The Mark of a McCracken
Written by Jacob Preston
Photography by Donna Huffman
mmett McCracken has a great story about moving a small herd of cattle down S.C. 46 between Stoney Creek and the Johnson property almost to Pritchardville. It was the early 1950’s and there was so little traffic along this main road connecting southern Beaufort County with Savannah, Georgia, that fewer than a half dozen cars passed during the several hours of the cattle drive. And most of them stopped to chat for a bit before they moved on.
The point of the story is usually to illustrate how much things have changed in this part of the country in the last 50 years or so. What we also get as Emmett spins the yarn in his droll, almost deadpan style, is just how wondrous a place Bluffton was in the old days. This little character laden village on the May River was, in many ways, the Lowcountry version of a Norman Rockwell painting. It was a close-knit community defined by family, church and school, and supported by the produce of the land and waters.
The story also helps us understand why young Emmett McCracken left this idyllic place in 1953 and did not return, except for the occasional visit, for 35 years. His plight was similar to that of many bright, ambitious young men who came of age in the rural South after World War Two. The opportunities to make a successful mark in the world were just not where the home folks lived; they were out in the larger world. Most who left never returned. Bluffton is fortunate to have a few who, having made their mark, found their way home -- especially Emmett McCracken.
A tall sturdy young man, Emmett graduated Bluffton High School in 1953, in a class of six. He is remembered as a pretty good athlete, playing both baseball and basketball. Having no choice, he was a good student. As he explained in a recent conversation, “When you have dinner every night with the Superintendent of Schools, there isn’t much question about whether you do your homework.”
His initial higher education was two years at Clemson University. Since Bluffton High School offered no languages other then English and no higher math except geometry and trigonometry, the plan was to major in Agricultural Engineering at Clemson with an eye toward an eventual appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In 1955, the appointment came from Senator Strom Thurmond, and Emmett was off to West Point.
Immersed in the military life, Emmett was a good student and did extremely well in the highly disciplined environment of the academy. It was, however, within the highly undisciplined arena of chance, and in the proper alignment of the stars that he would find his greatest success.
In October of 1958, Emmett McCracken was a Senior at West Point, which allowed for a very modest number of social opportunities. Several miles down the Hudson River, an extremely important conversation was taking place.
Through the intercession of a friend of a friend of a roommate, a Miss Theodora Albritton was being convinced that a blind date with a soon-to-be army officer might be amusing. As a gorgeous young woman working in the advertising industry in the most exciting place in the world, New York City, Miss Albritton did not lack at all in social opportunities, and was reluctant to agree to this blind date, even if he was, like herself, a southerner. Perhaps it was the stars, perhaps it was just one of those inexplicable things but the date was set; there was a ride on the Staten Island ferry and the world was changed.
Forty five years later, retired Colonel Emmett McCracken and his lovely wife Teddy (the former Miss Theodora Albritton) were by far the most elegant couple on the dance floor at the 2003 Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce Ball. But I digress.
Six months after the Staten Island ferry ride, there was an earnest proposal and a generous acceptance, followed by graduation from West Point, commissioning as a regular U.S. army officer, marriage in December of 1959 to the wonderful Teddy, posting to Ft. Campbell Kentucky and the continuation of the McCracken clan. In the following thirty years there were postings all over the world. By consensus estimate, some twenty moves in those thirty years as Emmett and Teddy, in partnership, had a wildly interesting and successful military career.
In the late 1980’s, as the military career was coming to an end, Colonel McCracken, due to his expertise in Asian affairs, was heavily courted by the private sector to bring his talents to bear in that rapidly industrializing area of the world whose nations were soon to be known collectively as the “Asian Tigers.” However, after much consultation between the soon-to-be-retired colonel and his wife, family concerns won out over possible career advancement, and, in 1989, the McCrackens were back home in Bluffton for good.
After an appropriate period of adjustment to civilian life, Emmett joined the political fray in Beaufort County. Leadership is not a quality that can go unexpressed for long. In 1990, Emmett stood for County Council and lost by 14 votes. Learning the valuable lessons of failure, he ran again in 1992, after the county went to single districts, and won. Since that time, Emmett McCracken has been a public official, in one capacity or another, to the present day.
During his tenure on county council, which included several years as chairman, probably the most important, and certainly the most rancorous time was during the process that eventually led to the Beaufort County Comprehensive Plan, which was mandated by the General Assembly in reorganizing enabling legislation in 1994.
In 1998, two large tracts of land were annexed into the town of Bluffton. Sensing, perhaps, that his diplomatic and leadership skills were needed close to home, Emmett ran for Mayor of Bluffton in December of 1998, winning by a large margin. His resignation from the chairman’s seat on County Council to assume the position of Mayor of Bluffton is considered by many as the beginning of the modern era for Bluffton. At the least, the position required organizational and administrative skills for which Col. McCracken had been preparing for most of his life. In his two years as Mayor, before relinquishing the office to current Mayor Hank Johnston, he established the town on a firm financial footing, as well as provided the personal “gravitas” that made the annexation process seem less like adventurous folly and more a reasonable inevitability.
Presently, Emmett is on the Board of Directors of the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce as it makes the difficult shift in worldview that will allow the organization to successfully integrate the burgeoning mainland area into its vision of prosperity. In fact, for those of us in the “meeting attending” sector, it is a rare gathering where you do not see Emmett McCracken, always prepared and up to date, with a valuable contribution.
Emmett McCracken left Bluffton in 1953, despite the fact that it was a place where he had roots, because there were not the opportunities here for a person to achieve their potential. Since his return almost fifteen years ago, he has worked tirelessly to help recreate his hometown into a place where bright young people can leave if they wish, but they leave by choice, not from necessity. Whether this was his mission, or simply another fortuitous alignment of the stars, cannot be said with certainty. But, as we witness the works of this good man in the prime of his powers, we can say with certainty that our place, our town, is made better, is made more humane, by the example of Emmett McCracken.