Jim Calfee worked at least two hours a day in his yard.
It brought him great peace. It might have been as much for the chatting with walkers and bicyclers as his special projects to defy doubters and restore blooms to scraggly outcasts.
Then the fates of Job started raining down on him.
Hurricane Matthew wrecked his place in The Rookery neighborhood of Hilton Head Plantation.
Seven trees fell. Three of them crashed onto the roof. The house is still uninhabitable, with what the town labeled 100 percent damage.
Amid the mayhem, including evacuation with six people and a dog, Jim had been trying to get over pneumonia. That’s when doctors discovered it was more than that. On Nov. 21, he was told he had lung cancer that had spread into his lymph nodes. He went into the hospital on Nov. 28. There was nothing they could do. He died there on Sunday, Dec. 4.
Ever since the hurricane, neighbors in the neighborhood that is still neighborly kept asking, “What can we do? What can we do?”
On Saturday, Dec. 3, they found their answer. Ellie Perry put out a flier asking neighbors to meet at Jim and Anita Calfee’s yard at 10 a.m. They’d work until noon to fix up the yard still gouged by the wreckage of a hurricane.
Thirty-seven adults and nine children came, including friends and family members. Neighbors who couldn’t work sent sandwiches, water and homemade cookies to spread on a decorated table.
Jim and Anita were at the hospital in Savannah.
“Jim had known they were going to do it,” Anita said. “What an amazing job they did. He was worried about the house. He was worried about the yard. He knew he would not see it. This was a tremendous love effort by our neighbors.”
The Calfees came to Hilton Head 28 years ago. He was a newspaperman who loved anything political and the push and shove of local issues. He was editor at a weekly here until it folded, then he decided he would not move his family again. He turned down newspaper opportunities elsewhere to do all kinds of different jobs to keep his family in the neighborhood.
Hard work was no big deal for someone raised on a West Virginia dairy farm. He worked in the produce section at the grocery store, he cleaned carpet, he had a cleaning business of his own, and then he found the best job he ever had. For 10 years, he worked at Johnson’s Greenhouse on Wild Horse Road. He said it was the best job because people were so happy when they got around the plants.
For 25 years, he poured that love of plants into the yard his neighbors fixed up for him. He relished a challenge, proving naysayers wrong with the 30-foot grapefruit tree he grew from a seed. He succored to life the little magnolia that grew more than 20 feet before it was smashed by pines being tossed from the roof.
“It has not been easy,” Anita said Tuesday as she prepares for her husband’s memorial service at 3 p.m. Friday at the Sea Island Chapel on Marshland Road.
“Many people have prayed for us,” she said. “Many people have done very kind things for us.”
Like find them a temporary place to live and a place to store what could be salvaged from the home.
And watering the plants and fixing up Jim’s favorite place — the yard.
“It helped me,” Anita said. “It helped him as well.”