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Sister Peterkin: A voice for Murrells Inlet falls silent

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Murrells Inlet has lost something that was as much a part of it as salt-tinged breezes and changing tides.

Genevieve Chandler Peterkin, known as “Sister,” died Sunday after a long illness. She was 83.

A memorial service was today at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church.

An author who chronicled the area’s history and an advocate who fought to protect its natural resources, the loss of Peterkin will be felt in the inlet and throughout Georgetown County. But “heaven is more beautiful since Sunday,” said Linda Ketron, a friend for many years.

Peterkin was born in Florence, but she grew up at Wachesaw Plantation and her roots in Murrells Inlet ran deep. Her family has lived in Murrells Inlet since shortly after the Civil War. In an interview in 2008, she said her grandfather knew when he found Murrells Inlet, it was home. He called it the Garden of Eden and Peterkin was in full agreement. She always felt blessed to live there.

“Oh, she loved Murrells Inlet. You would think it was straddled with diamonds,” said Carol Winans, a close friend. “She had wonderful stories about the fun they had at the creek, especially playing there with her sister.”

The daughter of Thomas Mobley Chandler and Genevieve Willcox Chandler, Peterkin was one of five children. She spent much of her childhood, romping in the creek, catching shrimp and crabs with her older sister, June Hora, and her brothers, Bill, Joe and Tommy Chandler. Hora was also Peterkin’s next door neighbor on the inlet.

Peterkin met Winans more than 30 years ago. Winans and her husband, Garvey, own a clock mending shop in Georgetown and Peterkin was one of their first customers.

“We hit it off right away,” Winans said. “She dropped off the clock and we started talking, and we probably talked for about an hour.”

Winans said some of her favorite memories are of listening to Peterkin.

“She was a great storyteller and she led a very interesting life,” she said.

Peterkin graduated from Myrtle Beach High School in 1945 and from Coker College in 1949, where she was president of her senior class and May Queen. She received a master’s degree in library science from the University of North Carolina and worked as head librarian at the Army library in Bremerhaven, Germany, for two years.

She was the founding librarian for the Georgetown County Library.

“In those days, black people weren’t allowed to use the library and she would loan them books out the back door,” Winans said. “Every now and then, somebody would notice and complain, and the board would tell her to stop, but she never did.

“The thing I most admire about her and had so much respect for was that during the days when it took courage to treat everyone the same, she simply did it. She didn’t even think about it. It was just the natural way to behave,” Winans said.

Murrells Inlet was predominately black when Peterkin was young and she said her life was enriched by growing up surrounded by black friends. In the segregated South, they didn’t go to school or church together, but the children played together and the adults worked side by side. She said it gave her an outlook many of her generation didn’t share.

Peterkin “didn’t go around making waves,” Winans recalled, “but she always spoke when she knew it was needed,” whether defending civil rights or the environment.

Peterkin’s love for the area fueled a passionate desire to protect its natural resources.

When she was in her mid-20s, she started a campaign to prevent the dredging of a canal to the mouth of Murrells Inlet. Peterkin said she knew it would have been detrimental to the creek she loved so much. So, she organized the Murrells Inlet Protective Organization.

“My oldest brother thought I had lost my mind,” she said. “Most of the locals tended to look at things like that as progress.”

But she had the support of a good-sized group of people, mostly “summer people,” and sued to prevent the dredging. It went forward anyway.

“If that dredging had never happened, Georgetown County wouldn’t look like it does now,” Peterkin said three years ago. “There would be some homes, but it wouldn’t be jammed up like it is.”

She believed the future of Murrells Inlet was tied to the creek and fought all her life to protect it.

Peterkin’s mother worked for Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, the founders of Brookgreen Gardens, and before that worked for the Writer’s Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration collecting slave narratives from those who lived on what was Brookgreen Plantation.

Peterkin has always been a friend to Brookgreen. She organized a group called the Brookgreen Guardians in the 1990s, leading an effort to stop clear-cutting of its longleaf pine forests.

Additionally, she continued her mother’s work of preserving and recording the area’s history, something that is very important to Brookgreen, said Robin Salmon, vice president for collections and curator of sculpture.

“She sort of picked up that thread and continued with it in the 21st century. She was very frustrated by the fact there was no one place people could go to find this information, but a book she published recently helps consolidate a lot of that material.”

Peterkin is a co-editor of “Coming Through: Voices of a South Carolina Gullah Community from WPA Oral Histories,” a collection of the stories compiled by her mother.

Salmon knew Peterkin through their connection to Brookgreen, but they were also close friends.

“I met her almost as soon as I came to Brookgreen in the late 1970s,” Salmon said. “She was warm, generous, witty and she had a way of telling a story. When I say she was generous, she was generous to a fault. She would give you the shirt off her back. She was just an incredible person.

“Although I never really got to know her mother until she was much older and couldn’t do the talking she once did, I did get the impression Sister was very much the way her mother was in her prime.”

Peterkin believed in the inherent goodness of everyone, Winans said. When she went to someone to address some wrong or unfairness, she took it for granted that it was accidental and they would want to correct it.

“She believed everybody wanted to do the right thing, that they were as good as she was,” Winans said.

Lee Brockington, a historian and interpreter at Hobcaw Barony remembers Peterkin as “such a sharing person.”

“Most of all she shared her passion: her passion for history, her passion for nature, and especially her passion for all people.”

Peterkin taught Brockington to “notice the little things.” They met in 1984, right after Brockington moved to Georgetown County, and four years later she introduced Brockington to the sea lavender that blooms at the edge of the marsh every September.

Brockington took some to Peterkin at hospice on the night before she died.

Peterkin “touched many hearts in her life, not only personally among her larger family and even larger legion of friends, but also thousands more through her television appearances and her books. Sis was driven to help those in need,” Charles Joyner wrote in Peterkin’s obituary, which he penned at her family’s request.

An author and retired history professor, he was friends with Peterkin for more than 40 years.

“She had a great, generous spirit and she was one of the funniest people I’ve ever know,” Joyner said on Tuesday, as he worked on a eulogy for Peterkin’s memorial service.

Her humor shines in her book, “Heaven is a Beautiful Place,” which she wrote with William Baldwin.

“It’s a pretty classic work of literature and is recognized as such by now,” Joyner said. He recalled watching her give a presentation on the book and afterward, at a signing, watching the line stretch around the building.

“It became a best seller in Columbia and displaced Harry Potter for about eight weeks,” he said.

Baldwin turned the book into a screenplay and it garnered a major award at a film festival. He announced in May that he had reason to hope it would find its way onto the silver screen.

The book is a memoir, in which Peterkin shares her ideas on spirituality, pondering “What’s a heaven without dogs and flowers?” She also talks about life in Murrells Inlet, living in a haunted house and sleeping in the bedroom of Alice Flagg, hurricanes, Lowcountry southern culture, love, marriage and the loss of her only child.

Peterkin married William “Bill” George Peterkin Jr. in 1956. He was the son of Julia Peterkin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Scarlet Sister Mary.” He was 24 years her senior.

“I was 8 years old the first time I met him, but thank goodness, I had finally gotten old enough that age didn’t matter,” Peterkin said. “June cried and cried when I told her I was going to marry him.”

She and Bill lived with Julia on Lang Syne Plantation on the Congaree River after they wed, but she always knew she would move back to Murrells Inlet.

Their marriage produced a son, James Preston Peterkin. He died in a sail boat accident when he was 20, leaving Peterkin devastated. It was hard for her to talk about even into her eighth decade.

Baldwin recalled his interviews with Peterkin as they worked on “Heaven is a Beautiful Place.” She wanted it to be about her son and dealing with her grief, but she initially couldn’t bring herself to talk about it.

“We would get up to her son and she would fall silent,” Baldwin said. “I had this friend who had lost a child under real similar circumstances. She started coming to the sessions and they started talking to each other. I took a year of tapes and turned it into the book.”

Peterkin is survived by a sister, June Chandler Hora; two brothers, Joseph Allston Chandler and his wife Ann Hedgepath, William Ashe Chandler and his wife Anne, all of Murrells Inlet; and a step-son, William George Peterkin III, of Fort Motte.

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