October 2014

Home (Still) Sweet Home

Author: Becca Edwards

It was 2006, and I was three months pregnant with our first child when my husband Lee asked me if I wanted to move back to Hilton Head Island. At the time, we were living in Charleston, comforted by the quilt of good food, friends and feelings of youth and promise. Even still, we felt compelled to return home to Hilton Head Island for reasons I am coming to understand after interviewing several friends for this story.
“When my mom [Lottie Woodward] first thought about moving to Hilton Head from Augusta, people were like, ‘No one actually lives in Hilton Head,’” said Courtney May. “In true Lottie fashion, she was like, ‘Really? Watch me.’ We moved in 1979. I was five years old.”

May’s childhood memories are a montage of long but not forgotten iconic properties: the Sea Pines Academy playground, the original Sea Pines Beach Club and the old Hilton Head Inn. “We bought a place in Land’s End in South Beach, and my mom became one of the first women selling real estate on the island,” said May, who joined her mother’s firm, The Lottie Woodward Team, a few years ago. “Now, we’re selling to the children of some of our original clients.”

For Mike Cerrati, whose parents moved to the island in 1974, childhood meant sandy feet and, if he got lucky, good waves. “We have always lived near the beach. I remember playing on the beach as a child, and I remember whenever I got in trouble as a teen my dad would say, ‘Let’s walk on the beach.’ So, as you can imagine, the beach, for me, is a place of happiness and my most dreaded moments,” Cerrati joked.

Jessica Maples, who moved to the area in 1973 recalls Hilton Head Island’s unique dichotomy. “What I remember from childhood is that life was really small and the outdoors seemed really big,” she said. “There was more space back then, yet fewer people. It seemed we knew almost everyone. I spent a lot of time in Sea Pines, riding my bike, playing in Harbour Town, hitting tennis balls and going to the beach. It was just unbelievably gorgeous, safe and fun. It was truly magical.”

During those formative years, Cerrati, May and Maples and their families lived what many might call a Bohemian existence. There were no traffic lights. You entered the island by a two-lane swing bridge, and babies had to be born in Beaufort.

“My parents took a big risk to move here in 1973,” Maples said. “Hilton Head then was a sparsely populated, largely undeveloped island with only three thousand people.” But her parents also saw Hilton Head as an amazing place. “They were probably a little unsure, but I also believe they had strong convictions that this would one day become a great place.”

It had nearly been a decade when my husband and I returned to Hilton Head Island. We were struck by how much Hilton Head Island had changed, and yet how much it had stayed the same. Yoga and Pilates studios had sprouted up. There was more traffic—and not just in the summer months. Yet, people still peddled along the bike paths, towing kids and boogie boards, and that small town vibe still thrummed.

“People came back for summers for a short stint, but there was no sense of, ‘I’m back and staying’ because of the job market,” said May, who met her husband Jeremy in the sixth grade but didn’t start dating him until the summer after her senior year in high school. “We both were working at Truffles—because everyone at some point has worked at Truffles—when we became a couple. After living abroad and out West, we moved back in 2002.

“Once you’re raised by the water, you’re drawn to that aesthetic,” May continued. She admits that she and her husband “felt a nagging feeling in their hearts that they would move back to the Southeast,” but they were skeptical about the job market. In the end, they decided to listen to their intuition.

Likewise, so did Cerrati who was living in Los Angeles with his then fiancé Jennie. “Jennie brought up moving because we wanted to be closer to one of our families. Her family was in New Orleans, mine here.” At an engagement party for the couple hosted by local lawyer Terry Finger, Cerrati and his wife found their answer.

“Terry educated me about work opportunities here. I realized work was no longer just seasonal, but year-round. We decided to move back in 2008,” Cerrati said, pointing out the emergence of several industries in the area beyond food and beverage and tourism. “Now, there’s banking, healthcare and several law firms,” he said.

Maples’ father, marketing maverick Tom Gardo, and stepmother Signe Gardo (of the famously delicious Signe’s Bakery) were thrilled when she announced she was moving back. “My dad had a job opening, and I started as an account executive,” Maples said. “I remember feeling a mixture of excitement about re-embracing the island and our coastal culture and making new friends from old acquaintances.”

Over the years, I have listened to legendary stories of those who championed the area. Now, listening to Maples, May, and Cerrati, I realize they share a common and celebratory lineage. After all, their parents paved the way for the island we know and love today.

“The early ’70s were an exciting time not only for my parents, but for everyone,” Maples said. “Charles Fraser recruited people that had already distinguished themselves in their careers, and there was this unique sense of camaraderie because all these executives came from different places and brought different ideas.”
Hilton Head Island flourished with a new crop of highly educated, highly talented individuals. Like the Olympic torch, that spirit burns brightly as the children of these pioneers move back.

“People who move back today realize that the economy is not terribly diverse, but they care about the people, the environment and about being part of building our community. These are people who think on their feet and believe our future is bright and will continue to be bright for the expanding Lowcountry,” Maples said.

Maples, May and Cerrati also feel a sense of stewardship toward the island. “It is exciting to be a young professional here,” Cerrati said. “You feel like you are the next generation, doing what your parents did 30 to 40 years ago.”

Cerrati also parallels the confluence of diverse ideas and people in the ’70s to the emergence of new ideas and professional opportunities now—a perspective shared by May and Maples.

“There is always a natural progression of people to move away after high school, but they don’t always come back. People from here, however, do seem to move back. Maybe they’re drawn like my husband and I were. These people are bringing new ideas, and we are getting a more cosmopolitan feel,” May said.

As I write, I look out across my marsh view window, watching boats cruise by and birds perch on weathered limbs just as they did when I was a child. I think about my children attending the same school I attended (Hilton Head Preparatory School) and the teachers who once taught me now teaching them.

I am reminded of what Maples shared about why she is so happy to be back home: “I think Hilton Head is an amazing place,” she began. “From the sheer natural beauty of the island, to fresh-caught fish on my dinner plate, to the funky ’60s and ’70s architecture mixed with modern development—I love my home.”

Then I think about something Cerrati said: “I feel an underlying responsibility and take pride in the island.”
Then something May said: “You know, life really does come full circle.”
These images and insights make me feel lucky to have had such a rich childhood and now even richer adulthood. 

Becca Edwards is the owner of b.e.well + b.e.creative (bewellbecreative.com).

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