WHEN a great person passes away on her 108th birthday after a long, full, and deeply influential life, it's as much a celebration of existence as the mourning of loss.
Such is the case with the passing last weekend of the iconic Eleanor Torrey West – "Sandy," to friends, admirers and the occasional critic alike.
Sandy West was the protector, preserver, and benefactor of one of the world's magical places: Ossabaw Island, off the Georgia coast.
She was also, quite simply, the last of her type: A matriarch of a family fortune made in the Gilded Age, a fortune that, in her case, was used for righteous ends and for the benefit of others.
Up until a few years ago, Sandy lived on Ossabaw, too, on that barrier island that was her part-time home from age 11 to age 63, and her full-time home from then on, until infirmities forced her back onto the mainland.
Her life's goal – preserving Ossabaw Island's natural beauty for future generations – was already accomplished by then, however.
Heiress to the Pittsburgh Plate Glass fortune, Sandy inherited half of Ossabaw in 1960, sharing it for a time with her brother's children.
That was a pivotal time on the Southern coast, an era of enormous development pressure. That same year, developer Charles Fraser opened the first golf course on Hilton Head Island at his new Sea Pines Plantation.
Fraser would soon come calling to Sandy, wanting to buy Ossabaw from her and do the same thing to it. Can you imagine?
But even the hard-charging Fraser couldn't bully, bribe or cajole Sandy West, who could push back with the fierceness and salty language of a sailor.
Like Hilton Head, Ossabaw was a former plantation site as well. Slave cabins still exist on the island, an important chapter in the history of this place that was originally the home of Native people who began navigating these waters and marshes in dugout canoes over 4,000 years ago.
For a brief time after Emancipation, the formerly enslaved people of Ossabaw were set to enjoy the promise of Field Order Number 15 – more commonly known as "Forty Acres and a Mule" – and gain ownership of this land upon which they'd toiled so long and so hard.
But in an all-too-familiar scenario, the original plantation owners, the Morrel family, were able to buy back the island following the breaking of that promise by the U.S. government.
That betrayal, along with a brutal series of massive hurricanes in the late 1800s, hastened the migration of almost the entire African American population off of Ossabaw. Many moved onto the mainland into the community called Pin Point today.
Ossabaw then entered a liminal phase familiar to many former plantations that no longer enjoyed the cruel economic advantage that comes from not paying any wages to workers. It became a fertile hunting and recreation ground, one made all the more desirable by depressed land prices in the South for many decades following the Civil War.
The West family's acquisition of the island mirrored similar stories up and down the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands. As with the Carnegie family on Cumberland Island, the Coffin family on Sapelo, and the Jekyll Island Club on Jekyll, these unique islands were – quite ironically – preserved from major development by the benevolent dictatorship of ultra-wealthy Northern industrialists and bankers.
For Sandy, however, the real investment in Ossabaw wasn't in its market value, but its human and natural value.
In the early '60s, on the crest of a vast cultural wave about to remake the entire country, she began her own artists' colony, the Ossabaw Island Project, opening her home to leading cultural figures of the time as Margaret Atwood, Aaron Copeland, and Samuel Barber.
This began the island's role as a writer's and artist's retreat, a role it plays to this day.
By 1970, Sandy decided that young people in America were becoming increasingly disconnected to the natural world around them. Decades before climate change would be a household word, she began the "Genesis Project" to address the idea that young people need to be given the opportunity to learn about climate and humankind's impact on it.
An oddly Gothic-looking Genesis Project building from 1980 still remains on the center of Ossabaw, constructed by volunteers out of trees downed by Hurricane David.
But all these projects cost money. And by the mid-1970s – either intentionally or because that's just how it goes – property taxes on Ossabaw were up an incredible 500 percent.
Sandy felt more keenly than ever the pressure to sell it off. First, she turned to the federal government for help. They told her they could keep the island from being developed by turning it into a National Park.
Unsatisfied, she asked the state of Georgia for help. They said they could keep the island from being developed by turning it into a State Park.
Sandy didn't like either idea. In typical blunt fashion, she exclaimed, “I will not have cardboard-hat people standing on the side of the road telling people where to take pictures!”
Enter another one of the great benefactors of the Georgia environment: Jimmy Carter.
The bawdy, twice-divorced, no-nonsense Yankee from Michigan and the born-again peanut farmer-turned-president from Plains might have seemed an odd match. But they shared the common goal of preserving Ossabaw in as close to a wild, natural state as possible.
In a historic deal – brokered by President Carter and made possible by Gov. George Busbee and Coca-Cola magnate Robert Woodruff – the state would buy Ossabaw from Sandy for half its market value, $8 million, and make it Georgia's first State Heritage Preserve.
Sandy as always drove a hard bargain. One of her conditions was that she have the right to live on the island until death if she so chose. By 1987, Sandy made Ossabaw her permanent home, intending it to be her last.
But the cold hard truth was that by then the family fortune had almost all been plowed back into Ossabaw. There wasn't enough left to pay for the upkeep of Sandy's home and her attendant projects.
The Ossabaw Island Foundation nonprofit has made up the difference through diligent fundraising efforts, including the annual, popular pig roast. (The destructive feral hogs on the island are an invasive species that are a legacy of Spanish explorers. The Department of Natural Resources conducts and hosts frequent hunts on the island.)
Just last year, the Foundation and the island's old friend, Jimmy Carter, would join forces to help defeat a misguided bill in the Georgia state legislature that would open the door for the state to sell wild places like Ossabaw to the highest bidder.
While Sandy hadn't been involved in day-t0-day operations for quite some time, there's no doubt that her indomitable spirit and mission remained the driving force.
“It is hard to imagine that the death of someone at age 108 is surprising, but we are in shock over the loss of our visionary and friend,” said Elizabeth DuBose, Executive Director of the Ossabaw Island Foundation, and a great woman in her own right.
“Ossabaw Island, as we know it, exists because of Mrs. West, and Georgia is a better place because of her life’s work," DuBose says.
Despite all that, and depending on who you talk to, an idyllic future free of development is by no means guaranteed for Ossabaw Island.
Development forces, and developers, will always have their eyes on it. They will wait not a minute longer than etiquette demands after Sandy's passing to resume their quest to take over and monetize the island she lived a life for.
Such is the world we live in. But this world also produces people like Sandy West.
The way I see it, the best way to honor her memory is to be as vigilant, as forward-thinking, and yes, as stubbornly hard-headed and single-minded as she was in the vital task of preserving the ever-dwindling number of sacred natural places – from Ossabaw to points beyond.