David Lauderdale

‘Mother Teresa mixed with Steve Martin’: Free spirit of Hilton Head’s Jimmy Buffett-era dies

Mary “Stick” Troutman Carroll and Patrick Carroll at a friend’s wedding around 1980.
Mary “Stick” Troutman Carroll and Patrick Carroll at a friend’s wedding around 1980. Submitted

Stick Carroll landed like a butterfly on Hilton Head Island in the summer of 1978, swapping the madness of Atlanta for the sand of Folly Field.

And she lived that way.

She flitted about as the unofficial spirit of a remarkable era on the island.

She may have been collecting Spanish moss with a fishing pole, hiding a life-like “alien” in her daughter’s’ shower, or organizing a pig race for a Hilton Head convention.

She made a living with words, oddly enough for a person who had to overcome dyslexia, as art director at Islander magazine, designing ads at The Island Packet newspaper, or coming up with the typography for Jimmy Buffett’s “Coconut Telegraph” album on her screen porch on Sand Dollar Road.

It also seems odd that Stick’s vibrant life ended quietly after a slow and crippling duel with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. She died early Tuesday. She would have been 67 next month, and her first grandchild is due in June.

“She is now dancing in heaven,” said her daughter, Charlotte Fraser.

That’s appropriate because dancing flows through the life of Mary “Stick” Troutman Carroll like the silk kimonos she inherited from her mother.

She met her husband when he asked her to dance. Patrick Carroll also came to Hilton Head in 1978. He escaped the cold of Michigan to work with chef Serge Pratt at The Gaslight restaurant.

One night after work he went to a club called Hannah’s.

“She was on the second floor, standing in front of a fireplace, looking radiant,” Patrick recalls.

She guided him downstairs and they danced a full song. But when he asked if she wanted to have a seat, he got his first dose of Stick in what would become a strong marriage of more than 30 years. “I’m working,” she said. “I’ve got a whole set of tables upstairs.”

Their three children — Charlotte, Carson and Pat Jr., all born on Hilton Head — would often catch their parents dancing in the kitchen.

Pat Carroll talks about dancing in the kitchen with his mother, and her encouragement even though he was stomping all over her feet.

More recently, as a young adult back home from work worldwide as a model and actor, the shoe was on the other foot. He encouraged his mother to dance, placing her ailing feet on top of his.

Troutman Sanders

Patrick Carroll said life with Stick could be like “I Love Lucy.”

But she also was elegant and had the perfect etiquette of a child reared on the blue-blood side of Atlanta.

Patrick was the chef at the Marriott oceanfront hotel — now the Sonesta — when it opened on Hilton Head and all the managers were invited to general manager Angus Cotton’s house to meet Mr. Marriott and his son.

“I told Stick I really couldn’t have any shenanigans that night,” Patrick said this week. “I said, ‘Please, no BS. Be ready when I get home.’

“When I pulled up, there were two cop cars in the driveway and a neighbor was running around with a baseball bat saying it would take $100 to get our dog back. It was like a scene from Family Circus.”

He said they smoothed it over, and finally got to Cotton’s house, Stick in a red kimono with big gold dragon on the back.

“She made her presence known,” Patrick said.

Stick got her nickname for her thin frame beneath sandy hair and impish smile. It came from a basketball coach at the private Lovett School in the Buckhead section of Atlanta.

Her father, Henry Troutman, followed his own father into the law practice that is today the international Troutman Sanders firm.

Her mother ran Mary Troutman’s Added Touch frame shop in Buckhead, and turned their penchant for collecting sea shells at St. Simons Island into a sea shell shop with three locations and a mail-order business.

When Stick was in college, which Patrick said involved five universities, she created “Barefoot Collections,” a wholesale mail-order jewelry business with her two biggest customers being Lilly Pulitzer and Walt Disney World.

And after Stick’s daughter Charlotte earned her master’s degree in art from Harvard University and became a full-time artist, she called her first business “Barefoot Collections.”

Henry Troutman also made an impact on Hilton Head. He found his passion in life as a certified chemical addictions counselor. He earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Bar Association for founding the Lawyers Assistance Program.

“Pop Pop” moved to Hilton Head to be closer to Stick and his grandchildren, and quietly helped alcoholics reclaim their lives. He died in 2001, shortly after celebrating his 31st anniversary of sobriety. Everyone said he never met a stranger.

“If he never met a stranger, (Stick) never even thought a stranger could exist,” said her son, Patrick.

And all those friends and family and adopted family rocked to the soundtrack to Stick’s life.

The children piled into their mother’s gargantuan Suburban, and if they asked where they were going they were always told, “We’re going on an adventure.” It could involve sharks teeth, crabs, a story about every corner of the island, or road kill scraped up for a science project.

In the background, Stick is yelling, “Who’s singing?” And their life rolled on to the beat of the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, or Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Jimmy Buffett

Stick started a book about raising her children, called “They Just Can’t Know.”

They know that people their age are starting to gasp, “I’m turning into my mom,” and that they all still wanted to be like Charlotte and Carson and Patrick’s mom.

Stick was a Girl Scout leader for years — taking them all over the Southeast, sandwiching it between her crazy projects and constant deadlines for presentations at island conventions for the Meeting Dynamics company.

The Carroll house on Bob White Lane in Point Comfort Woods was filled with kids.

Stick kept snacks and fruit on the table, which helped her to know what the kids were up to, her husband said. She called them home with a cow bell.

“She was the neighborhood mom to other neighborhoods,” Patrick said.

Stick helped others as if they were her own, and service was part of the family fabric, but all the kids knew they’d have fun with Mrs. Carroll.

“She was like Mother Teresa mixed with Steve Martin,” Patrick said.

Stick’s constant statements ring in her children’s ears.

“Figure it out,” she’d say.

“This too shall pass.”

“Lighten up.”

They say Stick encouraged them to be artists, and that it reflected their bubbly mother’s uncanny ability to see the best in everyone and every situation, and to persevere.

In 2017, Stick and Patrick moved in with Charlotte and Alex Fraser in Charleston.

Pat said Stick was working as activities director at the Life Care Center of Hilton Head when she started falling for no reason. That eventually led to a bad diagnosis, and other things, like plowing the Suburban into the living room.

Now the generation that came to Hilton Head when it was small and never let the sand get out of their blood, but worked like dogs and built a community they thought was a cut-above — now that generation is going away, or partying at celebrations of life.

Stick’s memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, at her church, St. Luke’s Church on Pope Avenue. So many people have reached out to the family that they have set up an email account for it: marycarrollfamily@gmail.com.

Besides doing the typography for the Jimmy Buffett album, and a Taj Mahal album, Stick worked with her friend Walter Hunt on a timeless piece of art for her era on Hilton Head.

She did the wording on Hunt’s pointillism drawing of the Golden Rose Park, where the late Gene Wiley welcomed the world on late Saturday nights to his special latitude under towering pines, crooked oaks and a still Carolina moon.

Those are the words I’d tell Stick now if I could:

“See ya at the Rose.”