Interviewee: Dewey Benefield
Interviewer: Deborah Hendrix
Date: March 26, 2004
H: This is Deborah Hendrix. I am here with Dewey Benefield this morning in his
office at Sea Island Properties. It's March 26, 2004. Mr. Benefield, for the
record, can you tell us your name?
B: It's Dewey Benefield.
H: Dewey Benefield. Is Dewey short for anything?
H: That's just the name you came with.
B: My first name is James, James Dewey Benefield, Jr. I was named after my
father, who was born about the time that Admiral Dewey settled into Manilla Bay,
so you'll find a whole flock of Deweys for people who were born about that time.
H: Where were you born?
B: I was born in Decatur, Georgia.
H: You are a native Georgian, then?
H: What year was that?
H: Were your parents also native Georgians?
B: Yes, they were both born and grew up in Georgia.
H: You're a second or third generation Georgian.
B: I guess.
H: What did your parents do?
B: My father was a machinist. My mother was a housewife. He was in the printing
business. Are you familiar with linotype machines, those old fashioned things?
B: His job was to keep those things running and to repair them. He was very good
with his hands.
H: In a print shop?
H: Your mom, you said, was a homemaker. How many brothers and sisters [did
B: [I had] no brothers or sisters. [I was] an only child.
H: When you were growing up, do you think that your mother or your father
influenced you more in what you did in your later life?
B: They both encouraged me a great deal. I don't know that one [encouraged me]
any more than the other. They determined that I needed to get a good
education. They insisted on that. In fact, even the bad years around the
Depression, they sent me to the Decatur public schools, which was outside the
district. They had to pay tuition for me to go to grammar school, which they
paid. It was a very good school. I think that was a great sacrifice they made.
H: They were emphatic that you got a good education. How about their education?
B: They had not had any college. I think my mother may have had two years of
college, but not my father.
H: Where did you go to college?
B: [I went to the] University of Georgia.
H: [Did you go] all four years?
B: [I went] seven [years], actually. I went to four years of journalism school and
three years of law school.
H: You got your law degree, then?
H: That's what you wanted to do, as a career?
B: I think the fact is, I enjoyed school. I had some good, part-time jobs while I was
in school, so I was paying my own way. It was a very pleasant life. I just
thought I'd stay as long as I could. Journalism was my first interest, but law
[was a] close secondary.
H: Did you ever work for the Atlanta Constitution?
B: Oh yes. For a number of years, I was the sports correspondent in Athens for
first, the Atlanta Journal and then the Atlanta Constitution, which was a very good
part-time job. I also, at the same time, had a part-time job in the office of the
athletic publicity director, Dan McGill. I worked for Dan for a number of years.
Those two jobs, sort of, overlapped, but I got paid twice for them. It was a very
H: You're a lawyer and a sports writer, using both degrees. Did you ever use your
B: Oh, yes.
H: You were a practicing attorney?
B: I went into the Air Force in a judge advocate, general's course. I served in the
Air Force as a lawyer.
H: In those days, men had to fulfil a certain military requirement, and that was what
you did. Was that two years?
B: [It was] two years, plus some years in the Reserves.
H: Was that in Georgia when you were in the Air Force?
B: No, I was stationed in Miami, Florida.
H: There are a lot of people that I've seen interviews from around there. It caused
them to move down to Florida after they did their service time. That's how
Florida got a lot of [people].
B: I can imagine. It's very nice.
H: Let's change gears, here and ask you, what year did you come to Sea Island?
B: [I came in] 1958.
H: [You must have] seen a lot of changes over the years. Had you heard of Sea
B: Yes, I visited here a good bit. [It was] almost an accident that I came to work
H: Tell us about how you came to work here.
B: First of all, Bill Jones Jr. and I were friends and fraternity brothers at the
University of Georgia. We developed a friendship. I didn't know anything about
Sea Island or his connection. One day, he said, why don't you come, go fishing
with me. I didn't know much about fishing, but I said, I'd like to learn. We came
to Sea Island to spend the weekend. We went fishing. Bill never, particularly,
enjoyed all the social aspects, so, we didn't get involved too much in the resort,
but just, peripherally. [I] met his family and we got along very well. That
friendship grew over the years. My first visit here was when I was probably in
my second year of journalism school. We were friends through the rest of
undergraduate school. Bill went into the Navy. I went to law school. I would
still come back and visit his family. We were really, very good friends.
After Bill got discharged from the Navy (he served his commitment with the Navy)
and came back to work, I was still in the Air Force. After I got discharged in
Miami, I said, well, I'll stop at Sea Island on my way home. I came by and spent
about a week with Bill. One of our mutual friends said, do you think you'd like
living down here? I said, oh yeah, I'd love it. It's a nice place to live. He said,
well, I believe Bill's going to need some help as time goes on, and would you be
interested in working for a Sea Island company? I said, yeah, I hadn't thought
anything about it. I don't know what I'd do, but it sounds interesting. So, a day
or so later, Bill said, let's go down and talk to my dad. We talked, and he said,
do you think you might like to come to work here? I said, yeah, I think I might
like to. He said, well, that's good. At that time, he said, we need some help in
the financial end--the accounting department. He said, do you know anything
about accounting? I said no. For the first time, [it] was a realization that all
through my schooling, nobody had said to me, you really ought to learn
something about finance and accounting and basic, how the world operates.
Nobody ever said that. I said, that's a real deficiency. I had my law degree.
I'd been admitted to the bar. I'd spent two years in the Air Force practicing law.
So, I said, you're right, I need to know something about accounting. He said,
well, I think there's probably some places around Atlanta you could take some
courses. This was all very casual and very friendly and I said, well, good.
I went back home, I checked around and I enrolled in something called the
Atlanta Business College, which is one of the second-floor walk-up places. The
way you do it, is you're in a huge room with about 200 people and you're taking
accounting 101. There's a professor and he gives you a book and a notebook,
and he said, go fill out this notebook and ask me if there's any questions, which
was interesting. I learned a lot. I took about two years of accounting in about six
months of going through this notebook and got a basic grasp of it. [In the]
meantime, Mr. Jones, Sr. was a director of the First National Bank of Atlanta.
He would call me and say, I'm coming to a bank meeting. Could you meet me at
the airport, drive me into town and let's talk about what you're doing, which I was
glad to do. That developed into a pattern over the months. I think he maybe
had a board meeting every month. Periodically, he'd say, I'm coming through
Atlanta on my way to Dayton, and I'll be at the airport for an hour or two. Why
don't we get together? He and I would chat about things. I'd tell him how
things were going. At one of these sessions, I said, I think I've done about all I
need to do with this accounting classes I'm taking. He said, well, you need
some practical experience. I said, well, I think that's probably right. He said,
call this man, and he handed me a card. This fellow was the vice president and
the Atlanta head of Arthur Anderson, which, at that time, was a very famous
accounting firm. I went to see him. We had a little interview. He said, well, we
take on trainees periodically, and we could hire you as a trainee. I said fine.
He said, you start Monday. He said, first thing you need to do is get some
clothes that fit our dress code, not that your clothes are not nice, but we want you
to have a certain look. He said, go see this man at Muses Men's Store,
I went down to Muses and saw the man and said, okay, you're one of those. I
said, yeah, I'm one of those. He said, okay, here's what you need. He trots out
all this stuff-conservative suits and black shoes and white shirts and striped ties
and the whole works. He said, you need one of these and two of these and
three of these. He piles this stuff and said, these will be ready for you Monday.
I said, okay, but how am I going to pay for all this? I don't have any money. He
said, don't worry about it. They'll take it out of your salary, which they did. I got
properly suited up, reported to work at Arthur Anderson, (which was a marvelous
experience), and I was the lowest of the lowest peon. But, being able to travel
around and go to these companies and see what the audit process was ....
And they were very good to you. There was a lady that did all your hotel
arrangements, all your travel arrangements. So they would just say, we want
you to be in Spartanburg, South Carolina tomorrow, (we didn't fly in those days,
much), but here's the directions, and you'll be staying in this hotel, and you'll be
working over there. We'd go in a team, and we spent a lot of time in North
Carolina and South Carolina, auditing textile mills. That was peon work, but I
was involved in a larger process, which was really an eye-opener, for a young
H: It sounds like your previous experience would really help you to assimilate your
B: I was there for about six or eight months, until almost the end of 1957. In the
meantime, Mr. Jones and I would talk, periodically, and he would say (I guess it
was early 1958), [are] you about ready to come to work? I said, well, I guess
so. He said, why don't you plan to come around April 1, (or whatever the date
was), and I said okay. He said, we'll find you a place to stay. So, I put my
clothes in the car and headed out. My mother said, what are they going to pay
you? I said, well, that subject never came up. It just never came up. I never
asked it and he never said. I said, I think they'll probably do all right by me.
They're nice people, I'm sure they won't take advantage. Besides, I had no
particular skills to do what they wanted, anyway. When I got my first pay check,
I found out I was making $350 a month, which was okay. It was a lot more than
I'd been making. I was delighted to do that. Things had changed a little at Sea
Island. They decided they really didn't need that much accounting help. They
just needed some general managerial, looking-after, things. I was named an
executive assistant to Mr. Jim Compton, who was president of the company, at
that time. He said, you need to understand how this company works. He had,
waiting for me, a training program. I went through all the departments of the
hotel. I cut grass. I cooked in the kitchen. I waited on tables. [I] did everything
that there was to do in the company. I'd spend a week at the garage, a week in
landscape, and two weeks here and there and yonder, which was a wonderful
experience. I began to really appreciate, and still appreciate, how hard people
work and how many people there are and how interdependent they are.
Everybody's got to do their job or the whole things begins to fall apart.
I did that for a while. I guess it was almost the rest of that year. Then they
gave me a little office, a little bit smaller than this one, and I still was an executive
assistant. I began to do things like, I was in charge of the pension plan, a group
insurance plan, just odds and ends, whatever came up and helping Mr. Compton
and Mr. Jones, Sr. and Bill with specific things. We had a maintenance
operation which was sort of haphazard. Bill and I went to The Greenbriar [The
Greenbrier is a 200 year-old, world renowned, resort on 6,500 acres in the
Allegheny Mountains in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia] and The
Homestead [The Homestead is a 250 year-old resort that once was a refuge for
America's most prominent families. It now offers the luxury and comfort of one
of America's premier resorts with spas, golf, fine dining, and romantic
getaways.] and Williamsburg--traveled around and see how other people did that.
Then we came back and pulled it together and put a maintenance facility in.
We expanded the Cloister Hotel a couple times and added some shops. I would
help to figure out the financial end of it and how it was going to work and how we
were going to pay for it. It was all very rudimentary, a pencil and a pad, nothing
too sophisticated. In those days, [there was] an interesting phenomenon: the
Cloister Hotel was, and properly so, the absolute centerpiece. Everything
revolved around the hotel. We had no real estate operation, at that time. There
was a man named George Boll [cottage architect and lands salesman], who had
been there for a long time. George would stand around in the lobby of the hotel
and meet people and say hello. The word was out that if you ever wanted to
buy anything, go see George. That was very haphazard. Somebody would
say, well, it looks like a vacant lot down on that corner. I think I might like to buy
that. George would come to the executive committee and say, so-and-so wants
to buy that lot. I'd say, what do you think it's worth. They'd say, I don't know.
We'd come up with a price and sell them the lot. He'd go in and put in electric
lines and do the fill and pave the road a little bit. That was up to him to do. At
the same time, we would have somebody come in and say, so-and-so wants to
buy a lot. The hotel people would say, wait a minute. We can't sell any more
lots. The place is too crowded. You can't get a seat in the dining room. It's
hard to get a tee time. Let's don't sell anymore lots for a while. So, we
wouldn't sell them. That's the way it was.
Mr. Jones, Sr. came to me one day and said, you know, our real assets are in
this land. The hotel is the crown jewel of this operation and we can't do anything
to damage that. At the same time, we need to realize these assets. We need
to put them into production, so to speak. He said, what we need to do, [is] we
need an advocate for the real estate business. We need to form a separate real
estate company. I want you to do that. You be the advocate. You come in
and you argue like the dickens with me and anybody else about what to do. The
hotel's going to say, no, we can't do that. But you're going to have to argue,
well, we've got to do this and Mr. Hotel, if you have to add some dining space,
you've just got to do that. If you've got to build another golf course, that's up to
you. But we're going to sell this real estate. It was an interesting dynamic. I
launched into the real estate business with no experience, at all. I said, the thing
we've got to do, if you're going to liken it to any sort of a retail store, if you're
going to sell anything, you've got to have some merchandise, and you've got to
have it so somebody can look at it, and you've got to tell them what it costs. The
first project I came up with was to develop three streets west of Sea Island Drive:
seventh, eighth, and ninth streets. What had happened was the houses on the
corner had been there, and then somebody would build a house next to it and it
was lower or higher or whatever. There would be two or three houses on a
street, but then it stopped. The rest of it was just woods. I said, let's take this
very slowly, and we'll develop three streets. That was a huge decision. My
goodness. Three streets, that's going to be probably fifteen lots. Can we
possibly do that? The land had been dredged up years ago in the 1920s that I
was dealing with. The first thing we've got to do is we've got to get this thing
leveled and we've got to put some drainage in here to make sure the water runs
off. We've got to put the streets in. We've got to put the utilities underground,
run the water down there and do all this stuff. Then, when somebody comes
down we'd say, here's your lot, we've got four corner stakes down and there it is
and here's the price, which was a revolutionary thing.
H: Sea Island was platted, though. It had been platted in 1928 by, was it by Torras
[Fernando Torras, engineer in the 1920s]?
B: Yes, it was a Torras plat. Those lots were generally about sixty-feet-wide. The
original concept of Sea Island came from the development of Miami Beach. Mr.
[Howard] Coffin and Mr. Carl Fisher were friends, so the idea was, way back, that
this is a real estate development. We're going to have a hotel there so you can
come down, spend the night, look around, pick out your lot, and go away, and
come back and build your house. A hotel is a temporary resting place for
prospects. The problem came when the Depression hit. The real estate market
just stopped. They did have an active real estate thing back in the 1920s and
early 1930s, but the Depression just killed the market. Luckily, the hotel was an
instant success, and people would still come to the hotel when they wouldn't buy
real estate. The focus just began to shift. I wasn't there, obviously, but the
company officials said, well, we can't sell this land, but we do have this hotel, so
let's focus on it. That's where we'll keep our heads above water, which they did.
Then, this is 1960, twenty-something years, later. The hotel had matured, and
then we've got all this land out there. That was the background of that. We
began to do that, and it was successful. People came down, bought the land
and paid the prices. I said, so, seventh, eighth and ninth-we'll go tenth,
eleventh, and twelfth. We did that. We developed most of the west side of Sea
Island all the way to Hampton River. That was how all that happened. It was
kind of accidental. Well, it wasn't accidental, but it was a progression.
H: It was a natural [progression]. It wasn't contrived, you were reacting to what
people wanted to do.
B: [I was reacting] to market conditions. You finally got into some of the principles
of selling things. You found out what the market wanted and provide it and you
made it easy for them to buy. That's how that worked.
H: This is such an isolated place. What do you think is one of the attractions of this
area to the people who come to Sea Island?
B: I think the basic attraction is the sea shore. There are all sorts of studies out
that people like to come to the sea shore and the lake front and to the mountains.
That's just where they're going to go. People of all economic circumstances
come and they find their level. Some people like to stay here who can afford
this, and some people can afford something else. From the very first, the Sea
Island company adopted a policy that we're going to be a top quality [facility],
we're going to provide the best service and the best this, that, and the other.
Obviously, if we do that, it's going to cost more. But we think there are enough
people who are willing to pay what's necessary to have this. The attraction,
once we could get them here, was the personal service and the ambiance and so
forth. Now, getting them here, was the problem, because as you say, this was
nowhere. When Mr. Coffin bought Sea Island and a lot of land on St. Simons,
there was not a paved road on St. Simons. There was not an electric light on St.
Simons. There was no area causeways. [There were] no telephones. He had
to go in and start paving roads, build an electric company, build a phone
company, do some advertising. He also created a bus line that went from
Savannah to Jacksonville with a convenient stop at Sea Island, so, there are all
sorts of things we're done to try to get the customers here. It was not an easy
task, I suspect.
H: Especially since really the only attraction is the land and the area, like you say,
and the extra-special service that Sea Island provides. For a lot of people, that
might not be enough, but for a good amount of people it would be.
B: Yes, if you grew up here you'd be able to take it for granted.
H: You do take it for granted. As I left, and I've realized that this [an unusual]
situation. I used to take it for granted, like you said.
B: That happened with both of my children. They've moved away and said, 'gee,
it's not as nice here as it was back there.' They come back.
H: That's what happened to me. It's like in the older days, they [tried] to find these
B: In the early days, there weren't that many beach golf resorts. So, our
competition was really South Florida and some of the mountains of
Pennsylvania, the Poconos and places like that. What's happened, over the
years, is that everybody's going to open a resort, and they've all got a golf
H: It's hard to compete.
B: Our competition has gradually shifted from Ponte Vedra [northeastern Florida
coastal area] and Hilton Head [barrier island off the coast of South Carolina]. It's
now the Ritz in Paris, the Oriental in Bangkok--that's where our clientele go.
They ski in Switzerland, and they go to the French Riviera, and they go to
London and Paris. Not everybody, but that's sort of the pool we're swimming in,
right now. That's one of the things that's prompted the significant changes that
are going on right now. You go stay in a fine hotel in London, and you come
back and you stay at the Cloister, you'd say, hmm, this is not quite what I'm
H: I had thought, and I could get your opinion, that the Cloister and Sea Island
Company have, as one of their assets, an essence of a southern flavor. It's the
southern hospitality transmitted through their employees. Sea Island still draws
its employees through the local areas, is that correct?
B: You can still keep [that], and I think it's essential that you keep that southern
charm and that southern ambiance, but you've got to have a nice bathroom in
your room. You've got to have room to move around. You've got to have an air
conditioner that you don't even know is there and floors that don't creak. We
used to talk about gentile elegance, like your grandmother's house, which was
nice, but it's not what you want to have on a permanent basis.
H: Also, things have changed. It seems to me that it would be hard to keep that
balance of maintaining a southern tradition and yet, trying to overcome it, at the
B: It's a very difficult balancing act. I think they've done a great job. This has
been an evolutionary process. The ground-breaking landmark was when we
opened Ocean Forest at the north end of Sea Island. We built a wonderful golf
course, and a beautiful clubhouse, which was nicer than anything we've ever
had. That worked. We said, 'if that works, maybe that needs to be our pattern.'
I think at Ocean Forest you've got a nice facility, but it still has the same charm
and service and so forth. The lodge was the next step. That's a magnificent
facility there, which has been a very successful thing. It's kind of like when you
redecorate your house. If you redo the dining room, the living room begins to
look a little shabby, so you go do the living room, and then you say, what about
those bedrooms. It helps you to upgrade everything.
H: And the standards that are now expected.
B: That's where the hotel is headed. It's going to be an unbelievable facility. The
spa that's going to come along with it, will just be one of the best of the world,
from what I've seen.
H: I wanted to ask you about the Cloister, and the hotel itself. Is the Cloister going to
be totally torn down or is it just going to be razed?
B: Everything west of the drive, from the river to Fourth Street is gone.
H: Is it already gone?
B: It's gone.
H: How did you feel about that?
B: You have a mixed feeling of nostalgia. We spent the last night in the hotel
before they closed it. It was just wonderful, but you could see that it was time.
H: Think of all the wiring and the plumbing. It's got to be an ongoing maintenance
B: It was below the flood elevation, so we were in violation of every code that's been
written since the place was built. The hallways were too long and the stairs
were too narrow, and a lot of things needed to be improved.
H: I was on the babysitting service over there. I was trying to be quiet around the
babies and [the floors would] creak. I liked it still.
B: It had a wonderful feeling.
H: It's gone.
B: They have saved all the beautiful trees, and they've designed a new building to fit
among these trees. They haven't cut them. Then, they also moved a lot of
trees. It's just unbelievable the size of trees that they can just pick up and move.
H: Even the live oaks?
B: Yeah, those live oaks. They have these giant machines that just scoop them up
and take them away.
H: I've seen those.
B: Actually, the footprint of the new hotel will be smaller than what it replaced
because it will be better organized and more compact. There will be a lot more
open space, a lot more lawns.
H: I have to ask you about the G-8, because that's a historical event in this area. I
wanted to ask you, now that you've got that big open field over there, is that
going to be [unattractive for the event]?
B: You should go by and see it.
H: I should.
B: Go right over and go down to Seventh or Eighth street and turn around if you
don't want to go the whole way. What they've done is built a landscape screen
around this thing that's unbelievable. That's what everybody's talking about.
H: I've got to go see that.
B: I just can't believe how nice it looks. You don't even know anything's back there.
H: The G-8 [event], do you think that's a good thing for Sea Island?
B: Sure. I think it's a good thing for this entire area. I think you can conjure up
some negatives, but I don't think that's going to be that bad. It's just a real
honor to be selected to host something like that.
H: How did that come about? Do you know anything about that?
B: Not really, but I think Bill Jones III is the ninety-nine percent responsible for that.
H: In view of the fact that George Bush's [president of the United States, 2000-
2004] parents honeymooned there, certainly he must have been aware [of what
Sea Island could offer].
B: The present head of the Secret Service, [W.] Ralph Basham used to live on St.
Simon's and was at the law enforcement training center.
H: That name sounds familiar.
B: He knows the area, very well.
H: He might have had an input in that, as well?
B: Yes, from the Secret Service standpoint, he could have said, gee, this is ideal for
H: [It could be ideal] because it's so isolated and in this case, the isolation [will work
to] the benefit for something like that.
B: I think it's going to be a very positive thing. [There are] a lot of unanswered
questions, but they've done this a lot of times before, so it's not anything new to
the people who are doing it.
H: But not on this scale?
B: We haven't had quite so many, but Margaret Thatcher [British Prime Minister,
1979-1990] has been here, Queen Juliana [Queen of the Netherlands,
1948-1980], when she was here on her state visit. I saw she died the other day,
I'm sorry to hear that. We've been accustomed to hosting things like this.
H: [Hosting the G-8 summit then will be] almost like old hat.
B: There's just more individuals involved. That's just a matter of scale.
H: It's certainly going to put this area on the map for a few days in June. We'll see
how that works out.
[End of Side A1]
H: This is SIG 3, side 2. Let's shift gears a little bit. I want to talk about some of
the social changes that you might have been witness to [while working for] Sea
Island, especially if you started [as far back as] 1958. That was before the Civil
Rights Act [of 1964 which mandated equality under the law], and I wanted to ask
you [about] the Sea Island employees. There were probably a lot of black
laborers, African Americans. Did the Civil Rights Movement effect how Sea
Island operated? Were there any dramatic changes?
B: I don't think there's any dramatic change. We've been in the Civil Rights Act, I
guess it was 1954 or so.
H: That was when it first came to the consciousness [with Brown v Board Supreme
B: We'd been in operation for years. A certain amount of apprehension was there
as to how this was going to happen. We were more concerned about how our
black employees might react to serving black customers. That was a big
concern. I guess a southern view of segregation has been, well, I guess there's
all sorts of versions of it, but Sea Island Company had always valued its
employees and appreciated them, black and white and so forth. I don't think
there was any real upheaval, at all. It just sort of happened. People showed up
and the black people, when they came, you gave it a double-take, and then you
went on about your business. We trained everybody, from management on
down, that we're in the service business. We're in the business of serving
people. In that sense, we're all servants. I used to tell people that worked for
me, if that bothers you, you'd better look for another line of work. We're in the
business to serve these people. They pay a nice price and they come in the
front door and we get paid a good salary and we go in the back door. It's just
always the way it's been.
H: The Sea Island Company is in the hospitality business. Therefore, it was exactly
what you just said. Everyone there is to serve the guest. Of course, in a lot of
companies, you didn't have that kind of [unifying] dynamic, so you would see a
lot of different changes. At Sea Island, I was thinking maybe there wasn't that
big of a deal about [the transition to a desegrated society].
B: I don't think there was.
H: With the government regulations about bringing [up] the pay [to be] equal, did
B: What we had to do was to formalize things like pay and job descriptions. We
didn't have any job descriptions. We didn't have any organizational charts and
that sort of thing. As this went on, we were very fortunate to hire a very fine law
firm in Atlanta who specialized in that. The senior partner had a house on Sea
Island. We also didn't have a personnel department. I went down and hired the
first real personnel director. I was a part of a group to interview him, Bill Gibson,
who was the first one. We didn't have any time cards. Everybody just said, I
was there, Thursday. We had to formalize what had been a very relaxed sort of
thing. We had this law firm to come in and we said, just pretend you're the
government. Dig in here and see what you find. They'd come back and say,
well, you're out of line over here. You've got to do this and so. All the people in
this category need to be paid a certain amount and you've got to pay
time-and-a-half for overtime, and you've got to have minimum wage, and just a
lot of things that we had to formalize the operation. In order to do that, you had
to have a strong personnel department to keep track of all this. We had the
legal people advising us to make sure we weren't out in left field someplace.
H: All that occurred after the mandate after 1964 or 1965?
B: I don't know if that was part of a Civil Rights thing. I think that was just part of a
general wage and hour, anti-discrimination thing. Then it got to be
H: [Entering into the] rights revolution.
B: We had to have formal procedures to hire people. We used to go out and say, I
think I'll hire Susie over there, she looks like a good worker. Now, I think, if
you've got a vacancy, you post the job, and everybody comes in, and everybody
gets interviewed, and then you may still hire Susie, but you've got to give other
people a chance to do it. I spent a lot of time working with that sort of thing.
The same sort of thing, we didn't have a purchasing department. I told
somebody, we didn't need a purchasing department when we had 1,500
purchasing agents. If we needed something, they went down to Strother's
[hardware store on St. Simons Island in the village] and bought a shovel. That's
the way it worked. That was an interesting thing, too. We said, we've got to
have centralized purchasing. We've got to get this thing under control because
everybody's brother was buying stuff. He'd bought a shovel, and this guy had
already bought ten. We went to the American Management Association in New
York and said, we're a company in the southeast, and we want to hire a
purchasing director. How do you do that? Where do you find these people?
They said, well, we'll tell you what. The guy that knows everybody in the
southeast is a man named Charlie Hayes [Charles W. Hayes]. Charlie Hayes is
the director of purchasing for Emory University, Emory Hospital, he's a big, big
operation, but Charlie knows everybody. So we called Charlie and said, Charlie,
we need a purchasing director. He asked a whole lot of questions and said, I'll
get you up some names. He wanted to know what the job was like. We said,
there's no job description. We want to start from scratch. We don't even know
how to start. He said, well, you've got kind of a problem down there. We said,
Charlie, find us a good guy, and send him down. We'll work with him. About a
week later, Charlie called back and he said, you know, I think I'd like that job.
We said, what do you mean? We said, we couldn't afford you. You're the dean
of purchasing agents in the southeast. He said, well, I'll tell you what. I've got
umpteen people working for me and I'm tired of fooling with all the regulations
pertaining to the hospital, (he did Emory Hospital, too), and the university. He
said, the whole thing is not as much fun as it used to be. He said, I haven't
bought anything in years. He came down and started from scratch and built that
purchasing department and did an unbelievable job. We were lucked into the
top pro in that field. We also lucked into a very talented personnel person.
That began to formalize what was a very relaxed organizational structure.
H: [The informality of the] southern experience is a lot like that. It was all relaxed
and there's no formality to it. But then, as we learn, that reinforces the
hierarchy, but it is kind of nice not to have to go through all those channels.
B: That's the way the world operates. I think that's been a great attribute of Sea
Island Company, is they have recognized changes in the marketplace and then
the world and have adapted to it. They've tried to stay ahead of it.
H: That's important to try and keep on top of things and still retain [the informality]. I
wanted to ask you about your impressions of Sea Island within the community.
Do you think [having an entity such as Sea Island Company] was a real boost to
this whole area? You see all the development now, especially on St. Simons.
B: I had some bias to that, I think it's a great foundation for the community. I think
the company's done a lot with donating land and giving things to churches and
green space. The latest thing we're doing right now, which is very helpful, is
we're putting on every hotel bill a two-dollar surcharge, which goes to the land
trust. If the guest says, I don't want to do that, we take it off, but we let them
know. We've given many, many thousands of dollars to that land trust as a
result of that.
H: The St. Simons Land Trust?
B: Yes, the St. Simons Land Trust. We started the Thousand Oaks project a few
years ago. I had something to do with [that]. People were concerned about
cutting trees. We don't like to cut trees, either. I said, nobody's planting trees.
Somebody needs to start a planting program on a systematic basis of planting
oak trees. We said, well good, maybe we'll get that started. We adopted a
program and said, over the next x number of years, we're going to plant 1,000
oak trees. We've done it, now. Sadly, though, nobody else has picked up on
that. We're still doing it, and have been doing it for years, but we just said, we're
going to keep track of how many [trees we plant] 'till we get to 1,000. Then
maybe we'll go to 2,000.
H: This whole area has really changed from people who actually live here to people
that just visit and don't really have a sense that they're part of it. The newer
people who come in, especially the developers, are looking to see how much
money they can make. Oh, we'll just tear that down. It doesn't matter. It's not
profitable like it is. We've got to change it to make a profit.
B: People are always worried about St. Simons is going to be another Hilton Head,
it's just going to be over-run.
H: I think that's inevitable.
B: Well, it's not going to happen because Sea Island Company owns so much of the
land on St. Simons. We just did what I think is a significant thing: it is a 3,500
acre tract at the north end. A typical house-site on most anyplace, is a half acre,
at most, an acre. It was zoned for acre lots. That's 3,500 houses on that piece
of property. Sea Island Company decided to down-zone it, and down-zoned it to
where now there's going to be about 350 houses on 3,500 acres. That's going
to be a terrific help to St. Simons. That's going to put on ice a huge tract of land.
If everybody else would do that, it would be nice, but I'm afraid nobody else is
going to do it.
H: Well, Dewey, I'll give you a prime example. They just sold my mom's house last
week on east beach, there. She had built [a new house] on two lots because
these are tiny little lots. As the land got more valuable on East Beach a
developer came in and bought it. But, they're going to tear it [the house] down.
B: And build two houses.
H: I wanted to ask you just a couple more things, here. The employees, in
general, seem to stay working with Sea Island a long time. Do you have any
explanation for that?
B: Obviously, they feel like they're being well-treated, or they wouldn't stay. They
feel appreciated for the most part. We try to do a lot of things to acknowledge
employees: length of service, we have parties and have a twenty-five-year club
and they get together and have dinners. When once a year we have what
amounts to a huge pep rally, when we award service pins. We invite the
families and the preachers and everybody else to come for the service awards.
Every five years you get another pin. We make a pretty big to-do about that and
have desserts and things and then, have a band playing and make these awards
and make announcements. I think people, generally, feel like they're being fairly
treated, or they wouldn't stay.
H: That's right. I think that's the ultimate test [because they stay] that long.
B: That's the way I felt. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the people I worked with. I
enjoyed the work I was doing. I felt like it was appreciated and was recognized.
H: That's important. I wanted to ask you about the credit union. I had interviewed
Mr. [Carl P.] Talley, and he brought to my attention, [one of the reasons] that the
credit union was created was for the employees, specifically African-American
employees, who would have been unable to borrow money [to buy a] house.
B: I was one of the founding directors of that credit union. That's sort of an
interesting story, too. As I told you, I was an assistant to Mr. Compton, who was
president of the company. On about every Thursday afternoon, in the
administration building, there would be a line of a half-dozen people lined up in
the hall waiting to see Mr. Compton. They were waiting to borrow $5 or $10 until
payday. Mr. Compton would lend them money and he would give them a little
lecture about being frugal and saving and thinking ahead, but they still showed
up. That was one element. The other element was that we were housing
maybe 100 or more employees. We had [what was called] a double-dorm which
married couples lived in. We had some small cubicles about this size and we
put two waitresses in there. We had another facility down on Rainbow Island
where the black people [lived]. [We] called it the Bunk House. We were just
housing lots of people. We began to say, wait a minute, we've got to start giving
these people some recreational facilities. We might need to build a recreational
hall and give them some pool tables or ping pong tables or whatever. This idea
began to grow and grow and grow. You step back and say, no, that's not the
answer. The answer is to let these people own their own homes. You see, the
hotel business used to be very transitory. They'd work in Florida in the winter
and then they'd come work in the Poconos in the summer. Not our company,
but that was sort of the pattern, like migrant workers almost.
H: But for hotels.
B: But for hotels. They went where the business was. We, luckily, had mostly,
local people or relatives of people who lived here. They couldn't afford a home,
so they were staying in our facilities. We said, no, the thing to do is to help
these people buy their own home. They build up an equity, we get them out of
the hallway to borrow $5 until payday, so we started a credit union. It's been
enormously successful. We put the employees on the credit committee to
approve the loans, and it wasn't management approving it. We've got the rank
and file employees because they knew who was who, and who was a good credit
risk. That credit union changed the whole emphasis of housing employees.
We were able to get out of the housing business, which was a headache for us.
It enabled them to buy their own house, which was a wonderful thing for them.
H: An African-American couldn't go into a bank [at that time] and borrow money.
Then you're saying, in essence, that they [the employees] were almost running
[the credit union].
B: We had the a broad representation of people on the board and on the credit
approval committee. I guess it gets away from the old plantation mentality that
they'd work for the master in the big house. We're trying to get them in their
own houses and more independent.
H: I think that's a revolutionary step. What year was that, do you remember?
B: I'm not sure. There's a plaque on the wall down there.
H: All right, I'll check that out.
B: That was one small little piece of the puzzle. Modern day, what goes around
comes around, we are just going to open, today is going to be the preview day, of
a child-care center that's over behind the stables. It's about a million-dollar
facility that we built for employees children. That became a real need. It's
convenient, it's right at the parking lot so they can drop the kids off, park their car,
get on the bus, and ride it to the office. I think that's going to be a wonderful
addition. We're sort of getting back into the paternalism, but it's not really the
H: It's a need that's being fulfilled.
B: We feel like that's very badly needed. The employees are so excited about it.
H: I'm excited [at the concept].
B: Some of these single parents, especially the working mothers...
H: Are you semi-retired?
B: I had officially retired. I'm off the payroll.
H: You're off the payroll.
B: I'm off the payroll, and I'm drawing my pension, which is another thing. Sea
Island Company put in the pension plan way back. It was in when I came to
work in 1958. There again, most hotel-type companies just didn't do that
because of the transitory nature of their people. We tried to have things like
pension plans, very good group insurance plans, benefits like that. That tends
to hold people here, too, in addition to the other things. Officially, I'm a
consultant to the Board of Directors. I'm still on the board. I'm on the
management committee and the finance committee and the development
committee. We meet periodically and talk about things. I don't do any work. I
just sit and give them my opinion. They have to do the work now.
H: That's not a bad deal.
B: No, it's really great.
H: This is what you spend most of your time [doing]? You come into the office?
B: I went from my little cubicle and my office got bigger and bigger. I ended up with
Mr. Jones Sr.'s former office with a great big window. When I retired, I said, I
want to get out of the way. I had started this real estate company on St.
Simons, so these are my babies in a way. I'm pleased to be here. They're very
generous to let me have an office.
H: I think they recognize all your help and your service.
B: I remember what happened thirty-five years ago, and most people don't
remember that. They come to me a lot of times and say, how did this ever come
about and then I'll tell them. That's fun.
H: What do you think is your greatest [contribution] to Sea Island? Could you think
of one thing?
B: I think with Sea Island it was organizing the whole real estate operation and
taking it from the first year. We formed a separate company from Sea Island
Properties. I was the executive vice president so it was kind of my baby. The
year before I took it over, our total real estate sales were $1,500. We went from
that to considerably more. It was fun to do. That was the main thing I did, was
get it formalized and organized and put on a business-like basis instead of a
H: [An effort that] makes it more efficient. Was there any challenge that persisted
over the years?
B: No, I think we solved just about everything. One of the biggest challenges that
we successfully solved was the beach erosion problem. That was one of my
challenges. We began to have this persistent beach erosion. Something had
to be done. There was a massive amount of money involved. We were trying
to get the property owners to all kick in. Those on the beach said, yeah, I'll be
glad to. Those back on the marsh said, no, that's the reason I'm back here, to
let those guys worry about it. That was a problem. Then we had to comply with
all the environmental problems and get permits. That problem persisted for
about fifteen years. We had to take it step-by-step. We finally convinced the
environmentalists that this was a two-step process. The first thing was we had
to save the land. By saving the land, we were going to harm the beach, that's
just the way it is. We don't want all the houses falling in the water. We said,
okay, we're going to save the land and then we're going to go back and do
something about the beach. That's the first thing. We got permits. We
armored the escarpment along the ocean with rocks and all this. We first started
out with sandbags and sea oaks and it just gradually escalated that finally you
had to put a hard armament on that face. We did that. We got the property
owners to do it in front of their house. We said, we'll help you, but we're not
going to pay the whole bill. We got that done, and the beach-it hurt the beach.
It began to lower and lower. We said, okay, now we're going to restore the
beach. Let's everybody pitch in and do that. They said, well, no, we don't think
so. We're happy. We've got our property protected, everything's fine. We
don't go down there that much anyway. Then we came to the decision and I
said, if we're going to have a beach resort, we'd better have a beach. If nobody
else is going to pay for it, we had better just pay for it and find a way to let others
help us by raising a few dollars here and a few dollars there. This costs a little
more, but we'll do it. It took about three or four years to get the permits to put
that beach back. That was one of the most spectacular projects I've ever seen.
We got a dredge, and put it the mouth of Hampton River and pumped that sand
two or three miles. It was unbelievable how well that worked. You still hear
stories from St. Simons about what just ruins the beach. Anybody that would
walk on our beach now, it's a beautiful beach. The secondary dunes systems
are starting up. The grasses are growing. We planted grasses and put up sand
fences and did the whole thing. It's just been a huge success.
H: Is it still staying there?
B: It's still staying there. It's been there for fifteen years, I guess.
H: That's great. If you ever go down to St. Augustine, they had done that. They
had just what you said, the dredge, and it was two or three miles off shore. It
was the whitest sand you ever saw and giant four-foot pipes that pumped it up.
They increased that beach by, I would say, about at least 100 yards. You walk
out and it's like walking on the desert. Do you know that in six months, half that
beach is already gone. In six months.
B: If you don't engineer it properly. We finally convinced the state that beaches are
like roads. They've got to be maintained, they've got to be monitored. We have
engineers go in and take cross-sections of the beach on a quarterly basis to see
what's moving where, what's happening. People will say, well, you've gotta just
let nature take its course. I said, 'well, I don't know. If the termites got into your
house, wouldn't you do something about it? If the moles are eating your grass
up, you're going to do something about it. You can manage these things and
maintain them. That's been a hugely successful project. It enabled us to have
a beach resort. Otherwise, you don't have one.
H: I just have one final question here. Is there anything I didn't cover, that you
might want to add?
B: I would say that another great advantage of Sea Island Company is the fact that
it's been owned by one family for so long, and that family understands business.
They understand people. They're very dedicated to quality. It's just been a
great thing. Also, it's a private company. I've always said that public
companies have to report earnings every quarter. Those earnings have to be
better than the last quarter, and if they're not, you're suddenly a bad company.
That encourages management to sometimes make some short-term decisions
and do some things to pump those earnings up that are maybe not in the best
long-range interest of the company. Sea Island Company has taken the long
view. It's just been a very unusual company.
H: It's an unusual company, and like I said, we take it for granted that it's here, but it
is far from usual. On that note, Mr. Benefield, thank you for your time.
[End of the interview.]