Time Travel with Beaufort Rotarians and Byrne Miller

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Photo courtesy Wayne Heath
Photo courtesy Wayne Heath

I just had the privilege of speaking about my new memoir to the oldest group of Rotarians in Beaufort SC. I say oldest not because of the age of its members, but because it was chartered in 1934.  And some things really do get better with age.

I used to love covering the Beaufort Rotary Club luncheons when I was a young reporter at WJWJ-TV.  The ‘90s were the beginning of a pesky objectivity phase in journalism when it became unprofessional to accept donations of any kind from an organization you were filming. But I made all of $16,000 a year back then and the Rotarians always insisted on feeding me lunch before I set up my Beta camera.

We reporters actually argued over who would get to cover luncheon addresses whenever the speakers were remotely newsworthy. If the Sheriff was speaking, we could always corner him afterword and get a soundbite about some ongoing investigation. If it was a county councilman at the podium, there was always some legislation he was pushing that became a news story that day.

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The problem was the visual. Back when I was covering the Beaufort Rotary Club, it met in a hotel banquet room that would have taken more lights than WJWJ owned to not look as though I was shooting in a cave. So I’d grab my muddy-looking interviews and hope that back at the station I could find some file footage to cover up the voice-over. The infamous WJWJ archives even made their way into my book “The Other Mother: a rememoir.”

Recycled, three-quarter inch tapes lined the entire back wall of the WJWJ newsroom in a floor-to-ceiling shelving system that housed the television station’s file footage. It fell to an assortment of unpaid, questionably motivated interns each year to alphabetize the index card database. Even after six years of working at the station I couldn’t intuit the way the mind of a Beaufort High School senior worked. Footage of accidents might be listed under “Ax” instead of “Acc.” Coverage of airshows for the Beaufort Marine Corps Airstation could be filed under “P” for planes, “F” for fightertown or “J” for jarheads. — from “The Other Mother: a rememoir” Joggling Board Press 2013

Fast forward twenty years and I was the one behind the microphone, speaking to the Beaufort Rotary Club, and no reporter was in sight. Like the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre, the local media in Beaufort has all but disappeared. But what hasn’t changed is the small-town spirit of Beaufort, South Carolina and the Rotary Club is one of those foundations of community.

Rotarians were regulars at the Golden Eagle Tavern
Rotarians were regulars at the Golden Eagle Tavern

Ever since 1934, members have met for lunch each Wednesday. The only thing that’s changed is the venue. The Golden Eagle Tavern on the Beaufort River was torn down in 1971 and the club has outgrown the dingy hotel banquet room that made for such dark and grainy television footage in the ‘90s. Now the oldest group of Rotarians in Beaufort pledge allegiance and sing “God Bless America” in an enormous hall at the Catholic church on Lady’s Island.

Members have to put a dollar in a plastic bucket to earn the right to brag on another member or plug a personal cause. A financial officer dutifully reports the total expenses for the group last year: a $50 filing fee with the Secretary of State’s office. Each year they hold crab races to raise money for causes like swimming lessons at the Y and scholarships to the Technical College. The club’s biggest fundraiser requires every last member to sell 100 pounds of Vidalia onions each year. It’s small-town America at its finest – hip enough to have a female president named Harriet Hilton and retro enough to sport members with names like Fly Flanagan and Guy McSweeney.

I don’t know if Byrne Miller was ever invited to speak at a Rotary Club luncheon but several of her collected children were in the audience for my talk. Many of them graduated from the old Beaufort Elementary, where Byrne first demanded to teach movement therapy in the 1970s.

The old Beaufort Elementary - where Byrne first taught and many Beaufort Rotarians went to school
The old Beaufort Elementary – where Byrne first taught and many Beaufort Rotarians went to school

You’d think after spending five years writing a book about Byrne and Duncan Miller I’d have heard all the stories. But after my presentation, a physician in the audience elaborated on Byrne’s incredible toughness (she survived five spinal surgeries and still taught modern dance into her eighties). “We’ve done medical studies on dancers,” he said. “And it turns out they can take three times as much physical pain than ordinary people.”

Duncan in Connecticut

byrne's toastA former neighbor of Byrne’s told a story of how Duncan used to complain about a barking dog who lived two doors down. I knew only the utterly romantic and melancholy Duncan – a writer who adored his charismatic, modern dancer wife. But it turns out before he lost his speech and memory to Alzheimer’s, Byrne’s muse could also be that quintessential cranky old man yelling “get off my lawn.”

It’s a good thing he was married to a woman with a self-described “whim of iron.” Rotarians who were members of Byrne’s board of directors remembered how prickly Byrne got too — when anyone suggested she book more classical, ballet companies for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre.

“Ballet they can see anywhere,” Byrne would say of her audience. “I will make them the elite; connoisseurs of modern dance in the Deep South.”

I had to chuckle. The genteel, very Southern members of the Rotary Club of Beaufort ended their meeting by reciting what they call the Four Way Test: questions all Rotarians are supposed to ask themselves before they speak or act.

1. Is it the TRUTH?

2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?


4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

So would Byrne have made a good Rotarian? She always spoke the truth, even when it wasn’t fair to all concerned. She was more concerned with building sophisticated audiences than goodwill, but would do anything for a friend. And I can’t speak for all concerned, but having Byrne Miller as an other mother was certainly beneficial for me.

Photo courtesy Wayne Heath
Photo courtesy Wayne Heath

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