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Gazette Sea Foam: Lust for life made ‘Tootie' best man for any job

Wilson "Tootie Fruity" Bourke waves to the crowd as he heads down Carteret Street during the Beaufort Christmas Parade on Dec. 5, 2010. Dee Renwick and other downtown merchants once employed Tootie as a Downtown Sidewalk Superintendent. "I don't think Tootie ever missed an entire day of work," Renwick writes.
Wilson "Tootie Fruity" Bourke waves to the crowd as he heads down Carteret Street during the Beaufort Christmas Parade on Dec. 5, 2010. Dee Renwick and other downtown merchants once employed Tootie as a Downtown Sidewalk Superintendent. "I don't think Tootie ever missed an entire day of work," Renwick writes. File/The Beaufort Gazette

Thanks to M. Dee Renwick of Pleasant Point for sharing his insights into Wilson "Tootie Fruity" Bourke.

"The following is inspired by two stories in The Beaufort Gazette in December," Dee writes. "I hope to add additional, factual information about this very special, wonderful man who is so well loved by the Beaufort community."

Dee is a former president of the Downtown Beaufort Merchants Association and Main Street Beaufort, USA.

Tootie Bourke Story

By Dee Renwick

Life was never easy for "Tootie" Wilson Bourke. When he was born in New Jersey, the doctors warned his parents that he had a number of major, internal complications and might not survive. But even then Wilson had a special lust for life and soon he was released from the hospital. The doctors told the family that these disabilities would affect his physical and mental health.

According to his sister, Rose, the family moved to the Savannah area for a few years before coming to Beaufort. For many years, Tootie lived with Rose on Baggett Street, just behind the Piggly Wiggly's current location.

I first met Tootie in 1982 when my wife, Cleo, and I moved to Beaufort from the Midwest and purchased a men's clothing store on Bay Street and named it Martins Menswear.

We had been in business for only a brief time when I noticed this fellow slowly shuffling up and down Bay Street every day, nearly all day long in the stifling summer heat.

Talking to my fellow merchants, I learned about Tootie and how the town revered him. I was told he led every parade and could march and high step right up front with the school cheerleaders. I understood he also had appointed himself as the traffic guard at the local grade school, where he'd jump right out in the traffic, raise his hand, blow his whistle, and stop cars until the kids had safely crossed the street. The city, as a safety issue, finally had to curtail Tootie's traffic management, much to the disappointment of Tootie, the kids and all of Tootie's town supporters.


As I watched Tootie a little more closely, I learned some of his mannerisms. For example, he always wore a cap and when he passed a lady walking down Bay Street he always doffed his cap and did a little bow. Then the lady would invariably say, "How are you doing, Toot?" And Tootie would look up from his bow and very quietly and rather sadly say, "I'm makin' it."

After watching this scene for another week, I talked to other merchants about Tootie. Clearly, they said, since he lost his guard job and we only have a few parades, he just doesn't have much to do but wander around. I talked to them about trying to find some kind of work for him and they were very much in favor of the idea.

The following week, on Monday morning, I stopped Tootie, asked him to come in the store and offered him a job. Without hesitation, he said yes with a grin that stretched from ear to ear.

I told him the downtown merchants wanted him to be our Downtown Sidewalk Superintendent. I got out our professionally designed badge for him to wear on the job and pinned it on his chest. Then I gave him his tools: a small broom and a dustpan with a long handle, plus a nice, new cap. Then we took the first test walk down Bay Street. He needed no further explanation regarding his duties. I stressed that he was the Sidewalk Superintendent and he should never go into the gutter. (This is the only duty he sometimes failed because cigarette butts would prove to be the primary enemy. Any butts in the gutter would be a great temptation to break the rule.)


Well, the rest is history. In the years on the new job, I don't think Tootie ever missed a day of work. A few times, he'd be gone a couple of hours for a doctor's appointment. He arrived at work just when most merchants were opening their business, and he never left until most of us were closing up.

And when he left work downtown, he didn't go straight home. Instead, he'd stop at the Piggly Wiggly and help customers with their groceries or do any other jobs they had for him. As sister Rose used to tell us, often she'd have to telephone the grocery and say, "Please send Tootie home. His supper is getting cold."

Tootie became a volunteer helper for any business on Bay Street that needed him for some special job. He helped move merchandise, assist with moving UPS parcels, running errands. At Martins, we made him assistant manager of the shoe department, and taking care of white formal shoes for weddings and proms was an important part of the job as Martins Menswear rented more than 1,200 tuxedos each year.

But most of all, his attitude on the job was most dramatic. Now, when he walked down the street doing his job and he met a lady, his cap would come off and the lady would say, "How you doing, Toot?" With a huge smile on his face he'd say, "I'm doing great!"

Prior to moving to Beaufort I was a vice president and officer for a Fortune 300 company responsible for human resources. In addition, I was senior vice president for a Chicago human resource consulting company. In these assignments I had the opportunity to meet and work with many talented people at all levels of the organization. I especially remember those men and women who were highly dedicated to their work and their enterprise. And, if I tried to rank those special people who contributed so much to the success of their organization, at the top of my list would be Mr. Wilson "Tootie" Bourke.

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