David Lauderdale

95-year-old Lowcountry patriarch leaves legacy, life lessons behind in old Bluffton

Al Inglis on the water.
Al Inglis on the water. Submitted.

Al and Helen Inglis paid college tuition for 30 years.

But that’s not what made him frugal.

Maybe it was the Great Depression, or World War II, or the fact that he was an industrial engineer who did time-and-motion studies for several decades at Union Camp in Savannah. Maybe it was just his “greatest generation,” which recycled to stay alive, not because it was trendy.

Allick Wyllie Inglis Jr. was 95 years old when he passed away by the shores of his beloved May River in Bluffton in January.

That’s when we learned he never skimped on teaching life lessons for his five well-educated children, 15 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren — a family sort of like Bluffton’s version of “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

Through them, we can see what the greatest generation had to offer.

“He used his skill set as a master carpenter to repair these windows, one by one,” grandson Eric Inglis said at the memorial service at the Church of the Cross in Bluffton.

Those large, clear windows opening to the bluff and river beyond may have curbed the congregation’s sense of urgency to all get to heaven. But it didn’t stop Al Inglis from laboring as Junior Warden for 35 years. Son Ed cut the grass on Saturdays while the family cleaned the church.

Al Inglis was the only guy Helen ever dated. They met when she was in high school. He borrowed a canvas kayak to take Helen on a boat ride for their first date. They were married for 68 years, until her passing in 2014.

Granddaughter McCullough Inglis Blessing said he called her “my old friend — my oldest friend,” while teaching them what love looks like.

“When Pops told Nana, ‘Helen, it’s crinkled nicely,’ when Nana ran the brand new, 1969 station wagon into the fire hydrant at the Bargain Corner in Savannah, he showed his kids — and by extension, his grandkids through stories— what it means to be truly gentle of spirit,” McCullough said.

JFK profile in courage

Al Inglis kept his children in a series of Chevrolet Vegas that they ran until they were putting 80-weight tractor oil in them.

When I met him, he was responding to a national op-ed written by son Bob, who served six terms in Congress as a Republican from the Upstate. Bob subsequently turned his energies into bringing conservative, free-market realism into America’s energy policies, enough so that he was the 2015 recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for political courage.

In the op-ed, Bob Inglis called his father the original “hypermiler.”

“It wasn’t environmentalism that drove my industrial-engineer dad to get the maximum mileage out of a tank of gas. It was economic conservatism,” Bob Inglis wrote. “ ‘Let off the accelerator as we pass by the Tarvers’ house,’ my dad used to tell us as he was teaching us to drive. ‘Coast to our driveway. Don’t wear out the brake linings. Don’t burn up the gas.’ That’s conservative.”

Al Inglis told me he had a different word for it: cheapskate.

“I’ve thought of ways to try to sell economy in cars and on highways and I guess it’s impossible,” he told me. “People race up to red lights when they should take their foot off the pedal, coast up there and maybe the light would change. I guess it’s freedom. I guess it’s the pleasure or riding in a big new car down the road.”

His oldest son Wyllie said, “When I became a contractor, Pops loved for me to bring home extra boards for him to repurpose things. Pops’ favorite hobby was painting and repainting. His ultimate happiness was taking something everybody else thought was useless and turning it into something useful.”

Wyllie’s mother finally told him to quit bringing home boards because his father couldn’t leave them alone. “Pops never enjoyed idle time,” he said. “He always wanted something to do.”

‘Do better’

Al Inglis loved it when son Richard bought a shrimp boat called the SeaWolf after Hurricane Hugo. He liked being a first mate and watching the sun come up over Port Royal Sound.

He loved to go to daughter Helen’s basketball games at Bluffton High School.

“I remember when Pops and the family gave Helen a standing ovation when she didn’t foul out in the first half,” Wyllie said.

Al and Helen Inglis were never interested in traveling.

“Their idea of a cruise was getting in the cabin cruiser on a Sunday afternoon and motoring down the May River to the telephone poles and back,” Wyllie said.

In his final years, Al lived for visits from this grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Cancer had claimed one eye. He was content sitting in his red recliner, looking through the living room window at the old May River heaving to and fro.

“One time, when Pops prayed a wry prayer, he said to the Almighty, ‘We’ll do better, and you do better too,’ “ his granddaughter McCullough said.

“I wish that such doing better on the part of the Divine meant Pops were always at 922 May River Road to leave the porch lights on for us. I wish Pops were always here to keep the fire going, no matter how hot it is outside. I wish he were always here to open the door for us ...”

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.