March 2019

Five Drinks with David Lauderdale

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography


The celebrated journalist represents his (sort of) Irish roots as grand marshal for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade

He’s drinking: Palmetto Brewing Co. Huger Street IPA (which David points out is traditionally pronounced “YOU-jee”)
I’m drinking: Guinness, because it’s never too early to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

For decades, David Lauderdale has written the first draft of Hilton Head Island’s history. His columns have defined our culture, celebrated our people and served as our collective conscience, making us laugh and cry through their gentle humor and Southern charm. I sat down with him at Reilley’s, where just days earlier he’d been named grand marshal for the Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade, to talk about the parade, his semi-Irish roots and his thoughts on the island’s past and present.

Barry Kaufman: Cheers, for starters. Being grand marshal, what does that get you? Are you in charge for the day?
David Lauderdale: Fortunately, I’m not in charge of anything except being there. I’ll be riding in a car and the first thing I asked them was, “You’re going to provide the car, aren’t you?” I don’t think they want a 14-year-old Toyota Camry in their parade. And I’ve been looking for green stuff to wear.

BK: You didn’t already have that?
DL: No, and I’ve been surprised. There’s not much green stuff out there.

BK: There’s not much that isn’t overtly kitschy.
DL: Which doesn’t matter. I think we can be pretty kitschy. I have a green sports coat I had to order from the Internet. But subsequently I saw a pretty crazy one at Stein Mart that would have done the trick. I just didn’t shop around enough.

I talked to last year’s grand marshal Emory Campbell, or Emory O’Campbell. He said he had to do the same thing; he had to order something. I said, “Emory, I should have just borrowed yours.” Maybe there should be one green coat that gets passed down.

BK: You’ve been honored several times by the community. But this seems like something a little above and beyond.
DL: There’s something special about the parade. There’s something more special about a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I think everyone can identify with it and everyone identifies it as a fun time. There have been other honors; this one stands out. The other day when they gave the sash out and made the announcement, I told them I have finally done something that impresses my children.

BK: Do you typically get to enjoy the parade or are you thinking, “What am I going to write about this?”
DL: I have, but I still can’t get that out of my system. I’m sitting there taking pictures and videos and we’re uploading them on Facebook as they happen. The beauty of it is, my children put out on Facebook a picture of themselves standing on the side of Pope Avenue when they were nine or 10. They have these green Just Say No T-shirts that go all the way to the ground … and there are friends of ours from The Packet in the background.

I think that contributes to my belief in the parade. This has nothing to do with me being the grand marshal, but I have always been tickled with the parade because it’s a place where everybody can go. And it’s free, it’s out in the open, there are no gates, no exclusivity. It’s come one come all. I think it’s wonderful. Hilton Head doesn’t have many things like that.

BK: Do you think there’s been more of a push lately to build on that with more inclusive events and places to create more of a sense of community?
DL: Yeah, I think there really has. It’s wonderful for me because I’ve been watching this for a long time. One of the disappointing things about Hilton Head would be all the years when people said, “We had the first shoe store,” and I’m just throwing that out there. The first grocery store, and all that. There were grocery stores of some sort; they were small, but they were in every community on Hilton Head Island before there was a bridge.

The whole concept of not seeing … is not part of my world. I’ve seen a change in that, and I give (former) Mayor David Bennett credit for that. I wrote that column about it. Give him credit for going out of his way for whatever political capital he brought in—he’d never run for office—and spent it on getting sewer systems addressed and getting the roads finished. The Mitchelville Preservation Project has given a “there” there, something for people to hold on to….
(NOTE: What followed was a fascinating conversation about the importance of Native Island heritage and the Gullah people’s increasing agency in charting their course on the island. In the interest of space, we had to cut it, but please visit www.celebratehiltonhead.com to see the full video of this interview.)

BK: Being as you are grand marshal, are you Irish at all?
DL: I do have family that came from Ireland, but I put that on Facebook and people started doubting it. I don’t know. I need to ask my brother who is an expert on that, but of my four grandparents, three of their families came to America from Ireland. The other was from England.

But the question that was asked by a friend named O’Leary was, “Yeah, but they were probably in Ireland from England.” And I said, “Scotland.” My former boss who’s Catholic was immediately harassing me for doing this job as a Protestant. My cousin reminded me that one of my grandmothers’ folks were Chapmans, and I think her dad was Patrick Chapman. They came from Ireland; he was reminding me that they were Catholics in Ireland but weren’t Catholics in the rural mountains of Virginia. They came to build stone bridges for railroads, so they became Presbyterians.

We’re really Scottish. My people came from Scotland to Ireland. My brother reminded me that they came to Ireland to fight the Irish. I said, “Well, we won’t talk about that.” But one of my forebears was there in 1128; the Burke family was one of the most entrenched families in Ireland and became a significant family in Ireland. So, we were looking for a tie that would have the Burke family crest or something. We couldn’t find it, but we did find the colors are red and gold, so I ordered a red and gold striped tie. It looks like a “Do Not Enter” sign. So, people will say, “What does he have that tie on for?” It’s to honor the Burkes.

But my direct family that I can trace right up the line, my great-great grandfather, another David Lauderdale, was a 10-year-old boy when they landed from Belfast. They sailed from Belfast to Charleston and got there on October 30 of 1817 and settled in South Carolina where family had settled before and needed their help to work the land. My grandfather’s family history, the lead sentence is: “The Lauderdales are by blood Scotch and by faith Presbyterian.”

BK: You’re an old-school newspaper guy; are you outside your comfort zone being in the spotlight this much?
DL: Yeah, I find myself trying to be very careful with word selection which is hard for me to do. But I’ve always wondered, how do these people just get used to it. You talk to so many people, you expect them to open up and tell you their secrets or whatever … but once you’re on the other side of the interview it’s like, “What are those people thinking?” A lot of the people you talk to are total strangers.

But I do a lot of public speaking, so I should be used to it by now. I just try not to put my foot in my mouth. It is true that I’m probably the senior journalist in Beaufort County. Not by any stretch the best that has come through, but with that it just means I’ve seen all different facets of the business. It’s so different today. I was looking at a photo of us in the composing room at The Packet in the late ’70s. A friend of mine, Phil Porter, who was our ad director, had mailed me this photo a number of years ago. He’d written on it, “How many obsolete things are in this photograph besides us?”

But the challenge remains the same. You want something that means something to people’s lives; you want something that they will read; you want to entertain them in some fashion; you want to inform them and hold the people in the public trust accountable. The media has a burden to do that and basically tell the good stories. That’s become my assignment—to find the good stories and tell the good stories.

BK: St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. If you could drive one animal, human or otherwise, off the island, what would it be?
DL: I think it would be moles. I don’t know what good they are, but they sure will tear up a yard. There are a lot of things you can do about them and a lot of it is Lowcountry lore. I was told the only thing that works on the moles is a Jack Russell terrier. And you have to be very careful because he takes it very seriously, and the next thing you know the dog has dug up the yard anyway.

I’ve been a fan of the snakes. The Lowcountry has been a place where people have come for many years for the snakes. In the 1920s, a man from a zoo in New York City came to one of the hunting clubs in Jasper County and was just floored by the reptiles. He took samples and wrote about it. In the ’50s or ’60s, a guy who had been the Elvis Presley of the snake collecting world came to the Lowcountry and wrote about it, too—the variety of snakes—particularly the corn snakes in Okatie and the rattlesnakes. For a number of years, the hotels of Ridgeland would fill up with people coming from zoos and snake collectors. They’re a pretty intense group about chasing the quarry wherever it goes.

A good friend of mine was a snake collector, and he turned me into an appreciator of their role in the ecosystem. I still wouldn’t pick one up.

BK: You’re kind of an open book, but what’s something about you that we don’t know?
DL: I hopped freight trains halfway across America. Not many people would believe that. That was part of my misspent youth. I ended up with a friend out in California. He was going to go to Japan, and I was going to work there until I had enough money to go home. But something got messed up with his Visa and we tried to find work, but we ended up having to hitchhike home.

This was the ’70s, and there were so many people hitchhiking there’d be five people at every interstate. He had heard about freight hopping and had some ideas about how it could be done, so we went out to Oakland, I think, to catch a freight train. It’s very enjoyable to look at maps to see where these train lines go. We got thrown off once in Cheyanne, Wyoming. Out west, a train will go a long way, but once you get to the east, it’s a big maze. So we got off in St. Louis and hitchhiked home to Atlanta.

That’s something I’d never want my children to do and something I can’t believe I did.

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