One from the Heart
According to Betsy Doughtie, the Executive Director of The Deep Well Project, "Esther Williams has witnessed not only the growth and changes in our community, but also the growth and changes of Deep Well. When Esther became Deep Well Founder Charlotte Heinrich's right-hand woman, the Deep Well organization was actually digging deep wells and providing septic systems to islanders. She has watched the evolution of Deep Well turn into a full-service social service agency that makes a difference in so many people's lives."
Esther Williams recently retired from Deep Well, having been an integral part of the organization since 1973. It's hard to believe 39 years have come and gone for her, but not without making a tremendous impact on the quality of life of those in need right here on Hilton Head Island. Esther was there in the very early days with Deep Well Founder Charlotte Heinrich, who began to help Islander's in need from her kitchen in Sea Pines. Not only was Esther a key person in the founding of the organization, she has been here since 1933. Gentle, soft-spoken, and beautiful, Esther is a one-of-a-kind person who has truly been a gift to the needy of Hilton Head Island.
Pink: Esther, you were born here on Hilton Head Island in 1933. Please tell us about life in those times, before there was even a bridge connecting the island to the mainland (1956).
Esther: It was all woods then-big woods. We farmed, went to church and school, and fished and shrimped. There was no doctor then, and the school went from kinder up to grade ten. I went to Beaufort to go to Robert Smalls High School and boarded with a lady there named Daisy Brown.
Farms here were about a quarter of a mile apart. We had lots of room. We had milk cows, chickens, and horses. We grew corn, okra, beans, squash, and onions-everything we needed to eat. We lived out of the water, too.
Pink: You started helping Miss Charlotte in 1973. What was that like?
Esther: She was working alone when I first came to her. She was trying to help people out. She fed people in her kitchen and gave help out of her home. Each day was something different. We met at her house to see what the day would bring. She knew people who were carpenters and welldiggers. She also drove people herself and so did I. I knew people and I knew who needed what. Some days we took people to the doctor or the store or to the Social Security [office], and some days it was fixing up a house or putting in indoor toilets. She was good at that. She would see if someone had a spare room or if it was easy to add on, and that was where your toilet went. She also looked for those wells that needed to be deeper. That was a big part of what we did because she knew that the water from bad wells was making people sick with worms and such. She was so caring and patient.
Pink: So really, you were somewhat the co-founder
of Deep Well?
Esther: No, I would never say that. The people were not so easy with strangers then. People all knew me, and they got to know her through me. She was the founder; I was the helper. If she decided to do something, she just did it. People got to know her, so they got to trust her.
"Esther was a very valuable go-between for people in the Island community who were in need and those who wanted to give help," said David Lauderdale, a well-loved columnist at the Island Packet. From Miss Charlotte's kitchen in Sea Pines, Deep Well moved into a small garage-type warehouse. It was located on Beach City Road not far from the current large facility of today. It was here, at that meager garage that Esther decided she wanted to have her photograph done. She called it the Little Brown Building. Sometimes it is good to reflect on how small beginnings can evolve into life-changing blessings.
More about Esther:
When I asked Esther to talk a bit about herself she only smiled. I did discover that she has been married to her husband, George Williams, for 56 years and has four living children, 12 grandchildren, and even though it took her a minute to "count and remember", she told me she has 14 greatgrands.
Esther is a longstanding member of the First African Baptist Church, and I asked her about her faith. She simply stated, "I just live by it as best as I can." When I asked her if there was something she would like her family to read about her in Pink, she replied, "No, they all know me too well already." When I asked her favorite book and what she was reading, she replied with a humble smile, "The Bible. That's the best book there is."
As reluctant as Esther was to speak about herself and her accomplishments, others are ready and willing to sing her praises. What a kind, gentle, and loving woman. Her final words to me were not surprising, as they mirror her life in everyway: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." With that thought lingering between the two of us, she concluded with words passed down from her parents: "Be respectful and always welcome a guest into your home."
What a privilege to have shared memories and early times with such a wonderful lady.