Jay Harter’s fitness video — “Stepping With Jay” — is still legendary on Hilton Head Island.
Maybe it’s because of all those years as a fitness instructor at the Downtown Athletic Club, or because he was a first responder for a quarter century, or maybe it was his easy laugh and infectious smile — but John James “JJ” “Jay” Harter II was the last person many friends expected to be eulogizing.
It happened last Sunday when the pews were full at the 300-seat Tidal Creek Fellowship on Lady’s Island. His funeral attracted as many as 70 people from the fire service. His empty dress uniform jacket reflected decades of service to the people.
Harter died early Friday, Jan. 12, at the Medical University of South Carolina. It came after a massive stroke as they tried to get him fit for heart surgery, said his wife, Renee. He was 71.
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Harter quietly had a big influence on Hilton Head Island, moving south from his native Port Royal.
He was a proud member of the Beaufort High School Tidal Waves Class of 1965. His father, John J. “Pie” Harter, was Port Royal mayor for six years and on Town Council for another 21. He was a carpenter, and ran a 75-foot shrimp boat called Hizzoner.
Fire engines at the station near their home always interested “JJ.” He became a volunteer firefighter in Port Royal in 1969. He married his sweetheart from eighth grade, and was running his own shrimp boat named the 5 J’s for his first wife, Janet Dyches Harter, and the first three of their four children: Jimmy, Jody, Jen and Jaime.
In 1974, Chief David MacLellan hired Harter as assistant chief at the Sea Pines-Forest Beach Fire Department that served the south end of Hilton Head. Harter was chief of operations for a department of more than 60, doing the hiring, firing and discipline. He was deputy chief after two island fire departments and a volunteer rescue squad merged into the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire and Rescue in 1993.
After retiring from that, he became the town’s emergency management coordinator. He helped the community master the art of hurricane evacuation, leading a team in a “war room” at the old Station No. 1 building in Shipyard.
He led a major upgrade to town’s disaster recovery plans. In 2003, its 224-page plan could guide nearly every step of recovery from a disaster, from issuing of rebuilding permits to clearing debris.
He retired in 2007 and returned to the water.
Actually, he never left the water. He kept a side job, or “full-time hobby,” of maintaining and captaining boats for other people. For 15 years, he was captain of the 48-foot Hinkley yacht belonging to part-time islander Arthur Blank, co-founder of The Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons.
He was also an avid fisherman. He loved the sand bar, and was there with family this summer for the big concert during the Beaufort Water Festival.
He and Renee had recently moved back home, to Port Royal.
“He was my blessing,” she said. “My miracle.”
Even though Harter was married three times, the families stayed together.
“We always said we put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional,” his daughter Jen said.
She made people laugh at the funeral by telling about the time her father, as always driving his truck with the heavy foot of a NASCAR driver, picked up a hitchhiker with her little boys in the truck. But they assured their mother later it was OK because Papa was packing heat.
Someone told a story about the time the buff Harter was off duty and on the beach near the Tiki Hut. Two fire engines pulled up to work a call at the Holiday Inn and he comes running up to command the scene — in his Speedos.
Everyone remembers his laugh and bright smile. He took command of a room without trying. But they also remember that he gave people second chances, while managing to never get run over by them.
He had been attending the Tidal Creek Fellowship church for several years. The Rev. David Holland said he married Jay and Renee about 18 months ago.
“Jay didn’t take himself so seriously,” Holland said. “He had so many characteristics we all wish we had, but I kept coming back to this: Jay loved well. I’ve often said if there were two words on my tombstone, those would be the ones.”
When the weather warms up, the family will sprinkle JJ’s ashes in his favorite places, like the May River, Bay Point and Bray’s Island.