David Lauderdale

50 years on, Women's Association of Hilton Head Island stays true to its core mission

When the Women's Association of Hilton Head Island was formed, no one needed name tags. They all knew each other.

Half a century later, that has changed.

But as the 526-member organization prepares for a celebratory high tea Wednesday, it clings tightly to a mission still valid on its 50th anniversary: to promote the natural and cultural beauty of the island, encourage projects that benefit the community, and facilitate communication among area women.

The tea at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn is fitting.

The association's first president, Billie Hack, lived there. She would be proud of the plaque to be placed on the front porch of a farmhouse on the property to recognize the association's $15,000 golden-anniversary gift to the museum.

Wednesday's sea of fine spring hats will be so different from the slacks and sneakers worn by seven women when they met on a front porch in January 1961 to organize a garden club.

"There weren't any houses or people nearby to interfere with the talk and chatter, but the seagulls made an awful racket," Katie Callahan would later report in The Island Packet.

By 1965, the garden club grew and interests expanded, and it became the Women's Association, one of the earliest civic organizations to arise after the bridge linked the island to the world in 1956.

They had plenty of chatter in their quarterly meetings. Then the second president, Ellenor Hands, introduced interest groups, an idea a military wife had seen elsewhere. The annual newcomers' coffee and interest-group signups became a social institution, filling the halls at St. Luke's Church.


But from the outset, the women had more in mind than making friends, or taking the Nancy Hanks train from Savannah to Atlanta with the Gadabouts interest group, or even learning to make lampshades or speak conversational German.

In 1975, its Civic Affairs Committee concluded that public transportation was needed on Hilton Head. The committee also favored a referendum to see whether people wanted the island airport to expand.

The association found a building for the first day care center, a forerunner to the Children's Center, and wrote its first rent check. It conducted a drive to establish a health clinic on the island. It helped start Girl Scouting on the island, and it supported many efforts to help young people, including the Youth Center, forerunner to the Island Recreation Center.

In 1980, president Carol Wolf introduced the association's Youth Awards Program to promote sound values and reward students for community service.

More recently, it paid for a study room at the Hilton Head Island Branch of the Beaufort County Library. Its gift of a whimsical Walter Palmer bird sculpture in the Shelter Cove Community Park marked its 40th anniversary.

One of its interest groups on genealogy spawned the Heritage Library Foundation, now a significant treasure trove of genealogical and historical resources.


The association's 25th anniversary celebration under president Beverly Cotton was so grand, it spilled from the ballroom at what is now the Crowne Plaza Hilton Head Island Beach Resort to take over the whole first floor, including the men's restroom. Past president Allyson Harden came dressed as Abigail Alligator, and Duchess Raehn sang a special tribute dressed as a belle named "Scarlett O'Southern."

Membership soared in the 1990s to more than 1,300, including members from Bluffton. Today, it's less than half that, in part because there are smaller women's associations within neighborhoods. Another challenge is keeping interest groups fresh with new ideas, said president Sandee Brooks. They need younger members, she said.

They've always had fun with things like fashion shows and Christmas parties, featuring what early president Corinne VanLandingham called "the famous Women's Association punch."

None of the women who has made the association work for 50 years was content with simply having fun. Billie Hack co-founded the Bargain Box thrift store, which has given $12 million to local charities. She helped found First Presbyterian Church. The Community Association, in many ways the forerunner to the Town of Hilton Head Island, was formed in Ellenor and Jim Hands' living room. Past president Martha Baumberger, who became mayor and the first female chairman of Beaufort County Council, founded the Zonta Club here. VanLandingham, who is now 100 and plans to attend the high tea, was a Packet columnist for 20 years.

The association's real contribution has been bringing doers together from outside their neighborhoods to improve the whole community. It is a spirit that we need today more than in 1961, when no name tags were required.