Published Saturday, March 23, 2013
CHARLESTON, S. C. – Steeped in history, energized by tradition, and boasting students who matriculate at three local colleges, Charleston doesn’t have a skyline — until a cruise ship slides up to the docks and empties a boatload of tourists.
That in itself spawns controversy. While Charleston has not been without brushes with conflict and controversy, the local gentry would rather see you sample its history, culture and cuisine. If you have anything to sell and those cruise ship visitors are buying, then you likely support making the harbor a haven for the big ships. There are those who hold the view that the tourists do little more than stroll the streets, do a little sightseeing and head back to the ship without having opened their purse. This view is a reminder of what New Orleans merchants used to say about rural Mississippians coming to town for the Sugar Bowl -- they come to town with the Ten Commandments in one hand and a $100 bill in the other and don’t break either of them.
Over the years, I have found that whatever your length of stay in Charleston, you leave wishing you had one more week — or at least one more day.
When Charles II of England granted a charter to eight of his friends, it took seven years before they could arrange a settlement, which they called Charles Town. Even then the first settlers sailed over from Bermuda.
The pace hasn’t picked up much in the three-plus centuries that followed. If you are in a hurry, don’t come to Charleston. Laid back and arresting, Charleston has shops and bars, good seafood and even better views. I like walking the narrow, uneven sidewalks where you might bump into a pretty coed enrolled at the College of Charleston — as she scrolls her iPhone. However, I prefer this impromptu contact on the streets rather than on the highway.
You know that the first shots of the Civil War were fired from Fort Sumter, but did you know the first theater building was built here? Charleston appreciates it history and its culture — flower gardens, Greek columns, cannonballs, mossy oaks and brick chimneys.
Prior to those volleys fired at Fort Sumter, Charleston had to endure defeat in the Revolutionary War before the harassment of a famous general named Francis Marion enabled the colonists to force the British to take leave. Known as the “Swamp Fox,” Gen. Marion used guerrilla tactics to gain the upper hand.
For years, school kids in South Carolina were taught the legend of the “Swamp Fox.” He was as revered as shrimp and grits, which probably originated in the low country. As it is so often the case, economics brought about origination. What could be less costly than marrying up shrimp from the sea with a corn product?
Homes along the battery stand as stately as the moss-strewn oaks that were battered but not destroyed by Hurricane Hugo, which inflicted more damage on Charleston in 1989 than General William Tecumseh Sherman at the close of the Civil War and the earthquake of 1886.
South Carolina’s medical college is located in Charleston, along with The Citadel and the College of Charleston. A familiar face can be found in the office of the College of Charleston’s president, George Benson, former dean of the Terry College of Business at Georgia. He and his wife, Jane, are sprightly and congenial hosts.
The President’s House is one of the most appreciated landmarks in the state, with a garden and a patio where passersby often take respite.
“Our house belongs to the state, and we don’t mind so long as they don’t create a fuss or get disruptive,” said Jane as she took friends on a tour of the 17-acre property. The house was built in 1770 and was used as a boarding house during the Civil War.
The Bensons open up the house for various functions for students, faculty and alumni. They simply retire to their private quarters while various functions take place. Benson, who can walk to his office, has seen the college make great strides in a number of areas since he came aboard. He is visible and accessible.
Students call out to him as he moves about campus, particularly at sporting events. He never sits still, moving about greeting alumni, donors and friends.
“We miss Athens,” he said, “but we are in the center of activity here and enjoy an exciting lifestyle. My work is challenging, but the rewards are exceptional.”
Contentment was written on his face, reflecting good feelings about his life, livelihood and location.