Arthur Ravenel loved his family, his town and his state — all to which he was a revered leader and protector. We see that love every time we cross the bridge of his namesake going to and from Mount Pleasant.
Sometimes when I cross the Ravenel Bridge, I’ll think of the encounters I’ve had with “Cousin Arthur.” Those thoughts make me smile and take me back to a time when a handshake was the unbroken word, and the term “salt of the earth” was praise like no other. These memories are the ones etched in my mind, the ones I’ve recalled dozens of times before — long before I sat down to write this. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I like remembering them.
One of my fondest memories is of a camera pointed at Cousin Arthur while he is sitting in a lawn chair at his home in the Old Village, with pant legs rolled up, eating fresh watermelon. Being in publishing has taken me on many fun-filled adventures, and this was one of the highlights. At the time — in 1988— we were publishing East Cooper Magazine, the predecessor of Mount Pleasant Magazine. The idea was to capture an image of Arthur for the front cover. I remember calling Cousin Arthur’s office multiple times until I secured a date and time. When I eventually did, I was over the top. Arthur Ravenel was going to be on the front cover of East Cooper Magazine. How cool was that?
Back then, I shot a lot of the magazine’s photos, so we arranged a time for me to drop by his house at 109 Center Street. That same home recently sold —for the second time since Arthur lived there — and is featured in our beautiful homes section.
It’s a little surreal for me to be writing about meeting Arthur at this home, one we are featuring today, some 30 years later — the same home’s backyard in which Arthur posed for a cover photo back in 1988. It has come back around full circle.
On the day of the cover shoot, I dropped by Piggly Wiggly and bought a watermelon, an umbrella full of bright colors and a beach chair. Arthur was an authentic person, and I knew that was his appeal. It may have been an arranged photo, but I wanted to do my best and capture Arthur as the real person everyone knew him to be. Honestly, I did not explain all the details to him, but I was hoping he would play along with my idea — relaxing barefoot in those rolled-up pants, eating watermelon in a beach chair, with a colorful umbrella behind him.
After gathering the props, I drove to 109 Center Street and enthusiastically hopped out of my car and knocked on his side door that I had hoped he used as a front door. As he walked to open the door, his expression appeared quizzical. I told him we had an appointment for the shoot, and he said he had forgotten. I explained that it would only take a few minutes and thanked him for his time, assuring him we could take the photos right there in his backyard. I thanked God it was a sunny day and knew I’d better keep this moving along.
Arthur and I went into his backyard, and I set up the umbrella and the beach chair and asked him if he could please take a seat. A few minutes into the shoot I asked him if he would take his shoes off and roll his pantlegs up. Then I gave him the final prop — a slice of watermelon. About halfway into the shoot he facetiously said, “I can only hold this phony politician smile for so long. Are we almost done?”
The rest is history. Somehow this issue made its way to D.C. because Arthur was one of our U.S. House Representatives at the time. We received requests from politicians throughout Washington. They all wanted copies of the magazine with Arthur on the front cover. I had no idea this would happen; after all East Cooper Magazine was just a small community magazine. Why would powerful politicians want copies? This all happened before the word viral was part of our vocabulary, but if it had been, this cover would have gone viral.
Thirty years after the East Cooper Magazine front cover, Pam Gabriel (one of our writers at the time) and myself visited Arthur and Jean Ravenel at their Franke at Seaside Farms independent living space. It was the 10th anniversary of the Ravenel Bridge opening, and Mount Pleasant Magazine wanted to publish an interview with Cousin Arthur. We scheduled a time to visit their home once again. I remember it being cold — like really cold. After entering their house, we sat down in the living room and I asked Arthur how he was doing. In typical Arthur fashion, seamlessly he replied he was ‘really tired.’ I asked why because he didn’t look tired. With a sincere look in his eyes he shared, “I’ve been on the bridge scraping ice off the road so no one would get hurt.” There he was, the Arthur I knew.
I also knew when we set up this interview that one of the items I wanted to ask Arthur about was the urban legend that he purchased the old cigar factory on East Bay Street with a figure on a napkin presented as an offer to the American Tobacco Company. He informed Pam and I that it was not a legend, that he had indeed bought the building for $250,000 after writing that figure on a napkin during a lunch meeting.
Something about that story embodied all that he was — the real deal, no pretension, just the Arthur Ravenel Jr. born here in Charleston, raised tending cabbage, corn and cattle. It was the Arthur destined to hold many offices, have many successes and touch many lives. That is just what he did, and he achieved it directly, simply and beautifully — in true Charleston fashion.
By Bill Macchio