August 2008

Mayor Tom Peeples: The Rawleigh Boy’s Son

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

On August 5, 1983, Mayor Ben Racusin, Hilton Head Island’s first mayor, gaveled the meeting of the town council to order and the Town of Hilton Head Island officially came into being. That event marked a turning point for this island community. What happened in the intervening years was a sometimes rough and tumble path to control growth, control development, and finally to control, as much as possible, the destiny of this island’s community. This is the last of the Home Rule series.

Getting from Mayor Racusin’s gavel to where Hilton Head Island is today was no mean feat. The island has gone through mayors and town councils, through protests of those opposing and proposing development, parks, the Cross Island Parkway, beach renourishment. Islanders of all stripes were never afraid to argue. They still aren’t.

Today’s new residents, taking the kids to Chaplin Park for a soccer game, might be lulled into thinking that all the parks and pathways and beaches just happened. They didn’t. It took 25 years of accumulated wisdom, an extraordinarily responsive and supportive community, and their mayor, to make it happen.

Tom Peeples is in his 13th year as Mayor of Hilton Head Island. A well respected builder and obviously popular mayor, Peeples was there when the ribbon was cut at the opening of the Cross Island Parkway. He has been there for the new parks and pathways and for Honey Horn, the Coastal Discovery Museum’s new home.

He was also there, as a regular citizen of our community when, in 1983, Hilton Head Island voted for incorporation. He was focused on the construction company he started in 1976 when wife, Mary Ann, urged him to get his builder’s license. He was also there when the drumbeat for incorporation began in the early 1970s, but in a less conspicuous role. He would commute from his parents’ home in Ridgeland to the island.

“Joe Harden actually hired me as a construction laborer at Harbour Town in 1973. My dad always did his own home projects, like room additions; that was his fun, doing construction. So I had a lots of basics (in construction) most people wouldn’t have at age 20. I was able to rather quickly move up the line to master carpenter status in 18 months,” Peeples recalled,

That was a boom time for Hilton Head contractors. The bust came a year later, and Peeples felt lucky to get a job screening in someone’s porch.

But Tom Peeples’ strong ties to Hilton Head Island really began before all of that, before development, before he was even born. Those ties began with his dad.

“My dad was a peddler. He sold everything from aspirin to clothing. In the old days, before power, he sold batteries for radios for people to keep up with what was going on. His customer base was 99.9 percent African American in the outlying areas of Southern Beaufort County and all of Jasper County. That was in the days folks went to town once a month, and he sold door to door. He came over (to Hilton Head Island) with his wares. He’d stay with Benny Hudson—with their family,” Peeples said.

Mayor Peeples’ father, Tommie Peeples, was all of 25 when he started his job, right after World War II. He fell in love with the island and, in 1952, a year before son Tom was born, was able to buy a lot in North Forest Beach and build a summer home there. “We would spend, depending on his schedule, well, depending on a lot of things, anywhere from four to eight weeks in the summer over here at our house. I feel like I’m almost native. I was born in Ridgeland, but I’ve been a part of Hilton Head Island, literally, all my life. I even rode the ferry here. I don’t remember that. I’m told I rode the ferry here,” Peeples said laughing. He was just three years old when the first bridge opened in 1956.

Tommie Peeples drove a Model A Ford, which he kept on the island, for his door-to-door selling. One of the most popular lines he carried was W.T. Rawleigh products: salves, liniment, spices, ointments. In today’s jargon, his Model A was a kind of traveling “wellness” store. The company, founded in 1889, is still in business. Out of something of a sense of humor and affection, native islanders nicknamed Tommie Peeples “the Rawleigh Boy.”

When Tom Peeples got into politics and he went before native islanders, he was introduced as the Rawleigh Boy’s son. “The first time I got elected, the first time in a municipal election, the black community showed up and voted and they voted for me, almost 95 percent. It made the difference in the vote, no two ways about it. That had to do with my dad more than it had to do with me,” Peeples said. “He was so young when he started selling. On Hilton Head Island they called him ‘the Rawleigh Boy’ until he died. Everywhere else they called him ‘the Rawleigh Man,’” Peeples said. On Hilton Head, those special relationships his father established boded well for the future mayor.

Peeples admits he did not mean to become a politician. He was even afraid to speak in public. And while he got involved in the Builders Association and the Jaycees, it wasn’t until something called the Traffic Safety Amendment (TSA) reared its head that he felt compelled to act.

In a New York Times article, published May 8, 1989, the TSA was defined. “Billed innocuously as the Traffic Safety Amendment, the proposal would effectively stop all further development here as soon as there is so much traffic at any intersection that a motorist has to wait for more than two changes of a traffic light to get through.”

Put simply, the TSA was a fight between retirees, who want to halt development on “their” island to keep it from what they feared was “another Myrtle Beach,” and people who worked and lived on the island. People like Tom Peeples.

“The TSA got my attention. It was a real turning point for me,” Peeples said. Wally Seinsheimer, a developer and president of the Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce, called a meeting to try to bring the two groups together before a vote on the TSA.

About 500 people showed up. “They passed around the microphone. ‘Stop all development,’ some of them said. I listened to that for a while, it still makes me emotional. I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I got the microphone and I just said, ‘I don’t think you understand. You folks came from somewhere else. This is our home. What you’re saying is you want to deprive us of any economic opportunity we have, right here, in our own home. I’m here to tell you, I’m going to fight you!’ Much to my amazement, most of the people in the room stood up and clapped. I’d never spoken in public, I was so afraid, I could hardly get the words out of my mouth. I went home that night and said, ‘You know what? You need to back this up,’” Peeples recalled.

And he did. Due to the sudden death of a council member, he ran for a council seat and won. Four years later, after being an admitted thorn in the presiding mayor’s side, he won a run-off election for Mayor in 1995. “I felt younger people working on the island had no voice at all,” Peeples said.

He recalled former mayor Frank Chapman, who was opposed to virtually any development. Chapman made national television when he turned over the “welcome mat” to visitors to Hilton Head. As a member of Town Council, Peeples was truly a thorn in Chapman’s side.

Yet, one of the most exceptional programs that Peeples gets credit for, the town’s land buying program, resulting in over 1,100 acres of Hilton Head Island taken out of development, filtered in when Chapman was mayor. This was the guy who said the island didn’t need parks because the kids had the beach.

A great deal has happened in Peeples’ years as mayor. He is most proud of the town’s land acquisition program, though he said he gets too much credit for that. His greatest concern today is competition and the willingness of businesses and property owners to remember the extraordinary specialness of Hilton Head Island—the specialness which his father fell in love with, its 38,000 permanent residents love, and the 2.5 million people come for.

“It’s going to be harder to convince people to drive through Hardeeville, through Bluffton, to get here. We’ve got to make sure that we’re really special when they get here. Outdated villa accommodations, poorly maintained hotels, and average staff and service is not going to cut it. We’ve got to keep ourselves very special so people want to continue to come here. Obviously, that has to do with protecting the environment. We need to keep that beach pristine, just like it is. We don’t need to have any wholesale changes of the way we deal with the environment. I take that almost as a given. That’s in the fabric of this island. I hope that doesn’t change,” Peeples said.” Living within, not on the environment. That’s terribly important.”

Tom Peeples is mayor of a town that is the envy of many. It has won incredible awards. It attracts millions of visitors. It supports an economy that is unique to South Carolina. It has possibly one of the most talented and generous communities in the U.S. While it is not the same as it was 25 years ago, what matters to most remains. The spirit.

The Town of Hilton Head Island is not perfect. Tom Peeples is the first to admit that. However, he does believe, “things have gone pretty well.”

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