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Joseph B. Fraser Jr., who helped shape modern Hilton Head, has died

Joseph B. Fraser Jr. at the 2008 Verizon Heritage on Hilton Head Island.
Joseph B. Fraser Jr. at the 2008 Verizon Heritage on Hilton Head Island. Staff photo

Joseph B. Fraser Jr., who with his brother, Charles, shaped modern Hilton Head Island, died Thursday night.

He was 88.

Fraser died of natural causes at Bloom at Belfair senior living community in greater Bluffton. His health had been in steady decline during the past year, his son, Joseph Fraser III, said.

Along with his brother, Joseph Fraser Jr. was a guiding force in Hilton Head's evolution from a sparsely-populated forest into a busy island community. He also was instrumental in starting the island's signature sporting event, the Heritage Classic golf tournament, in 1969.

For many years, he played the quiet foil to the outspoken Charles Fraser. The pair developed Sea Pines Plantation, a carefully planned, environmentally-sensitive community on more than 5,000 acres at the island's south end.

Charles was the visionary and Joseph took a more hands-on approach, according to those who knew him.

He was a homebuilder and a corporate officer in charge of day-to-day operations at the family-owned Sea Pines Plantation Co. He also designed buildings and entire communities. The plans for Hilton Head Plantation were developed on his dining room table.

"It fell to Dad to plan, to design, to operate," his son, Simon Fraser, said. "He naturally gravitated toward the land-planning side."

Born on Jan. 27, 1926, in Hinesville, Ga., Joseph Fraser served in the U.S. Army during World War II and graduated from the University of Georgia with a marketing degree.

In 1964, Fraser left his father's lumber business in Hinesville to work with Charles Fraser on Hilton Head Island. He became senior vice president for Sea Pines Plantation and was elected to the Sea Pines Co. board of directors in 1965.

Charles Fraser had founded the Sea Pines Co. in 1956 and pushed to connect Hilton Head to the mainland with a bridge built the same year.

The land-use concepts Charles Fraser applied in Sea Pines were ahead of their time, but the foresight to encode his idea for a "contractual community" in restrictive covenants was perhaps his most lasting contribution.

Like Charles, Joseph sought to balance the community's natural beauty with development.He pushed to set back housing from the beach to preserve the dunes and articulated the community's tree standards, according to Thomas Norby, who grew up with Joseph Fraser in Hinesville and worked for him at Sea Pines.

"His philosophy was to maintain the elements that made the island what it is," Norby said.An intelligent executive who led by example, he also was kind.

He saved land from a development near Palmetto Bay for Norby to build his first house. In the 1970s, when an employee's parents' house burned down in Walterboro, Fraser quickly shipped trucks of furniture to outfit the couple's new home, Norby said.

"He was a man of uncommon grace and humility," said David Ames, who worked with Fraser as a Sea Pines executive. "It drew people to him."

Fraser left the company in 1974 but returned to the board as vice chairman in 1977. His involvement with the company included land planning, development and community services. He was also chairman of the company's architectural-review board and the company's liaison with property owners.

Along with Charles, he worked to start the Heritage Classic golf tournament. The event is now known as the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing and is played each April at Harbour Town Golf Links in Sea Pines.

The Fraser brothers managed the PGA Tour tournament from its inception in 1969 until 1982. Joseph Fraser later became head of the Heritage Classic Foundation, the nonprofit group that now runs the tournament.

In 2002, Joseph Fraser became the third recipient of the Distinguished Service Award, given by the PGA Tour Tournaments Association. He was selected because he spent more than three decades in volunteer service to the tournament and was committed to the event's many charitable endeavors, tournaments association executive director Suzanne Bhole said at the time.

Fraser's work with the Heritage Classic Foundation helped save the tournament from financial trouble in the 1980s.

"What he's done for this tournament ... we wouldn't be here talking today if he hadn't stuck his neck out," tournament director Steve Wilmot said.

In addition to his service to the first Hilton Head Homebuilders Association, Fraser was a member of the S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism Commission, a member of St. Luke's Church and the namesake of Hilton Head Preparatory School's 20,600-square-foot field house, for which he raised millions of dollars in 2006. He also was active in sailing and sport fishing.

At Charles Fraser's funeral in December 2002, Joseph Fraser spoke of their days growing up in a lumber family in Hinesville and the lessons their parents taught them about faith, family and stewardship.

"When I come here, I am overcome with emotion because there is no finer example of his development and his design approach than the Harbour Town Lighthouse and the Liberty Oak," he said.

Asked in 2006 about his contributions to the island -- particularly in developing Sea Pines -- Joseph Fraser was, as usual, a man of few words: "It was a good plan."

He was preceded in death by his first wife, Carolyn Bexley Fraser. He is survived by his wife, Jean O'Keeffe Fraser; sons Joseph B. Fraser III of Bluffton, Charles B. Fraser and J. Simon Fraser of Hilton Head, J. West Fraser of Charleston, and daughter Carolyn B. Fraser of Charleston.

A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Monday at St. Luke's Church on Hilton Head.

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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