'Continuing a legend:' remembering Beaufort parade-leader, Tootie Bourke

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'Continuing a legend:' remembering Beaufort parade-leader, Tootie Bourke

Published Friday, February 15, 2013   |  665 Words  |  

Laughter and music overwhelmed tears in the small L-shaped church on Charles Street as friends and family gathered Friday to say goodbye to Wilson Lane Tootie Fruity Bourke, who for many, represented what is best about Beaufort.

He led the town's Christmas parades.

He led children across the street safely after school.

And he led the city by his example of unrelenting kindness for about 50 years.

Bourke died Feb. 9 at age 81.

At his funeral Friday at the Grace Chapel AME Church, where he was a member and usher for much of his life, nearly 150 people listened as friends recounted how mental and physical limitations could not limit his passion for lending a hand wherever he was needed.

"This man, who I believe was a messenger ... was far wiser, kinder and more forgiving than most of us on Earth," Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said. "Some called him Tootie or Toots. I call him the Spirit of Beaufort."

Shouts of "Tootie Fruity!" were commonly heard as locals passed him on the street, Keyserling said. His enthusiastic response, part of a song of that name by Little Richard, was usually "Oh Rudy!"

Bourke was born Dec. 10, 1931, and moved to Beaufort in the early 1950s. He was a familiar face downtown until the early 2000s, when he was struck by a car and became wheelchair-bound. He lived for the past 10 years with family and at the Ridgeland Nursing Center.

Dee Renwick, who owned Martins Menswear on Bay Street until the early 2000s, called Tootie the best public servant he'd ever known. Renwick and other merchants on the downtown street gave Tootie the honorary title of "sidewalk superintendent" in 1982. For 14 years, Renwick said Tootie proudly took responsibility for keeping the street free of litter and serving as a friendly ambassador to visitors. He always doffed his cap as women passed, Renwick said.

"If you needed help and you thought Tootie was the man for the job, you'd call him and he'd come every time," Renwick said. "For 14 years he enjoyed that job every single day. ... I don't think he ever missed a day."

The Rev. Lawrence Miller said for all of Tootie's limitations, he loved boundlessly.

"He demonstrated his love for humanity by becoming a helper," Miller said.

Perhaps his best-known display of Beaufort pride was his self-appointed role as the leader of many Beaufort Christmas parades, Miller said.

"He would amble along until parade time," Miller said, referring to Tootie's unmistakable gait. "But for some reason his back would suddenly get very straight, his steps would get very high, and he would throw his head back with a whistle in his hand and he would strut his stuff down Bay Street."

Tootie made a trip from his nursing home to participate in the city's Christmas Parade one last time in 2010, riding in an open vehicle and waving to those lining the route.

Retired Beaufort Police Chief Jim Palmer wore his gold and purple Lion's Club vest Friday. Tootie was a member of that club, too, Palmer said. An identical gold and purple vest hung next to Tootie's casket. A whistle on a string was hung with it. Tootie and his sister Rose once gathered donated eyeglasses to send to third-world countries, Palmer said.

"He was one of the best community service people that ever lived," Palmer said.

"Tootie didn't just look after the people here -- he looked after everyone."

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