David Lauderdale

‘Part of the fabric that is gone’: Jean Corkern quietly helped give Hilton Head its mojo

Jean Corkern
Jean Corkern Submitted

Everybody loved Jean Corkern.

“She was a mother to a lot of people — and I mean adults, too,” Doug Corkern said Wednesday morning, two days after his wife of 63 years passed away.

Jean’s outlook on life was important to the Lowcountry because, in her own quiet way, she was a community builder on Hilton Head Island and, later, in Bluffton.

“She was adventuresome, brave and maybe a little bit crazy bringing a tiny baby and a 2-year-old to Hilton Head when you had to go to Savannah to see a doctor,” said her daughter, Coby Mozingo, of Mount Pleasant.

In 1961, Doug became Hilton Head’s third architect. He designed the 10th home in Sea Pines and countless others to follow, giving Hilton Head a “look” that made it famous.

Jean was in a tight-knit group of moms on Hilton Head who sent their children to Mary Fraser’s newfangled thing called Montessori school, and did whatever had to be done to make life seem normal for their families — sewing outfits for their little girls to cheer the Hilton Head Gators youth football teams, or maybe even modeling in a fundraiser for the school.

“She is part of the fabric that is gone,” said Jeans’ close friend from that era, Nelle Smith of Beaufort.

“She had such an open heart, a happy heart,” said Babbie Guscio of Bluffton.

But here’s what else Jean brought to the table when her Lowcountry was a sleepier place.

Clemson

Carol Jean Missroon was born on Christmas Eve 1933 in Georgetown to a tugboat captain and school cafeteria worker.

Her people were water people. They lived on what they caught from the river. They piloted tugboats in the Savannah River, and sewed shrimp nets by hand. One of her forebears made it big in naval stores and owned the house at the tip of The Battery in Charleston.

Doug and Jean were together for 71 years. He rode on horseback to see her as a kid, and when he got his driver’s license at 14, he took her on a date. They went to see a movie with June Allyson and Jimmy Stewart at the Strand Theater in downtown Georgetown.

“I actually held her hand,” Doug said. “I was a very forward, brash kid. I asked her the other day if she remembered that, and she said she did.”

Doug and Jean got married after his sophomore year at what was then the all-male Clemson College. She worked as secretary to the legendary Clemson Dean Walter Cox.

Doug finished his 5-year degree and was starting a career in Charlotte when Jean lost a baby in childbirth.

“Jean wanted children really bad,” Doug said.

After they moved to Savannah, they adopted three children. Scott, Coby and Chris were reared barefooted on an island that seemed like a jungle, and grew up to give Jean five grandchildren, who called her “Honey.”

“While their husbands were wheeling and dealing, working on this planned-living thing, the moms were raising kids in a wilderness,” Coby said. “But I now look back and realize it was probably the best upbringing possible.”

Bluffton

Not every Hilton Head mom would march down to Palmetto Bay Marina and buy a 27-foot Irwin sailboat from Joe Fraser.

“She came home and said, ‘Look what I bought,’ “ Doug said. “We became avid sailors and she loved it.”

And not every Hilton Head mom opened an art gallery in her husband’s architectural studio. It was called the Fox Grape Gallery, and it was one of the island’s first art galleries, run by artist Mary Edna Fraser. It specialized in unusual sculpture and the work of South Carolina artists.

The Corkern house was the place to be on the Fourth of July. Tears would trickle during the singing of “America the Beautiful,” and there was plenty of food from the lady who could cook fish in a thousand different ways. Jean specialized in shrimp on yellow grits and her Christmas Eve oyster pie.

Doug and Jean retired to Bluffton in 2002. They built a wonderful home on Lawrence Street in Old Town on Huger Cove. It has a summer kitchen outdoors, and two artists’ studios.

This is when Jean blossomed as a potter. She made coveted decorative pieces. And she supported Doug in his new venture of line drawings and watercolors depicting life and places in Bluffton. His work now fills a book, and walls at the Four Corners Art Gallery.

The Bluffton they moved to is not today’s Bluffton.

For them, the move gave new life to that old community feeling, where people knew each other and depended on each other.

“Everybody kind of had that shared Lowcountry South Carolina feeling and way of expressing themselves in what they ate and how they socialized,” Coby said.

That’s what Jean Corkern brought to the table as she quietly, joyfully, helped weave the fabric of two communities.

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.
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