Watch: A virtual visit to Beaufort’s waterfront
Henry Carroll Chambers felt a lot of pain in his life.
Physical pain in recent years made it hard for the 6-foot-3 boy wonder of Beaufort to get around. His commanding voice was almost a whisper.
But throughout a very public life that began at 500 Port Republic St. and ended at Beaufort Memorial Hospital on Ribaut Road almost exactly 90 years later, other types of pain did not stop Chambers from being cited in the history of Beaufort County as “the most effective city leader of the 20th century.”
With his death Saturday comes the close of one of Beaufort’s most remarkable chapters.
To me, he was remarkable for seeing Beaufort County as a whole. Precious few have that ability, as simple as it sounds.
Doctors probably discovered as much of the briny Beaufort River pumping through his veins as good, old-fashioned blood, but Chambers appeared, arm-in-arm with Brantley Harvey, on Hilton Head Island for the funeral of the island’s first mayor, Ben Racusin.
Chambers knew all about paying respects — and about being an effective mayor. He led Beaufort from 1969 to 1990.
Chambers is best known as the driving force behind the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, a jewel on the Beaufort River that gave the city and the county a heart.
It actually brought downtown Beaufort back from the dead in the 1970s, according to today’s mayor, Billy Keyserling.
But his work to stop untreated sewage going into the Beaufort River that had been condemned by the state health department, upgrade fire service, halt the dumping ground at the Bay Street riverfront and his work for historic preservation also stirred the economy and improved the quality of life in the beautiful location his family had called home for six generations.
His grandfather had fought against a polluting paper mill. His mother and stepfather hired attorney Reeves Sams to defeat a plan for an 8- to 12-story hotel from changing forever the riverfront in The Point neighborhood.
During his own tenure, Chambers was all for a BASF petrochemical plant announced for the banks of the pristine Colleton River in Bluffton. He told me, “We could engineer a solution to the pollution.”
But when the BASF plan was defeated in 1970, largely by the new residents and development interests on a growing Hilton Head Island, Chambers recalls seeking peace in a bitterly divided county.
He said he worked with John Gettys Smith of the Sea Pines Co. on Hilton Head on a “Bury the Hatchet Day.”
He said, “They came over by boat from Hilton Head. Ben Racusin and I shook hands.”
Retired attorney Jim Gibson, a longtime friend of Chambers, said, “Henry was pure Beaufort County, from border to border.”
He was of a generation of kids who grew up in the creek, and that’s something that never leaves you.
He was an Eagle Scout. He played on two state championship teams at Beaufort High. He was a leader from that class of 1945 until the day he died, often rowing against the tide of public opinion. As one person said, “Henry may not have always been right, but he was always sure of himself.”
His parents and grandparents got divorced at about the same time when he was a boy, and he was reared by his single grandfather in a rambling home called Marshlands. His grandfather had an ice business and was a city manager who stayed busy and sent his grandson to Beaufort Elementary School with his milk in a liquor bottle.
Chambers went to Clemson, like his grandfather, and married the Converse College May Queen Elizabeth “Betty” Brewer.
Despite the successes that enabled the golden couple to travel the world, there also was hurt.
In a profile of Chambers in her book “Remembering the Way it Was at Beaufort, Sheldon and the Sea Islands,” Fran Heyward Marscher Bollin writes:
“Henry and Betty’s first child died young in the hospital after a freak accident. Another son suffered a spinal injury in a soccer game, spent much of his adult life in a wheelchair and also died young. Equine encephalitis caused by a mosquito bite during Hurricane Hugo on 1989 plagued Betty for 13 years, confining her to home and to bed for much of that period, before she died.”
He later would lose his second wife, as his own health declined.
Chambers told Bollin: “I have lived with pain by working 12 to 14 hours a day at things that have meant a lot to me and to the community.”
This time last year, at the Beaufort Water Festival, the community said “thank you.” State Rep. Shannon Erickson pulled off a miracle by quickly getting him the S.C. Order of the Palmetto honor, and City Council passed a resolution reciting his lifetime of contributions.
Everyone sang “Happy Birthday.”
He was too emotional to say much that night.
But in a long conversation before the event, Chambers explained his motivation. He recalled Margaret Scheper once telling him, “Henry, you don’t know this, but your grandfather gave you the Beaufort River when you were 3 or 4 years old.”
The boy wonder, then weakened by age, said, “I think that’s a seed that stayed in my mind forever.”