A Lifetime of Love and Watermelons
by Michele Roldán-Shaw
Photography by Christian Lee
It was an old-fashioned love affair of Hampton County. She was in the 9th grade, and he was a senior, so a month went by before Willard and Lynda Tuten told anyone they’d married. “Momma and daddy hit the ceiling,” Lynda recalls. “But anyway.” By age 20 she had four children and a lifetime ahead with her beloved Willard.
“We did everything together,” said Lynda, who lives on Paukie Island in Beaufort. “He wasn’t one of these who had to go out with the boys. Our hobbies were going to yard sales and festival hopping. I don’t think I’ve missed but one Hampton Watermelon Festival, and that was when my granddaughter got married.”
Two people couldn’t be closer than Willard and Lynda...unless, perhaps, one saved the other’s life.
It was 5:30 p.m. on March 24, 1990, when Willard went down. They were boating on the Whale Branch River when he suffered a massive heart attack. “All of a sudden he grabbed his chest and fell on the floor,” Lynda recalls of that frightful day. “He was struggling, and I faced the decision of whether to try and work with him, or drive him to safety.”
Willard always drove the boat, so she didn’t really know what she was doing. Yet Lynda managed to navigate the dicey stretch of Jack’s Cut at mid-tide, which connected the Whale Branch to McCalley’s Creek and the community landing at Paukie Island. Lynda started screaming and a neighbor called 911. Willard was taken to Beaufort Memorial, then flown to MUSC, where he spent six days in the ICU. Lynda was told he had lost 75 percent of his heart function.
“The doctor said he might live 10 years,” said Lynda. “I kept him for 23. He was a tough one, I’ll tell ya.”
When Willard passed away, he had only 15 percent of his heart remaining. He’d also been through cancer, having had one kidney removed, then half his other kidney, then 18 inches of colon. He was in and out of the hospital a lot, but it never dampened his spirit of being a doer, a fixer and a worker. Neighbors called him the “Paukie Piddler” because he was always tinkering with this or that—only if he couldn’t fix it would they hire out.
Willard’s last moments were spent in his living room with the love of his life. “We were sitting in our reclining chairs,” Lynda remembers. “We’d had a busy day. We’d been to the Island Packet yard sale on Hilton Head, then a Tuten family reunion. That night he couldn’t sleep so we got up and sat in the living room, then suddenly he just kind of passed out. They took him to the hospital but I’m pretty certain he was already gone. The day he died, he was smiling and enjoying the day.”
It was hard learning to live again without him. It wasn’t the same going to yard sales and festivals by herself, and she just plain missed having someone to talk to that she loved. But Lynda still has the fruits of their life together: four children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren; the raised oyster shell house she and Willard worked so hard for; and an impressive array of yard sale finds over the years, especially their watermelon collection.
“I’m the Watermelon Woman,” Lynda said. “I tell people I have a fortune in watermelons, and I’m not even a farmer. Even my Christmas tree has watermelon lights. I buried him in a watermelon tie; it was beautiful. We weren’t people with money but we worked hard for what we had. I think you need to work together and pull the wagon in the same direction. I loved him so much, and he loved me.”
Grew up: Hampton and Varnville
Career: Nearly a half-century of work with Westinghouse Electric, Graybar Fence Company, and as financial secretary at Baptist Church of Beaufort
Long-time member of: American Legion and Hampton County Historical Society
Best yard sale finds: Butler statue she paid $5 for, and it was worth $900, and a little wooden chair she bought from Tom Berenger’s wife (also for $5) that she’s had for 25 years with a watermelon pillow in it
Watermelon Woman moment: Spending $800 at Cracker Barrel when they came out with a line of watermelon dishes.