I did not know Debra Emerick Philips.
But this week, with presents wrapped in green and silver and gold under a sparkling Christmas tree, I’m thinking about Debra’s gift of a different kind.
It didn’t come wrapped in a bow. It was a comment on Facebook.
At some point, she must have asked to be my “friend” and I blindly checked yes, as I tend to do for anyone who has their clothes on. Slowly, I noticed this stranger leaving encouraging tidbits on things I wrote and the daily morning videos from the beach posted by my beautiful bride.
Her most special gift was personal for me. But her last one is a gift we all should share.
Debra’s special gift came when I wrote about Melanie Fender Lowther when they named a bridge for her near her home in Pritchardville. Her beautiful life was ended brutally, murdered at the hands of a drifter Melanie and her husband, Barefoot, had been helping.
Debra Emerick Philips commented: “I did not know her... after reading your tribute I felt like I knew her as a friend.”
I often wondered if she knew that was the greatest compliment she could give someone in the relentless, short-order-cook grind of newspaper work. It was a true gift.
But then in July, word spread on Facebook that this stranger with the lovely gift had died. Nobody expected it. She was 66, living in Beaufort, caring for her mother, pecking on Facebook one week and gone the next. No one knew she was sick. Lung cancer was blamed.
“That soft voice and beautiful face ...” one of her friends wrote. Another recalled “childhood memories of playing with you on Windsor Road. We were so young and innocent, dressing up our Barbies and dancing in recitals ... then we grew into teenagers .. and then ... life went on ...”
I should have known Debra Emerick Philips.
She moved to Hilton Head Island in the early 1970s, a single mom with a little girl, Edie, and a brand-new landscape architecture degree from the University of Georgia.
She was here until the early 1990s, the heyday years when the island seemed like a blank slate to a wild gaggle of people drawn to it to see their grandest ideas become reality. And to party. And to work like dogs.
“Debra could have gone anywhere,” said Truitt Rabun, one of those early landscape architects who is still at the drawing table.
She worked with Hall’s Nursery and Willard C. Byrd and Associates and golf course architect Clyde Johnston.
They worked with plants, but more importantly the human spirit, to define a sense of place.
She joined people like Robert Marvin, Ed Pinckney, Perry Wood and Mark Baker in trying to preserve a special place as it grew and prospered by telling the world there was more to landscaping than planting azaleas.
“Everything was new and adventurous, and if you didn’t know what you were doing, you did it anyway,” Rabun said.
He also came through the arduous, five-year program at UGA, where he helped organize the first “Great Environmental Teach-In” before he was attracted to Hilton Head by John McPhee’s 1971 article in The New Yorker about Sea Pines founder Charles E. Fraser.
The landscape architects were “drawn here,” Rabun said. They did things without regulators telling them what to do. They worked under the common ethic that nature prevails and architecture was to be receded, he said.
Debra’s larger contribution to shaping Hilton Head came as a member of the town’s first Planning Commission, formed six months after incorporation in 1983.
She was part of an all-star cast — including Orion Hack, who led the 1970 fight to keep a BASF chemical plant from ruining Port Royal Sound, builder Joe Harden, Palmetto Dunes executive Chuck Pigg and retiree Bob Gutheil — who worked day and night, sometimes starting before dawn, to forge a Land Management Ordinance to keep boom town from killing itself.
They tried to preserve a sense of place in a place that Debra’s daughter and two grandchildren still call home.
“If you remember Hilton Head in the 1970s, you weren’t here,” the old saying goes.
Those who were here worked hard and played hard at the Golden Rose and Hurley’s Plantation. They went to Simmons Fish Camp for disco night on Sundays, parting the bead curtains to enter the juke joint with a cement floor, and shrimp grilling out by the creek, five for a dollar.
Debra was a “designated driver” for Hilton Head’s rugby club, with its “Give Blood: Play Rugby” T-shirts. That’s where she ran into Rufus Weaver of Bluffton, who she used to ride the school bus with in Macon, Georgia.
Debra was pretty, petite, quiet, and had a deep, rolling laugh that engaged everyone near her. She smoked long, thin cigarettes. She was known to have strong opinions.
She loved animals, particularly cats. She had a cat named Hamlet when she evacuated for Hurricane David, and her last cat, Sally, is now with her daughter, Edie.
Mostly, she loved the beach and the water. Edie told me that going to the ocean was her mother’s prescription for every ill, from a stumped toe to a broken heart.
And then there were friends. Debra’s friend Jeanne Zailckas said that when Hilton Head was a small and booming town “everyone cared for each other because everyone knew each other; and when tragedies happened, we were all there to support each other.”
Debra wasn’t a party animal because her life was filled with responsibility, and plenty of hardship.
Soon after she and little Edie got to Hilton Head, Debra was diagnosed with leukemia. She underwent years of painful treatment at Johns Hopkins, sometimes staying for months. A friend said that at times her platelet count was so low, they wouldn’t let her brush her teeth. She was in an experimental program, and the experiment worked.
Friends said Debra later had a horrible second marriage to a man in New York. When she got away and showed up at her friend Sara Edi Boyd’s house in Charleston, she was skin and bones but had the “3 C’s”: cat, car and computer.
Debra also would lose a third husband, when he passed away.
And there were years of estrangement from her daughter.
But it was resolved long ago, and in the last years of Debra’s life, she loved nothing more than being with her grandchildren, perhaps setting up a slip and slide for them in the backyard.
Debra became an artist in her “retirement,” creating and selling fused glass and angels made from natural Lowcountry materials.
She did watercolors and made jewelry.
She moved back to Macon when her husband died. It’s where she grew up out Highway 41 along with Rufus Weaver, who said Debra was a popular girl, and like family.
They came up when the Allman Brothers Band rose from those same clay roads to make such an impact on the world that Weaver, now runs Captain Ru Ru’s Charters in Bluffton, said he dropped out of college for a year “to follow the Brothers.”
Debra’s own brother, Rus Emerick, was road manager for the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, if you can imagine, before he grew up to become one of the world’s foremost experts in 3D scanning technology for industrial purposes.
Debra did substitute teaching and worked on her art, but soon after she got home to Macon, her father died. For the rest of her life, Debra cared for her mother, Bettye Carlisle Emerick.
And eventually, Debra felt the call back to her real home, the South Carolina Lowcountry. She and her mother moved to Port Royal in 2011, where they survived a tree splitting their home in two during Hurricane Matthew, and later moved to the Picket Fences neighborhood.
Through it all, Debra’s great escape was always the ocean at Hunting Island State Park. And she was on first-name basis with all the vendors at the Port Royal Farmers Market.
Now Rus lives with their mother.
And Edie looks back to see how much her mother sacrificed for her. She was always teaching, asking Edie why a live oak would have that shape. What would grow under branches like that?
“She found the special in the every-day around her: migrating birds, flowers, shells, freestone peaches,” Edie said. “She taught that with the privilege of our special place comes great responsibility.”
Debra lived to see Edie get an undergraduate degree in marine biology and a master’s in education. She saw her pull for nature in eight seasons of working with Ed Drane on the Town of Hilton Head Island’s sea turtle protection program. She saw her become Teacher of the Year and head of the science department at Hilton Head Island High School, her alma mater.
Edie said she took a long route back to the place she knows as home — a place her mother helped shape.
It’s the place of her childhood, when her “exit slip” was her bicycle. She rode to the Bookmark book store and The Ice Cream Cone, where kids waited in line with two quarters to play the first Pac-Man computer game.
Today, Edie muses to herself as she rides down New Orleans Road and sees the landscaping done by her mother at the Jade Building.
Her daughter, Charlotte Schmidt, is a sophomore at Hilton Head High, and her son, William Schmidt, is a sophomore at Duke University majoring in mechanical engineering.
Debra was a great baker, and at this time of year, she’d be making special packages for everyone, each weighted with the cookies or fudge or candied orange peels that she knew was their personal favorite.
Debra’s final gift to me was another comment on a column, this one in June, a month before she died. It was headlined: “No, Hilton Head will never be another Myrtle Beach. But can it be another Hilton Head?”
In it is Debra’s greatest advice for the still-booming Lowcountry. It is Debra’s special gift to us all:
“That horse has left the barn! What can be done is to look each other in the eye and say what is more important ... having a piece of ever-decreasing pie ... or taking care of our Golden Goose?”