the epitome of what a true Southern lady should be,” Wandre Elkins, who married into Dottie’s family, said at the graveside. “Unique, classy, polished, endowed with Southern charm and grace, but at the same time able to stand up for what she believed in, willing to speak her mind for a cause dear to her heart and who she was.”
Those causes included gardens, beauty and historic preservation.
Sara Tetley said that, when Dottie moved into assisted living at the Helena House, she brought along her arbor, Confederate jasmine and three-tiered fountain from the Sky Room. (Her boxwoods from the Sky Room live on in the fine garden at The Castle on the Point.)
Dottie’s new room had a view, and she filled the space outside her window with lovely things.
She asked Sara Tetley: “Can you imagine having two Sky Rooms in one lifetime?”
On the day Beaufort said goodbye to Dottie McDaniel, the sky was a mix of low, gray clouds and bursts of sunshine.
But, for the record, I could see that dark sky over Beaufort on Tuesday morning from the other side of Port Royal Sound. And in that Sky Room there was this: a beautiful rainbow.