May 2008

Home Rule: Part IV

Author: Paul deVere

On August 5th, 2008, Hilton Head Island will be celebrating its 25th “birthday” as an incorporated municipality—a town. Why becoming a town was so crucial and interviews of those who helped make it happen will be the subject of several articles in CH2. That one, historic event helped create the Hilton Head Island we know today, and helped define its future.

Nan Johnson: Answering Questions for (almost) 25 years.

Granted, Nan Johnson has not worked for the Town of Hilton Head Island for 25 years. She began on April 16, 1984, leaving her about nine months shy of when Mayor Ben Racusin gallantly took up the mantle of being the town’s first mayor.

“He’s my hero,” Johnson said. “He didn’t act like I thought a mayor would act. He was so very involved with the staff. Everybody loves him. He’s so amazing.”

Johnson, in a sense, has been the “voice” of the town since the day she was hired—which was the same day she applied. For anyone who has had the need or pleasure of calling Town Hall, 99 percent of the time, you’ll hear Nan Johnson’s soft, clear, even melodic voice. That’s true whether you are hot under the collar about a “dumb” town ordinance that is going to cost you an extra several thousand dollars to build your new home, or whether you simply want information.

“My motto is to put myself in the other person’s shoes. I decided that if I didn’t feel that way, I shouldn’t be here. Everybody has a different problem or concern. We can’t relate to them if we don’t understand where they’re coming from. So I switch into a lot of different shoes. I have to. Everybody’s different. What they think is important, I have to think is important, too, whether it is or not,” Johnson said.

She started practicing her philosophy early on. She remembered one of the first calls she received when the town staff was operating out of the John Gettys Smith building off U.S. 278. Think Carrabba’s. Think the little office building right next door. The staff had to use “the facilities” outside the building. “I thought that was fascinating,” Johnson said with a smile.

“The first call I had that I thought was very, very funny, well, I’ve never forgotten it. I had a call from somebody from North Carolina, long distance. Their question was, ‘Did that blue house down the street there sell yet?’ I’m thinking, ‘Which blue house?’” Johnson said. The memory still brings laughter.

Johnson was raised in Bulloch County, Georgia, just outside Statesboro. She and her family (she was the youngest of eight children) spent summers on Hilton Head Island’s beaches in the late1960s, when the beach “park” at Coligny meant parking in the sand. She worked for the American Red Cross in Colorado for 10 years before she applied for a job with the new Town of Hilton Head Island. While on a visit home, she saw a help wanted advertisement in the newspaper and decided to find out what this new “Town of Hilton Head Island” was all about. “Barbara Anderson was the town clerk, the business license clerk, the secretary for council, and she was everything for Kerry Smith, the town manager. She really needed help badly and hired me right on the spot, April 16, 1984,” Johnson said.

While she was never privy to the closed door sessions that went on, seemingly round the clock in those first months and years of forming the Town, she did observe the single mindedness of both staff and elected officials. “The planning commission worked all day long. They started at nine in the morning, on the first and third Wednesday of each month and would be there until six or seven at night,” Johnson said. They were working on the LMO, Land Management Ordinance, for the island, one of the major reasons the town came into being in the first place: control growth, control the way buildings are built and things are done—Hilton Head Island-style.

In the days prior to computers, drafting this extraordinary document, the pieces of paper that have protected the island from out-of-control development for two and a half decades, was created on a typewriter. “We had electric typewriters and a very small staff. It took us many afternoons after work and late into the night (to record the LMO), I stayed to help. They only had two secretaries,” Johnson remembered.

Think of it. The Town of Hilton Head Island we have today, the magnificent parks, the renourished beaches, the quality of life the residents of and visitors to Hilton Head Island enjoy, is, in great part, due to some very dedicated individuals sitting in front of some IBM Selectrics, hammering away. And Johnson, pitching in, was one of them. She would never admit it. She would say it was just part of her job. However, to be more accurate, it was part of her personality, to help, to “change shoes.”

Johnson remembered moving from the John Gettys Smith building to the Town Hall’s next stop, offices attached to the Huddle House at 40 Palmetto Parkway. The good news: the “facilities” were no longer outside. The bad news: Johnson was not a fan of hamburgers, and the aroma from the Huddle House permeated the new offices. Johnston has yet to sample a hamburger, prepared by Huddle House or anyone else.

Thinking back to her first reactions about working for the new town, Johnson said, “It was so pleasant and still is to me. I was always happy in what we were trying to accomplish. It did sort of take my breath away that I was hired on the spot,” she laughed. However, it was clear that the young government knew what its goal was. “I was dedicated to help everyone accomplish that,” she said.

Nan Johnson at her desk in Town Hall in 1984.

Johnson said she didn’t know what to expect in her new “government” job. “Thinking back on it now, I didn’t know government had so many volunteer committees. Even now I am amazed at the interest we have in people wanting to volunteer here. Everyone seems interested in being part of this town. Even if they are not on a board or commission, if there’s a traffic light out, they’re going to let us know about it. If somebody hit a deer, they’re going to call and let us know. It’s like we have ‘outside informers,’” she said. “I think that’s unusual. We have a community of people interested in everyone’s welfare.”

The John Gettys Smith building was a very temporary Town Hall. Within months of Johnson’s hiring, it was moved to the Palmetto Parkway location. “One of my functions was to accept all of the plans that were submitted for development and building. I logged everything in and stamped it,” Johnson recalled. She met many developers, but the only time the general public stopped by was to attend commission and town council meetings. “I don’t think that many people knew where we were,” Johnson said.

Today, it is a much different story. With the more accessible location on William Hilton Parkway, Johnson said that people drop in all the time. “Today, people from all walks of life, from all over the county, from all over the world, come for information.” While there hasn’t been anyone lately calling to ask if the blue house down the road has sold yet, Johnson fields questions, by phone and in person, about everything from where to get a building permit to directions for how to get off the island.

According to Johnson, the greatest change about the town is the addition of the parks. “We have parks. When I first started there were no parks. That has impressed me more than anything else I can think of—the public land,” she said. “In fact, we had to publish a new map to show them all.”

The new “Island Parks Guide” lists seven beach parks, six recreational parks, eight community parks and two public boat ramps. Johnson is proud of that. However, it is not personal pride, but pride in the town staff, the office holders, the people she helps every day, and the growth of her town where, she said, “I’ve had the best front row seat.”

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