Beaufort's unlikely ambassador born with little, but gave a lot

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Beaufort's unlikely ambassador born with little, but gave a lot

Published Thursday, February 14, 2013   |  575 Words  |  

Wilson Lane Bourke will lead his last parade this afternoon when a hearse delivers his 81-year-old body to the Sixteen Gates Cemetery.

The thin black man with large glasses and a big smile was a beloved fixture at the head of Beaufort's parades for many years. Dressed in white pants and a white cap, he waved to the crowd and strutted in time, always a step ahead of the cheerleaders and the Parris Island Marine Band.

It was a self-appointed position for "Tootie," or "Tootie Fruity," nicknames he got from years of tooting a whistle every afternoon to help loaded buses get out of the school parking lot.

"He was physically and mentally challenged, but one thing he did not lack was the ability to reach out and demonstrate his love," said his pastor, the Rev. Lawrence Miller, who will lead Bourke's funeral at noon today at Grace Chapel AME Church.

For 14 years, Bourke worked for Dee Renwick at Martins Menswear on Bay Street. He swept the sidewalk up and down the city's main thoroughfare and did jobs for other merchants. It started as something to pick up Bourke's spirits after it was decided he should no longer work with traffic near the schools.

After a full day, he'd show up at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket and help customers until it closed at 10 p.m.

Longtime Police Chief Jesse Altman once said: "He's quite a citizen of Beaufort. I wish others in town would do as much good as Wilson Bourke has done in his lifetime for the people and community of Beaufort."

Mayor Billy Keyserling said after Bourke's death Saturday at Beaufort Memorial Hospital: "The world could use more Tootie Fruity."

Bourke's family moved to Beaufort in the 1950s. Bourke lived much of that time with his late sister, Rose, who called the baby of the family "the last button on Jacob's coat."

When the last button was born, they said he wouldn't live. When he lived, they said he'd have a difficult life.

But Renwick said Bourke thrived, with prodigious energy. He never missed a day of work, six days a week, for 14 years. On Sunday, Bourke was an usher at church. Before moving to Beaufort, Renwick was vice president for personnel with a Fortune 300 company. He said he worked with many talented people, "and if I tried to rank those special people who contributed so much to the success of their organization, at the top of my list would be Mr. Wilson 'Tootie' Bourke."

People like to tell about a time Bourke asked a city worker why he was digging such a big hole in Carteret Street. The version I heard most recently has it that he was told, "Tootie, we're going to put every fool in Beaufort in this hole." Tootie thought for a minute and asked: "Who's going to cover it up?"

In memory of Bourke, we can dream of a day when a hole will be dug for every kind, smiling, helpful, energetic, selfless, waving ambassador for the Lowcountry. And the question will be, "Who's going to cover it up?"

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