Byron Sewell did it.
He’s the one who made people weep as they came home worried sick to Hilton Head Island after evacuating for Hurricane Matthew.
He put the “Welcome Home” sign at the foot of the bridge half an hour before it reopened to the public at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Others stood across the highway waving American flags, a burst of sunshine in dark days.
Sewell grabbed a can of white Kilz paint and sprayed hearts and little waves on a sheet of cheap faux-plywood.
It was the last board from the windows of his mother’s home nearby in Mariner’s Cove.
“I’ll never forget being welcomed home to my island after three years on a boat in the South Pacific,” Byron said Friday. “I thought they needed to see our spirit was still here.”
Sewell did not evacuate. He heard winds that sounded like jets and the popping and crashing of trees in the early-morning hours Saturday. He spent the next three days going all over the island shooting pictures of homes for people who wanted to know what happened back home.
And with the help of Facebook, Chuck Padgett and Sea Pines Security Cpl. Elijah “Mr. E” Ellison, Byron got the tattered American flag at Sea Pines Circle replaced on Monday afternoon.
“I’ve never been more connected to our island than in the past few days,” he said, standing with a surfboard at North Forest Beach after a day of clearing debris at the homes of others.
He compares the “Welcome Home” sign to the bowls of steamed shrimp his mother, Sis Sewell, always had for him when he returned from world travels.
“He always comes home,” Sis said. “This is where his heart is.”
And this is where a sign now etched into Hilton Head history found kindred spirits.
Byron Sewell is a 43-year-old surfer dude, a former state champion like his father, “Hurricane” Hamp Sewell. He’s a charter boat captain, a surfing instructor and a free spirit stuck like a barnacle to Hilton Head.
Hamp and Sis Sewell moved to the island right out of college in 1971. He came to work for an uncle, Charlie Doughtie, who tossed the Madison Avenue world of ring-around-the-collar jingles and dire warnings of athlete’s foot to haul his family to a desolate island where he could sail to work.
Hamp Sewell worked at the Doughties’ trendy Island Shop in the William Hilton Inn, and managed the Old Fort Pub when the few people who lived here gathered there often for oyster roasts.
Byron arrived in 1973, born in Savannah because the island had no hospital.
Sis taught at the Montessori Gardens school alongside Todd Ballantine, a naturalist who would eventually write the local bible on our environment, “Tideland Treasure.”
Sis and Hamp created the Kindred Spirits Enrichment Program located at St. Luke’s Church, where preschool, after-school and summer programs inspired scores of little islanders like Byron.
They learned that they were an important part of an island community, and a much bigger world. They were taught they must be involved, so they adopted animals at the Humane Association and brushed them with little brushes. They bartered with farmers and ate corn for days. They cleaned trash from the beach, where Byron’s father, the man the kids called “The Electric Hampster,” once brought the world catamaran championship. They sucked water from Spartina grass.
The Rev. Holland Clark would come over and bless the crabs they caught, or the trees they planted. They raised money for children who needed it. They marched in the island’s earliest Martin Luther King Jr. Day parades.
Byron was influenced by Ballantine, and fishermen Collins Doughtie and Fuzzy Davis. And after graduating from Hilton Head High and trying about a year at the University of South Carolina, he learned a lot about the earth on a long trip to Costa Rica with his surfing godparents, Nanci and Jerre Weckhorst.
Byron was in the saltwater at 3 weeks old. And when he broke a surfboard in that same water on Thursday, he said it was a beautiful thing.
It was the best surfing day in 15 years.
“Chest to head high, super hollow, and glassy,” he said.
They’re all coming home.
Sis Sewell keeps up with many of those kindred spirits through Facebook.
And what she has seen over the past week makes her heart swell.
Kids who grew up here are coming to help, she said, even when their family is long gone.
“They feel so helpless, watching it on TV,” she said. “They can’t just sit there.”
As adults, they know they are a part of the island.
“They got it,” Sis said. “They really got it. They’re precious people. I’ve been really touched.”
Byron, who once had a charter boat named the Native Son, spends a lot of his time abroad.
But he remains anchored to the home where his parents, now divorced, still live.
He and Cory Cunningham and Tucker Brubaker have been cleaning yards all week. They call themselves the “Reggae Choppers” because they wrestle with downed trees and debris to reggae music.
“It’s like God took a big scrub brush and burst our bubble on Hilton Head,” Bryon said. “And we have a new Hilton Head, new energy, new feelings, new everything.”
And that’s the story behind the cheap, faux-plywood “Welcome Home” sign.