David Lauderdale

A child of Beaufort sheds new light on the human condition

The cover of Alexia Jones Helsley's book
The cover of Alexia Jones Helsley's book

What does a preacher's kid know about "wicked" Beaufort?

In the case of Alexia Jones Helsley, quite a bit.

She knows enough to fill a 126-page book. Her latest work -- "Wicked Beaufort" -- was released this month by The History Press.

Helsley is quick to point out that it does not rely on anything her father gleaned during his 14-year pastorate at the Baptist Church of Beaufort. Like all pastors, George A. Jones saw his share of the seamier side of life. He sometimes called it "graveyard talk," or stuff not to be repeated.

The book "traces three centuries of mayhem, murder and other human frailties in Beaufort and Beaufort County," Helsley writes, but you can rest easy because it ends around 1920.

Bands of outlaws share space with duelists and tax cheats. A banking scandal, a disgraced rector and stolen mules pull the reader along at a most-wanted clip.

Helsley came across the crimes honestly. She was a state archivist for 33 years and now teaches history at the University of South Carolina Aiken. She did a public-television series on genealogy, and her past books include "Beaufort: A History" and "A Guide to Historic Beaufort." With those skills, the wickedness she found is well-documented.

CALLED HOME

Helsley lives near Columbia but still considers Beaufort home. She arrived as a child when her father was called from Kentucky to head the historic Beaufort church in 1955. George and Evelyn Jones, whose June wedding turned out to be D-Day, cut a wide swath during their time in Beaufort.

The church thrived under Jones' hard-driving leadership, marked by intellectual sermons, a rare openness for change along racial and ecumenical lines, and fact-based decisions that someone said had him keeping statistics on his statistics. He led one of the church's largest revivals when renovations were completed after Hurricane Gracie. Nightly attendance averaged 604, and 1,172 flocked to Sunday school, according to the church history, "A Lamp Unto the Lowcountry" by Annette Milliken Maddox.

Jones, now almost 91, is still teaching Sunday school at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, N.C. While here, he served on the board of the Mather School for African-American girls and was the first director of Bayview Manor Nursing Home.

Evelyn Jones, who died in February, teamed with her friend Dru Graves of Lady's Island and others to minister to migrant workers and African-Americans. She ran a spick-and-span church nursery and was a public school teacher.

Helsley said she got her love of history from her father, who wrote his doctorate dissertation on Richard Fuller, his most famous predecessor in the pulpit at the Baptist Church of Beaufort.

She also got it from Beaufort itself, where she could look from the manse porch onto the bay and see a connection to a wider world.

CLASS OF '63

Helsley also got it from a stellar education. She was voted "Most Intellectual" in the Beaufort High School Class of 1963 and graduated magna cum laude from Furman University.

When America reacted to Russia's Sputnik space program by accelerating learning, Helsley was happily swept into the higher orbit. And Beaufort High principal Bill Dufford's teachers -- like Millen Ellis, Gene Norris, Martin Moseley, Mickey Doggett, Walter Gnann, Cecil Clark and Ann Head Morse -- relished the challenge.

Helsley is one of three members of her class to make the Beaufort High Hall of Fame, with Julie Zachowski, retired head of the Beaufort County library system, and teacher Lynda Kirkland.

"Most Talented" in the class was Daisy Youngblood, an artist and ceramist who earned a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003, the $500,000 no-strings-attached grant called the "Genius Award."

Pat Conroy was class president and "Best All Around." Back then, he was a skinny military brat who could shoot a basketball. Now he's a best-selling author.

"My husband jokes that I was Pat Conroy's first editor," said Helsley. "I was editor of the school paper (The Tidal Wave), and Pat was the sports columnist. He would turn the track meet into a race between God and the Devil, which might give you some idea of his hyperbole. He could always write."

Helsley wanted her latest writing to be subtitled "Murder and Mayhem Under the Live Oaks."

She likes to speak of sunlight beaming down on a live oak, leaving patches of light, shade and darkness beneath. It's as patchy as the human condition glinting through the history she knows so well.

"I hope the book gives a little ray of insight into the human condition and how it has played out in historic Beaufort," Helsley said.

Wicked or not, it's a condition preachers' kids know by heart.

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