Bodie Island Lighthouse Keepers' Descendants Homecoming
By Cheryl Shelton-Roberts, photos by John Havel
The bell rang 38 times. The trumpeter played “Taps.” Then a bagpiper played “Going Home.” It was a memorable time.
Less than 24 hours before the Homecoming event began October 18, event planners were still in Plan B mode to hold the special weekend in the only space that could accommodate over 300 attendees: the Comfort Inn Oceanfront South in Nags Head. Due to a 16-day government shutdown, national parks were closed including the Bodie Island Lighthouse, the site of Saturday's and Sunday's homecoming events. But, in answer to many prayers, our National Park Service point of contact, Cyndy Holda, called me at home in Morehead City one hour before I was to leave for Nags Head to begin preparations for the event weekend on Thursday and said, "We are back at work. Let's move it [the homecoming] to the lighthouse Saturday." We were fortunate that Chad Miller at Atlantic Ocean Rentals still had our tent, tables, chairs, linens, and a stage reserved for us. He made a round of emergency phone calls to his crew, many of them out surfing, to report asap and get the tent up by Friday early afternoon. Chad even threw in extra tables and chairs, which we made good use of the entire weekend.
Before heading to Nags Head, I immediately emailed 300 people and told them to spread the word. And they did. Friday night's registration/social was a huge hit. This was due to several well planned components of the registration evening: exhibits prepared by Outer Banks Lighthouse Society's (OBLHS) hard-working volunteers, huge family genealogy wall charts prepared by Sandy Clunies, excellent food by BJ's Café, and wonderful welcome bags prepared by Diana Chappell. Several volunteers were on hand to help each person with any questions. Judy Moon and Kelly Waller manned OBLHS's keeper's store and attendees bought generously.
Bright and early that beautiful Saturday morning, we gathered at the lighthouse to get ready for the day's programs. Linens were spread on the tables, Virginia Howell and Diana put table centerpieces together, and Mabry O'Donnell and I sorted through the certificates to be awarded that day. And our multi-talented John Havel’s presence was everywhere from exhibits to playing our roaming photographer.
At 10 am sharp, Presentation of Colors by the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Field Office (SFO) Cape
Following Presentation of Colors, Tish Daniels sang "America the Beautiful" and the "Star Spangled Banner." Ken Mann of OBX-TV and UNC documentaries fame delivered a lovely, warm prayer in memory of all keepers. Ken is also pastor of the Mt. Carmel Methodist Church in Mann's Harbor.
After a brief introduction by Master of Ceremonies James Charlet of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, Dare County Commissioners Chairman Warren Judge welcomed all descendants and other friends in his usual kind and humorous way.
Next, Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Barclay Trimble spoke to descendants about how fortunate it was that we could be in attendance at the lighthouse. His glowing remarks about the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society are greatly appreciated. Everyone was grateful for the park’s efforts to hold the event at Bodie Island Light Station and to arrange things on a moment’s notice. Descendants view genealogy wall charts in photo at right.
The entire focus of the Bodie Island Lighthouse Keepers' Descendants Homecoming was on the keepers and their families who had lived and worked there during the years 1847-1940. Fittingly, great grandson of Bodie Island Keepers Benjamin and Peter Gallop, USCG Captain George Bonner IV, addressed his fellow keepers' descendants and spoke of his admiration for his keeper-ancestors. Part of the history of the U.S. Lighthouse Service is that it was absorbed by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939-40; further back in history, the Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Life-Saving Services had merged to form the U.S. Coast Guard. Many keepers' descendants joined the life-saving service or coast guard or other military services. Although keepers worked as civilians for the government, their jobs were under the scrutiny of the government and inspectors were military officers.
All of us were there that day, October 19, to pay tribute to the faithful keepers who saw that the Bodie Island Light Station was kept in top running condition and that the light was on just before sundown and extinguished just after sunrise. Passing mariners depended on each keeper to do the job well.
Awarding of Superlative Certificates
We had a great time giving certificates to descendants who deserved the honor of special recognition. The keeper to whom each is related is in parentheses:
Having traveled more than 1,000 miles to attend the Bodie Island Lighthouse Descendants (BOLD) Homecoming:
A certificate for our oldest descendant: 98-year-old Muriel Sterling Green Daniels (Benjamin Gallop, Peter G. Gallop).
These descendants received a certificate for having four Bodie keepers in their lineage that include Benjamin Gallop, Peter G. Gallop, Ephraim Meekins, and C.C. “Lum” Midgett:
And we had one special descendant with five keepers in her lineage that include John W. Ward, C.C. “Lum” Midgett, Ephraim Meekins, Joe Holly Tillett, and John B. Ehteridge:
There were three family groups with four generations present:
Special Attending Descendants
And one of the most special certificates went to our attending keepers’ children: Loren Tillett Jr and his sisters, Merle Tillett Hale and Lioma Tillett Johnston, (Loren Tillet Sr); Erline Gaskill White (Lloyd Vernon Gaskill); Hilda Austin Williams (Homer T. Austin);
A special certificate in memoriam…
I had the honor to award a special certificate in memory of John Fillmore Gaskill, son of Keeper Lloyd Vernon Gaskill Sr. John had wanted very much to attend the homecoming as his last trip home to Wanchese and Bodie Island, but he crossed the bar just before the homecoming event while living at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, MS, on September 27 at the age of 97. John gave countless hours as an Outer Banks Lighthouse Society volunteer and then later as a NPS volunteer at the lighthouse. He shared stories of growing up at the light with thousands of visitors for many years. John’s daughter, Joan Wyndham-Davis, accepted the certificate.
Bett Padgett, OBLHS President, played her guitar and sang "Life at the Lighthouse." Over the years after hearing/reading stories from the Austins and Gaskills, Bett wrote a song that summed up perfectly what keepers and their families experienced at one of America's premier lights.
Reading of Keepers Names
And the moment came we had all been waiting for. Outer Banks Lighthouse Society Membership Director and Media Manager, Bob DaVia, read each keeper's name. After each name was read aloud, Jeremy Gene Jennings, four-year-old great-great-great-great grandson of Keeper Joe Holly Tillett, rang a big brass bell. The bell just happens to hang in Jeremy's bedroom at his home in Manteo and he rings it every day. As he struck the bell during the event, descendants for each keeper stood and applauded. If no descendants were present for a certain keeper, we all applauded.
Following the reading of the names, Gage Clawson played “Taps” on a bugle. Then faintly in the background, a bagpipe could be heard. Patrick Unrein approached the tent as he played "Going Home" and continued to the stage and finished the memorable piece. He later played inside the lighthouse for descendants who climbed. Many thought that the bell ringing and bagpipe music made for some of the most memorable moments of the special weekend.
A break for lunch
BJ's Carolina Café served a wonderful lunch to the crowd. OBLHS volunteers quickly and efficiently gave out the lunches, drinks, and desserts. Some families went to climb the tower, some had group pictures taken, others talked endlessly to family members they hadn't seen in decades while even more met family members they had never met.
The “Old Ones Panel”
We had the rare pleasure of having several first-generation keepers' children with us. It is a rare opportunity now to being able to talk with surviving children who lived at a lighthouse. Not all participated, but those who did participate shared wonderful stories: Loren Tillett Jr who lived at Currituck Beach Lighthouse where his father worked after having served at Bodie Island; Marilyn Austin Meads and Verna Austin Wall. Marilyn's daughter, Kathy, Erline Gaskill White, and Keeper Vernon Gaskill Sr's granddaughter, Joan Wyndham Davis joined the group. In my introduction of the commemorative book Bodie Island Keepers: Oral and Family Histories (family histories by Sandy Clunies), I speak about how keepers' children often tamed wild kittens for their own, which took a great deal of persistence and patience. Panel members related this same story. On days when a child was without a companion at the light station, the solitary existence could prove tedious. But as the panel admitted, most of the time they had many ways to entertain themselves while learning to be alone and to like it––a valuable asset in life. Each one spoke beautifully as they were caught on film by Channel 14 (Time Warner Cable) and UNC-TV. All weekend, many of the descendants had been photographed by Melissa Lyttle and interviewed/recorded by Lane DeGregory, a pulitzer-winning writer, who covered the event for "Our State North Carolina" magazine. Her article is scheduled for the March 2014 issue.
Continuing a focus on attending descendants, we had a special lineup of speakers. Barbara Basnight Rawl spoke on her proud heritage as a great great granddaughter of Ephraim Meekins and read some of a poem he wrote; Andrea Tillett McConnell spoke on her lineage of five Bodie Island keepers; Lou Lou Daniels Quinn spoke on being a member of the large family of Benjamin and Peter Gallop. Lou Lou challenged those listening to tell the "stories" of ancestors to keep the memories alive. Tammy Holton Jennings shared stories of Keeper Joe Holly Tillet of whom she is a great great great granddaughter. Finally, Charlie Smith Jr. told us of his great great great grandfather Horatio Heath who was a fine and respected keeper and boat pilot.
The rest of the afternoon was taken at leisure all around the light station. The keepers' quarters were open to everyone to tour both downstairs and upstairs where keepers' bedrooms were located. The Austin sisters, Marilyn and Verna, as well as Keeper Gaskill's daughter, Erline, shared stores of living in these quarters. I cannot emphasize how rare this is and what a valued experience it is to hear them share stories in person.
Now, we are keepers of these stories, and as Lou Lou emphasized in her touching speech that Saturday afternoon, we must pass them on to younger generations to remember and to be remembered.
The Outer Banks Lighthouse Society thanks these sponsors of the event: Eastern National, National Park Service, Wells Fargo, Outer Banks Community Foundation, Dare County Visitors Bureau, and individual donors who made this historic event possible. The modest fee charged for each attending descendant along with grants helped with expenses, but see the inserted flyer to learn how you can help further. We are an all-volunteer organization and we make every dollar work. Each donation is warmly acknowledged and can be taken as a tax deduction because we are a 501 3 (c) organization in excellent standing.
Thank you to all volunteers! You make our events successful every time!