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Unsung Saviors: Decatur’s Task Force for Global Health is helping eliminate horrific diseases

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Task Force for Global Health
A member of a research team supported by the Task Force for Global Health checks the eyes of a woman in Malwai for signs of trachoma infection.

Photograph by Billy Weeks

In a rural village in Malawi, families gather under shade trees to learn how to save their eyesight. They hear from an older man who wasn’t so lucky; he suffers from a bacterial disease called blinding trachoma that causes his eyelids to flip inward, scratching his corneas. The man serves as Exhibit A for why health workers are asking all the villagers—sick or not—to swallow an antibiotic.

Some 8,300 miles away, a few blocks from the Decatur Square, sits a red-brick building, the headquarters of the Task Force for Global Health, a nonprofit whose imprint is all over that village. They’re the ones who trained the health workers; provided the meds; and collected the data that will be aggregated and pored over by governments, drug companies, and nongovernmental organizations around the world. The endgame is not simply stopping the spread of blinding trachoma in that village or even all of the surrounding villages. It is eliminating the disease from the planet by 2020, a formidable goal that the Task Force, together with other public health entities, is working hard to achieve, along with vanquishing several other diseases. So why haven’t you heard of them?

Atlanta is a world capital for public health. But unlike some of the other big players based here, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Carter Center, the Task Force for Global Health has operated largely out of the public spotlight—and done so by design, since it was founded in 1984 by former CDC director Dr. William Foege with a mission to boost childhood immunization rates in the developing world. At the time, nearly 12,000 children, mostly in the world’s poorest countries, were dying every day from vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, pertussis (whooping cough), and diphtheria. The Task Force brought together leading health and development agencies—including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Rockefeller Foundation—to focus on improving immunization coverage. Six years later, the percentage of kids receiving at least one vaccine had shot up from 20 percent to 80 percent.

Task Force for Global Health
A health worker goes door-to-door, in Limbé, Haiti, to take blood samples that will be tested for signs of lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis, an infectious disease that the Task Force is working to eliminate globally by 2020.

Photograph by Billy Weeks

Today the Task Force reaches populations in 154 countries. It’s the largest nonprofit in Georgia and the fourth largest in the country, according to Forbes. Even so, the Task Force always has worked by the credo that “credit should be infinitely divisible,” says Dr. David Ross, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. In other words, the organization prefers to work behind the scenes, letting its public and private partners get the glory.

But in August, it was the Task Force that grabbed the spotlight after being awarded the 2016 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which at $2 million, is the world’s largest such award given to organizations that have “made extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering.” Previous recipients include Doctors Without Borders and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.

“The Task Force has accomplished some very powerful things without fanfare and without looking for a profile for themselves,” says Peter Laugharn, president and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which is based outside Los Angeles and was established by the Hilton Hotels founder. “It’s pretty amazing that they are not all that well-known [locally].”

That may change. The Task Force and DeKalb County officials are currently exploring ways to improve the lives of residents who are living in areas where the health picture resembles that of developing countries. “We do hope that with the prize, we’re able to help the Task Force come a little more into the limelight,” Laugharn says. “Not to change the way it works, but to the make the public more aware of what a gem you have in Georgia.”

Task Force for Global Health
Test strips detect the presence (or absence) of the antigen for lymphatic filariasis.

Photograph by Billy Weeks

Task Force for Global Health
In Limbé, Haiti, Task Force epidemiologist Katie Gass reviews blood samples taken for a survey to determine whether the disease is still present in the community.

Photograph by Billy Weeks

Stamping out diseases
In her second floor office in downtown Decatur, Katie Gass is at her standing desk, poring over health data coming in—in real time—from the field in Tanzania. It won’t be her office for much longer. The nonprofit is putting the Hilton Prize money towards the purchase of a former DeKalb County government building that will serve as its new headquarters. The Task Force’s 120 employees have outgrown their current space, and there are plans to double the staff over the next few years.

Gass is an epidemiologist whose job entails studying how diseases spread and coming up with ways to control or even eliminate them. For the past year, she has been designing survey tools for the World Health Organization to help health workers in places like Malawi and the Philippines and Honduras measure the percentage of people receiving antibiotic and anti-parasitic drugs.

“The big mechanism for controlling and ultimately eliminating disease is what’s called preventive chemotherapy, or giving medicines to people in an endemic area whether they are sick or not,” Gass says. “We know that a certain threshold of the population needs to swallow the drugs in order to stamp out these diseases.”

Gass, who first came to the Task Force as a public health graduate student in 2008, works for the Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center, which concentrates on a handful of diseases that afflict people living in extreme poverty in developing countries. Gass spends 15 to 20 percent of her time in those countries advising government officials and training health workers in the field.

The job has its challenges. While traveling, she often goes long periods without hot water or Internet. She has stared down dangerous hippos in Malawi. Still, she isn’t afraid, she says.

“I totally trust my colleagues in the field,” says Gass, “and I’m willing to accept the risks for the thrill of getting to know new places and improving the lives of the people who live there.” The hardest part of her job, she says, is seeing the day-to-day suffering caused by debilitating health conditions. “At the same time, I have a sense of awe. There is so much to learn from these cultures and their strong sense of community and support. These people are survivors.”

Gass’s division is one of eight at the Task Force. Another Task Force program called TEPHINET (Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network) supports field training programs for health workers on the front lines to recognize and respond to outbreaks of viruses like Ebola and Zika. The organization’s Public Health Informatics Institute helps developing countries and nongovernmental agencies improve health by using data-driven approaches. Their expertise recently earned the institute a spot in a new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation–funded initiative to address the causes of serious illness and death among young children in Africa and South Asia.

“We expect those models to be replicated in lots of places,” says Ross, who founded the Informatics Institute and took the helm of the Task Force this past May. “This is a viral strategy, if you will.”

Task Force for Global Health
A health worker in Limbé, Haiti, explains to a child how a finger prick will be used to take a blood sample that will be tested for signs of lymphatic filariasis infection.

Photograph by Billy Weeks

A pioneering approach
In tackling enormous public health challenges, the Task Force has, since its beginning, relied on collaboration. But while similar organizations have long partnered with universities, hospitals, or other public health groups, the Task Force was among the first to partner with drug companies—a strategy that has changed the way that public health work is carried out around the world.

It began 30 years ago with the Mectizan Donation Program. Mectizan, known in the U.S. as ivermectin, was developed by scientists at Merck & Co. in the 1970s to treat parasites in animals. A decade later, scientists discovered that the drug could also treat and prevent another disease that afflicts people: river blindness, which not only claims eyesight but also causes relentless itching. At that time, it was considered taboo for public health entities to partner with big pharma, but Foege took Merck up on its offer to donate the drug for as long as it was needed to eliminate the disease.

“A lot of public health people felt like, ‘How could you really trust a for-profit enterprise?’” Ross said. “Now we see that you can make this a win for all parties.” The partnership launched what is now known as pharmaco-philanthropy. In 2015 pharmaceutical companies donated $1.6 billion in medicines to the Task Force to treat or eliminate diseases.

Today the Mectizan Donation Program reaches more than 250 million people a year, and two years ago the scientists who discovered the drug were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on river blindness. Still, big challenges remain, says the program’s director, Dr. Yao Sodahlon. One is getting the drugs to people who live in hard-to-reach places: remote pockets of rain forests or areas upended by conflict. Another is convincing people who don’t feel sick to take the drugs.

“That is one of the biggest challenges and it is very, very tricky,” Sodahlon says. “It is a matter of convincing, convincing, convincing, which means making a lot of noise that they can be infected without showing [signs of] the disease, or they can be free of the infection now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be infected in the future.”

Task Force for Global Health
Dr. Yao Sodahlon, a native of Togo, is director of the Mectizan Donation Program at the Task Force for Global Health

Photograph by Billy Weeks

Sodahlon stays motivated by the successes. River blindness was eliminated in Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico by 2015. As of December, Guatemala is free of new infection.

In 2016 the World Health Organization verified that another disease, lymphatic filariasis, had been eliminated in six countries, thanks in part to the Task Force’s work. Sodahlon’s home country of Togo in West Africa is soon expected to follow suit. Lymphatic filariasis is also known as elephantiasis because it causes the arms, legs, and genitals to swell to gross proportions. “It is truly disfiguring,” Sodahlon says, “and those who suffer from it [often] exclude themselves from society.”

Gass describes elephantiasis as both tragic and fascinating. “We all have our favorite parasite, and I cut my teeth here on this one,” she says. The complex disease is triggered by microscopic, thread-like worms that live only in the human lymph system. After the worms mate, they produce baby worms that circulate through the bloodstream, where they can be picked up through mosquito bites and spread to other people.

Until recently, testing for elephantiasis meant drawing blood in the middle of the night because that’s when the baby worms enter the bloodstream. “Can you imagine going to a rural village in Africa at midnight and saying, ‘I want your blood?’” Gass says. But diagnostic advances now make it make possible to test in the light of day, expediting the disease’s ultimate end. Gass says “we’ll throw a party” when that happens.

Task Force for Global Health
A young boy in Malawai takes an antibiotic medication as part of a campaign meant to help eliminate trachoma.

Photograph by Billy Weeks

Bringing global health home
The work that the Task Force is doing in the developing world has major implications right here in metro Atlanta. “Caring about global diseases is important because we are only going to see more and more of them inside our borders,” Gass says. “Zika is a prime example.”

Going forward, the Task Force also plans to tackle noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease that claim the lives of many people in Georgia. The Task Force has been exploring ways to help identify and address health problems that are widespread in certain pockets of DeKalb county. The work begins with collecting and analyzing data on any number of factors that have been shown to impact health, including income, education level, and access to transportation.

“Public health workers are inherently in the information business,” says Ross, who currently serves on the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics. “Imagine a dashboard that could readily tell county and city leaders, neighborhood by neighborhood, the forces that are causing health problems and what they can do about it,” he says. “We want to bring that technology innovation. We’ve been doing some pretty neat stuff in some pretty faraway places. We feel an obligation to bring that experience and expertise home.”

This article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue.

Each summer, faithful flock to Covington, Georgia for one of the country’s oldest Christian revivals

Salem Camp Meeting
Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Salem Camp Ground in Covington, site of one of the country’s oldest Christian revivals, started out as a brush arbor—a few poles draped with tree branches to give worshipers shade from the summer sun. That was in 1835. The Civil War was still a generation away. Covington was a new town with a fledgling square a few miles down the road from Salem. There was no railroad. Atlanta was a full day’s ride by horse. Worshipers would sleep under the wagons they rode there or use the wagon sheets as tents, their horses tethered nearby.

Times have changed. On a steamy Sunday morning in July, it took me just 35 minutes to get there from Atlanta. The campground sits a stone’s throw from Salem Road, which isn’t as quaint as its name suggests; this stretch of highway, with its O’Reilly Auto Parts and its QuikTrip and its Kroger and its Family Dollar, is indistinguishable from any other suburban highway in the South. So indistinguishable, in fact, that I missed the entrance to the campground and had to turn around.

Salem means “peace” (think shalom in Hebrew, or salaam in Arabic), and the campground, despite its proximity to the soulless highway beyond the tree line, is nothing if not peaceful. “We live in a world that is so busy. Salem operates at a completely different pace,” says Tom Elliott, a Methodist minister who teaches at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He has been coming to Salem his whole life.

Salem Camp Meeting
Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

The campground spans some 60 acres, half of it old-growth hardwood forest. On the other half is a horseshoe of 28 buildings, including a 32-room hotel with a wraparound porch built 76 years ago to house preachers and other dignitaries during campmeeting, as it’s called. The other structures are rustic cabins constructed many decades ago, some many, many decades ago, by the forefathers of the families currently occupying them. Elliott’s late grand­father built a prefab two-story cabin in his backyard in neighboring Conyers, then assembled it at Salem.

A series of sidewalks, mercifully shaded by giant oak trees, intersects at the campground’s focal point—the open-air tabernacle. Built 162 years ago, the structure is constructed of hand-hewn timbers and has a gable roof and an earthen floor covered in sawdust that shows up in shoes and pants cuffs long after the revival ends. The clang of the big brass bell by the tabernacle signals that it’s time to gather for the 11 a.m. service.

Salem campmeeting runs one week every summer. “Big Sunday,” as it’s known here, is the only day people dress up. Men in collared shirts, women in sundresses, and kids in freshly combed hair and scrubbed faces emerge from the family cabins—the rights to which are handed down from generation to generation—and make their way into the wooden pews as overhead fans spin tirelessly. Some of the cabin dwellers come from as far as Brooklyn and Dallas and San Francisco, others as close as a mile down the road. They come because their families have always come. Because they mark the year not by the traditional calendar but by Salem campmeeting. The week here each year, says Elliott, is “time apart.”

In a pew near me is Eleanor McArthur Hamlett, who’s been a regular here for 70 years. Her ancestors were among the first families to establish Salem. She and the other families still refer to themselves as “tenters” and to their cabins as tents. There are a few newcomers, like the Rogers family, who have been attending campmeeting only since the 1960s. The Rogers have contributed two generations of Methodist ministers who have preached here. They’ve also produced a doctor who grew up here and now stitches foreheads and treats scrapes when things get a little too rambunctious at the daily softball game or down by Salem’s natural spring.

I have settled in beside the Elliotts, who have invited me to a family lunch (for 40) following the service. The family introduced the hymn “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” to the musical repertoire here, and it’s become Salem’s theme song of sorts. It is played at every service, and if you don’t know the hymn, you will by the time you leave Salem:

Sweet Holy Spirit,
sweet heavenly dove,
stay right here with us, filling
us with your love.
And for these blessings, we lift our hearts in praise;
without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
when we shall leave this place.

Salem Camp Meeting
Sam Ramsey addresses the congregation.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

I confess, it had been a long time since any spirit had moved me. I grew up in a religious family—we were, I mean are, Catholic—but I think I was always a bit of a doubting Thomas. As a second grader at St. Andrew’s in Roanoke, Virginia, I’d sit in my plaid parochial school uniform in the back of the church and stare at the statues on the altar, waiting for some sign that God was really and truly real.

As a grownup, I buy the idea of a higher power, given the blessings of my own life, not the least of which are my beautiful, surly teenagers. But the overarching message of Christianity—that God and his goodness are everywhere—is a little tougher for me to square with all of the crazy sadness that tests everyone eventually, so much of it done in the name of the Lord.

Here beneath Salem’s tabernacle, I see in others the faith that eludes me, and I’m envious. There at the pulpit, greeting everyone, is Sam Ramsey, the stately, white-haired owner of the local furniture store, former Covington mayor, and chairman of the nonprofit board that runs Salem. This is Ramsey’s 78th campmeeting; he’s actually only 77 but, like so many folks here, counts the year he came in utero.

Ramsey can tell you about the starry night in the 1950s when the Soviet satellite Sputnik flew over or the morning in the 1970s when a governor named Jimmy asked for prayers because he was thinking of running for president. Ramsey can recall the sermons of more than a hundred Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian ministers who showed off their preaching chops here. He can show you the spot where he first laid eyes on his wife, Becky, who for 45 years has played one piano at every service during campmeeting while her identical twin, Alice, plays another.

Salem Camp Meeting
For 45 years, Alice Walker (seated left) and her twin, Becky Ramsey, have played piano at Salem.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

The reason some families remain so faithful to Salem is simple, Ramsey says. It is all about God. He counts at least 17 people who grew up at Salem and are now in full-time ministry. One is Alice Rogers, senior minister at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church and an elder in the faith’s North Georgia Conference. And now her nephew, 29-year-old Jonathan Andersen, is an associate pastor of a Methodist church in Dacula and a youth minister at Salem. “The central part of Salem campmeeting is the worship,” Ramsey tells me.

Salem Camp Meeting
Jonathan Andersen, who grew up attending Salem, is now a pastor in Dacula.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Salem offers three services a day, plus Bible classes. If you attend all of them during campmeeting for three consecutive years, you get a Bible. Some worshipers here have earned so many that they donate them to prisons and nursing homes.

Sure, you can find a few 20-somethings during the week lounging in hammocks staring at their phones, checking Instagram, or texting friends. (A few years ago, the campground installed Wi-Fi so people who have to be plugged into work can still make campmeeting.) But the restive souls are also clear that they’ll be bringing their children to Salem once they have them.

Andersen, in addition to being youth minister, is a Salem trustee, an appointment made with a clear nod to the future. I catch up with him by the spring, where he has just helped baptize the infant son of a friend he’s been coming to campmeeting with since they were babies. In a blue button-down shirt, khaki shorts, and bare feet, Andersen calls Salem an incubator of faith—certainly the incubator of his. He first heard a call to ministry in the seventh grade, and Salem seemed a safer place to share that information than middle school. “I gave my first sermon here,” he says. “Most of my mentors in the ministry are here.”

I ask him if Salem still has a place in the modern world. “With all the cool, fun stuff going on out there, this place makes zero sense,” he says. “Why would someone take their vacation and come here to spend a week in the scorching heat?” God is a big part of that answer, he says. But there’s also something else at play at Salem. “This is home for a lot of people. This is the constant in an ever-changing and fragmented world.”

Salem Camp Meeting
Laura Ramsey Kemp (left) and her sister, Martha Thompson, sit on the porch swing with a photograph taken at Salem when they were younger.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

There was a time when places like Salem were everywhere in the South, the result of a Protestant revivalist movement called the Second Great Awakening. These religious gatherings helped ground early American settlers, says Claudia Head Brathe, a historic preservationist who has studied Georgia’s campmeeting movement. She grew up going to Mossy Creek Campmeeting in Cleveland, Georgia, which she still attends.

About 3,000 worshipers attended Georgia’s first recorded campmeeting in 1803 on Shoulderbone Creek, about 100 miles east of Atlanta. The campmeeting period fostered the development of three major Christian denominations—the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches—resulting in the Bible Belt.

At first, campmeetings traveled from place to place before settling into permanent digs. The campgrounds, characteristically in wooded settings by a water source (for physical sustenance as well as for baptisms), were established all across the state, with some counties accommodating as many as four. Eventually the urbanization of religion caused the campmeeting movement to wane. Still, a few survive. In Georgia, some 30 of the historic campgrounds are still active.

Salem Campmeeting, 1931
Salem Campmeeting, 1931

Photograph Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, new192-83

Salem Camp Ground is fairly typical of those that have endured. Started by Methodists, it expanded in 1939 to include other denominations. The nonprofit owns all of the property, while the cabins are held in trust by individual families, who maintain the dwellings and pass them down. The only way to get your hands on one is to marry into it, or for a family to vacate one for three years running, or for a family to die off. “You might be waiting a long time,” says Ramsey with a laugh. His extended family has four tents, including the green one that his great-great-grandfather built in 1840.

Salem Camp Meeting
The “tents,” as they’re called, can stay in a family for generations.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Salem is home for Lucy Elliott Roberts. The doctoral student in psychology hasn’t missed campmeeting once during her 27 years. Growing up, her father, Tom Elliott, was a pastor, and her family moved from church to church. “Salem is the foundational part of my life,” says Roberts, who was baptized here, proposed to here, and married here in May. Every year at the close of campmeeting, Roberts and her dad kneel at the tabernacle’s altar rail and pray for God’s blessing. “That is the start of our year,” she says.

Sitting with her and her husband during Big Sunday service, surrounded by her grandmother and parents and aunts and uncles and cousins, I can’t help but think of my own family. My mom was one of 10 children who had five kids of her own. Growing up, it seemed like half of the congregation at the yellow-brick Catholic church in my Southern hometown was related to me. After Mass we’d all converge at my grandmother’s for ice cream. We’d play tag and catch fireflies and just hang out. Now my family, like so many families, is scattered all over the country. I don’t see my siblings often. I rarely lay eyes on my cousins, and I don’t even know their kids.

Salem Camp Meeting
The Elliotts say grace before Big Sunday lunch.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Salem Camp Meeting
Salem Campmeeting revolves around religion, family, and down-home Southern cooking.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

At Salem, you can’t help but be connected. Following Big Sunday service, I head over to the Elliott tent for lunch. We gather around tables and feast on ham and creamed corn, macaroni and cheese, green beans, potato salad, watermelon, banana pudding, sweet tea. And fried chicken, the staple of Salem. (At another service, we’ll pray for all of the fowl that lost life and wing during campmeeting.) These family meals take place all week long in cabins where lines on the walls record kids’ heights from year to year and old photographs are ubiquitous reminders of all the kin who are no longer here.

Salem Camp Meeting
John Hamlett (left) gets a visit on Big Sunday from Chuck Thorp, his next-door neighbor at Salem Camp Ground. Hamlett, a retired naval officer from Dallas, Texas, married into Salem and has been coming to campmeeting for 40 years.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Since about half of the cabins aren’t air-conditioned, the throngs head to their covered front porches to catch up for hours over the squeak of rocking chairs and swings. At night, when things cool off, the Salemites cram back into those frame structures, where mattresses are smushed together or bunked in bedrooms with flimsy curtains for doors. Last year one cottage, nicknamed “the orphanage,” boasted “19 under 19”—19 children under the age of 19.

In keeping with tradition, a handful of cottages have sawdust floors, which is a plus if you spill something. Just scoop up the shavings and toss them outside.

Salem Camp Meeting
Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

It all makes me nostalgic. But for what? I share those feelings with Bradd Shore, chairman of Emory’s anthropology department. He learned about Salem more than a decade ago. At the time, he was overseeing the MARIAL Center, short for Myth and Ritual in American Life, exploring how families form their identities through their traditions and culture and celebrations.

Shore was so moved by what he experienced there that he ended up making a documentary, which can be found on Salem’s website. “I was struck by the kind of power that this place seemed to have over the people who were there,” he says. “It seemed to have a dual purpose. One was obviously the spiritual renewal. The other purpose has been a family renewal at a time when American families are scattered. It was designed brilliantly so people understood themselves and their families not only at any one time but throughout their lifetimes.”

Shore, who is Jewish but not religious, admits that Salem left him feeling nostalgic, too. “There are two different types of nostalgia,” he says. “Most typically, there’s the sense of wanting to go back to something that you’ve experienced but is no more. The other kind is the desire for something you never really had, the absence of something. Certainly I have had small moments at family gatherings, but never with the intensity of this place.”

Salem Camp Meeting
Sam Ramsey, when he was seven in 1946

Photograph Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, new190-83

Salem Camp Meeting
“Salem is the closest thing to heaven on earth,” says Sam Ramsey

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

It’s Friday evening and time for the final service under the tabernacle with a roof and no floor. The Rogers family is here, as are the Hamletts and the Elliotts and, of course, Sam Ramsey, his wife, Becky, seated at one piano, her sister, Alice, at another. The preacher is talking about how we need to be all in for Jesus. Right now, if Jesus had a Facebook page, he says, we’d “like” it, but that’s not nearly good enough. We need to wear our religion on our sleeves and be vigilant about opportunities to bring people into the fold. He then invites everyone to the front for the closing prayer. Tom Elliott motions for me to come closer. Gathered at the altar, Salem families sing the hymn “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” I don’t know the words, but I start to tear up anyway. What is that about? Maybe it’s the absence of something. Or is it the presence? Who knows? I do know that I’m not all in. But I guess I’m not all out, either.

What I’ve learned driving the Atlanta Ice Cream Truck for 11 years

Atlanta Ice Cream Truck
Photograph by Heidi Geldhauser

The siren song—sounding like a tired jack-in-the-box that refuses to pop out—calls to the boy and his little sister. Clutching dollar bills, they run to its source: the Atlanta Ice Cream Truck. Behind the wheel is Reshelia Cook. For 11 years she’s been driving a truck (a van, really) all over Gwinnett, DeKalb, Fayette, Coweta, and Fulton counties. So she knows what her customers want, and it isn’t basil, lemongrass, or sea salt. The elderly woman wants a cup of plain ice cream. The man in camo can’t get enough of the chocolate-covered ice cream with the vanilla center. The boy always gets the sour blue rasp­berry—except today. Today he’s mixing it up and going for cotton candy.

What she’s learned after 11 years behind the wheel

1. I didn’t think I’d be good at this when I started, but I am. I think that’s because I get to know the kids. I have seen a lot of them grow up and go away to college.

2. If they get a good report card, I give them free ice cream. I love to see them waving that report card for me to stop.

3. The kids know I will tell their momma or their daddy if I see them doing something they shouldn’t be.

4. Different parts of Atlanta respond to different jingles. Areas south of Atlanta like what I call the “Hello” song. Gwinnett County likes “Frère Jacques”; Winder, “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” I used to hear the jingles in my sleep.

5. I’ve been pulled over on the expressway by customers.

6. It took people awhile to understand that, yes, women do drive ice cream trucks.

7. When my kids were little, they used to be embarrassed by what I do. But then they learned that’s what paid for them to go to prom.

8. I am getting married in August. I met my partner when I trained her to drive an ice cream truck. We are having an ice cream truck at our reception. We thought it was fitting.

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

Essay: I’m glad my kids go to Atlanta Public Schools

I admit I was irked three years ago when my son—then in the second grade and still the bluest-eyed, palest-skinned kid you’ll ever meet—announced that he wanted to be called Francisco. Francis, the name we gave him at birth, and Frankie, the nickname he wore so adorably, were both out.

I already had endured hours of my boy futilely trying to gel his curly hair into a fauxhawk and talking like a lame version of Speedy Gonzales, which drove me insane. “Talk like yourself,” I’d say. (What I meant, I guess, was talk like me.) “I am,” he’d insist.

Of course he was. Kids mimic each other, and Frankie was in full-blown parrot mode. Garden Hills Elementary, his public school of some 700 students nestled in a Buckhead neighborhood as white as my son, is more than two-thirds Hispanic, with many of the kids of Mexican descent. And that itself is a considerable dip from when “Francisco” first surfaced and before redistricting bussed around 100 kids living in an apartment complex on Buford Highway to another Buckhead school, Frankie’s best friend among them.

The name change did finally prompt me to ask myself some tough questions: Why was I getting so worked up? So what if my kid wanted to try on being one of his Hispanic classmates for a day, a month, even a year? After a lot of self-reflection, I still don’t know the answers, and maybe I don’t want to just in case I am not as color-blind a person as I think I am. I do know that when I let Frankie be Francisco, I began to see my son’s world and school in a different light—a brighter one, a truer one.

When my kids first started at Garden Hills, I used to see poor immigrant families from cramped apartments across from the Lindbergh MARTA station or off of Cheshire Bridge Road—places I was at first reluctant, and ashamedly so, to let my kids go for sleepovers. Now I see parents who work two, three, sometimes four jobs so their kids can have a better life in this country. I see moms who don’t have cars walking several miles, or spending what little money they do have on taxis, to attend parent-teacher conferences because they believe education is the ticket to that better life.

I used to see those kids without great English skills and wonder if they would hold my kids back. What I now see are children hanging on to a teacher’s or classmate’s every word so they can learn my language—kids like the one in my daughter’s class, who, after only a few weeks in this country, won an award for mustering up the courage and the English to ask permission to go to the bathroom. My kids find those kids downright inspirational.

I used to see school CRCT test scores that paled in comparison with the ones at some of the other public schools on the north side. I now look at different scores, the ones that show how much Garden Hills’ dynamic principal and teachers move the student achievement needle in a year, and we rock those.

I used to look at the big new houses at the end of our street with envy. I now see our yellow three-bedroom ranch through the lens of Frankie’s friends from the apartments—a veritable palace with a huge yard. I still would like a bigger house, but everyone in my family, including my children, has learned to appreciate what we have a little more.

I used to walk into Garden Hills Elementary and see brown and white kids. Now I just see students, Hispanic and otherwise, researching the American Civil War, dividing decimals, memorizing the periodic table, learning lines from Macbeth for the school play, battling mercilessly on the soccer field for bragging rights.

I used to see all the “neighborhood families”—code for the white families who live within walking distance of the school—who would never consider Garden Hills because of the lopsided demographics, and I’d think they knew something that I didn’t. I now see those families and think they are missing out.

A school mom I know likes to say, “Garden Hills is for every child. It is not for every parent.” That first day of school five years ago, I wasn’t sure it was for me. My husband and I held Frankie’s and his twin sister Mary Louise’s hands as we entered the picturesque seventy-five-year-old redbrick and white-columned building. We deposited our kids in their classrooms, among a puddle of white students, a puddle of black, and a sea of brown. My immediate thought was, “What have I done?”

The question wasn’t really driven by the presence of so many Hispanic kids as much as it was by the absence of white kids who swim at the pool, horse around on the soccer field, or, ironically, eat at Jalisco Mexican Restaurant in Peachtree Battle Shopping Center every Friday night. “We all ask ourselves that question that first day,” confessed a mom with two kids now at Sutton Middle School. “Then our kids have this phenomenal experience at Garden Hills, both academically and in terms of exposure to kids of all different types of backgrounds.”

I wish I could say exposure to other cultures, or even my commitment to public school education, were the reasons my twins are at Garden Hills. While I do value those things, the reality is, my family can’t swing the private schools that so many “neighborhood kids” now attend. When my husband bought our house more than twenty years ago, the student population of Garden Hills Elementary was what we considered the epitome of diversity: one-third white, one-third black, one-third “other.” (I’m not quite sure if the “other” would agree.)

The neighborhood has become increasingly wealthy. A lot of the kids on Frankie’s club soccer team go to Atlanta International School, the site of the old North Fulton High School that shares a walkway with Garden Hills. It also costs around $21,000 a year. Not that all the private school parents have that kind of money either, according to what they—or their children—tell me. One of Frankie’s friends told us that his parents scrape by so he can go to a good school, a real school, not a school like Garden Hills. After he jumped out, I looked Frankie in those crystal blue eyes of his and said, “I send you to Garden Hills because I hate you.” He laughed out loud.

I understand why private school parents have a hard time considering any Atlanta public school. The cheating scandal tarnished Garden Hills and every other school that did nothing wrong. To reenroll my kids, I have to sign an affidavit swearing that I live in the school district. The notary from Sandy Springs literally said, “As if you would lie about that.” On the favored north side, the fiasco that played out this fall with the principal at the glistening new North Atlanta High School—he’s out, he’s in, he’s out, he’s in—was nothing short of an Abbott and Costello routine and a colossal embarrassment.

It was during the heated redistricting battle when I learned how little some parents from other public schools on the north side think of Garden Hills. We don’t want your kids, they said at meetings in not-so-veiled language, and we sure as hell aren’t coming to your school. Now that stung.

When my kids are all mushed up with theirs at Sutton next year, I might be in for a rude awakening. But I believe my kids have been challenged academically in every way. Frankie, who declared in kindergarten that school was the creation of adults who hated kids, has had teachers at Garden Hills who motivated him to read books he didn’t want to read, win science fairs he didn’t want to enter, grasp math concepts he didn’t think he was capable of.

Francisco has morphed back into Frankie because, in the end, he is who he is. But at a tender age, he chose to know what it was like to walk in someone else’s shoes. I am a different person, a better person, because of it.

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue under the headline “An education.”

Pat Swindall

You’d think with a name like Swindall, a politician would work to be a paragon of integrity. Not Pat Swindall, a former two-term congressman from DeKalb and onetime up-and-comer in the Republican party during the Reagan era. When he needed an $850,000 loan for his Stone Mountain home, Swindall appeared on a videotape in which a federal agent posed as a money launderer for the underworld. Swindall was convicted in 1989 of lying to a grand jury. He futilely proclaimed his innocence all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and served a year in prison for six counts of perjury. Swindall, under indictment, lost his seat to the actor who played Crazy Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Tapes Redux In 2009 a Fulton County grand jury indicted Swindall, who manages property Downtown, for making false statements to conceal allegedly illegal campaign contributions to an Atlanta city councilwoman. The case is pending.

Photograph courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue

George H. Greene

A 1999 meal at the Red Lobster on Old National Highway has to go down as one of the costliest Lobsterfests ever. With a security camera watching, Atlanta businessman Greene passed a newspaper stuffed with cash to Fulton County Commissioner Michael Hightower. Nine months later, Greene pleaded guilty to bribing the Democratic commissioner to steer contracts to his communications company. Hightower then pleaded guilty to taking $25,000 from Greene. A minority subcontractor, Greene offered equal-opportunity payoffs: The chief of staff for former commission chairman Mitch Skandalakis, a Republican, pleaded guilty to taking money from Greene. Skandalakis himself, who took payments from Greene’s business for work he characterized as a retainer, was convicted of lying to a federal agent. All of the men did prison time.

Rap Sheet and Rappers In 2003, before going to “the big house,” Greene sold his 10,000-square-foot College Park home for $2.8 million to Christopher B. Bridges, aka Ludacris.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue

Steve Kaplan

In 2001 the racketeering trial of Gold Club owner Kaplan gave Atlanta—a place where strip clubs and churches battle for prominence—a peek into the city’s premier cathedral of the flesh. Imagine a modern retelling of Caligula, only instead of victorious gladiators, we have overpaid and overindulged athletes such as Andruw Jones and Patrick Ewing, whose names both emerged during testimony from a parade of witnesses that looked like a casting call for a Charlie Sheen reality show. Testimony got so hot that a bailiff suggested adjusting the air in the courtroom. The three-month trial also revealed the club’s revenue-enhancement practices, which included padding bills with $375 bottles of bubbly. A mobster who’d admitted that he once sliced off a man’s ear testified that he saw Kaplan slip envelopes of cash to onetime Gambino crime family boss John A. “Junior” Gotti. Kaplan pleaded guilty to racketeering and served sixteen months in prison. He currently operates stores, including several newsstands, in New York’s Penn Station.

No Act Two The Buckhead club reopened briefly as a church, natch. In December 2009, the Gold Room nightclub opened in the space, but without strippers.

The Old Lady of Ossabaw

In the evenings, when she closes her eyes, Eleanor Torrey West pulls on her riding boots and descends the back stairs of her pink stucco mansion on Ossabaw, an all but deserted barrier island twenty miles south of Savannah that only the luckiest people in the world get to see. Sandy, as she’s called, is more than lucky—she inherited the heart-shaped mass of thick forest and wistful marshland from her richer-than-Croesus parents. As she sees it, that makes her blessed by the gods.

In her remembered twilight, Maria, Sandy’s brown and white pinto, is still waiting. So is her estate manager, Roger Parker, a rugged fellow in his signature black Stetson. The riders leave behind guests—some of the nation’s most prominent artists, musicians, and writers—as well as a staff of eighteen.

It is dark out, but the sky is popping with stars. Sandy and Roger know Ossabaw’s 26,000 acres blindfolded. They take off down the main road, Spanish moss dangling from the twisty live oaks that line their way. They pass the oyster-shell-and-lime slave cabins built when plantations of rice and indigo and cotton dissected the land. Three miles away at Middle Place, a plantation turned artists’ colony that grows its own food and draws its water from an artesian well, aspiring painters and poets sleep in tree houses built from lumber they’ve harvested themselves. Their craftsmanship can’t match that of the one-room wood hideaway that Roger constructed between an oak and a magnolia, a place where Sandy, a social recluse of sorts, reads and writes and thinks.

Tonight, Sandy and Roger hunt down poachers looking to make bacon from the feral hogs. They cross paths with alligators, rattlesnakes, and armadillos. Blue herons, bald eagles, and white wood storks with black-tipped wings that resemble fancy dinner gloves soar overhead. The riders take special delight in the snowlike egret rookery before salt air from the Atlantic smacks their faces. Stretched before them is a seemingly endless coastline of white sand and dunes, untouched by man. Loggerhead sea turtles have dibs here.

At the end of the journey, Sandy’s soft blue eyes open. She looks around her room—at the stacks of books piled up around her bed, at her dog sleeping nearby. The poets and painters who attended her artists’ colonies and filled the evenings with talk and laughter are all gone. The pinto died long ago. Sandy herself is now ninety-eight.

As for the island, Sandy no longer owns it. She sold it—no, gifted it, really—to the state of Georgia three decades ago after exhausting her fortune on the Ralph Ellisons, Aaron Coplands, Annie Dillards, and hundreds of other artists whose words or brushes or notes her island inspired. But Sandy has no regrets. The way she sees it, no one has lived a richer life. Although she could have gotten millions more for her island from Jackie Kennedy Onassis or Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser or others who came calling over the years, she did exact a steep price from the people of Georgia. She gets to stay in the pink house as long as she wants. But the real coup: Ossabaw must remain off-limits to developers, and the masses, for the most part, remain stranded on the mainland. Even after she dies, Ossabaw will continue on as one of the last unspoiled places in Georgia and on the planet. “I fought. And I won,” she says. “Unbelievable. An old crock like me.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Sandy West on this trip to Ossabaw. My one and only visit here was eleven years ago, when I was working on a story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how the state was neglecting its stewardship of the place. Sandy, a mere eighty-seven then, watched over the island as if she still owned it and was only too happy to tattle on her landlord. “I am not going to be pushed around,” she told me. “I am not going to let them destroy it.”

In 1978, Sandy and her late brother’s heirs, who also wanted Ossabaw preserved, sold the island to the state for $8 million—half its appraised value at the time. Ten miles long and seven miles wide, Ossabaw is Georgia’s third-largest barrier island, sandwiched between Wassaw to the north and St. Catherines to the south.

Ossabaw takes the punch of the storms headed for Savannah. Two-thirds of the island is marsh, while farther inland, 9,000 acres of forest are an arborist’s delight—stands of live oak, loblolly pine, magnolia, and wax myrtle battle for prominence with thick, green saw palmetto.

But most stunning to first-time visitors is the beach—thirteen miles of sand and waves that have been washing away human footprints for 4,000 years. Hundreds of loggerhead sea turtles crawl ashore here each spring and summer to nest, making the beach a crucial habitat for the endangered animals. Indeed, Ossabaw is one of those rare places that have gone back to the wild. Although Sandy lives on the island with only a handful of people, in antebellum days the place bustled with slaves working four different plantations. After the Civil War, the island fell into the hands of various owners who mostly used it for hunting.

When I first visited in late 1999, the few historical buildings left on the island—including a cluster of slave cabins—were crumbling, so much so that the National Trust for Historic Preservation had put the island on its list of endangered places. A spill of the fuel barged in to power the island could have wiped out the wood storks and sea turtles. Under the terms of the sale, the state can use the island for educational and research programs, but there wasn’t much of either going on. Instead, the state seemed more intent on returning Ossabaw to its glory as a hunter’s paradise, viewing hunting as a tangible way to get people to the island.

Officials also argued that hunting was necessary to keep the deer and wild hog populations in check, but they couldn’t defend the turkey and duck hunts; turkeys were scarce on the island, and ducks, which are migratory, didn’t stick around long enough to upset the ecosystem. As Sandy was quick to point out, hunting purely for recreational purposes—actually, anything (except fishing) done purely for recreational purposes—is not allowed on Ossabaw under the sales agreement.

Sandy stands about five feet tall. At our first meeting, she was as self-conscious about her aging neck and speckled arms as any woman half her age would be. But the wicked laugh and sense of humor that she inherited from her mother made her irresistible. When I met her, she was wearing an oversized T-shirt with a bikini silk-screened on the front.

Sandy was at her most irresistible when she started talking. Her gravelly voice drew out and punched almost every other word for effect. When it came to talking about the hunts or the state’s stewardship of Ossabaw, almost every other word was a variation of the f-word. Sandy knew precisely the shock value of profanity when it comes from an old woman, and she employed it liberally.

Over the years, Sandy’s feuds with the state have generally centered on two issues, both steeped in ironies she doesn’t acknowledge. One issue is hunting. In the pink house’s two-story great room, with its rich paneling and exposed wooden beams, mounted heads of a rhinoceros, a lion, and other imposing glass-eyed creatures hang from the plaster. They were trophies bagged by Sandy’s father on his African safaris. But on Ossabaw, Sandy’s love of the indigenous animals has made her virulently antihunting. Indeed, one of the island’s most famous inhabitants was a 200-pound boar that lumbered in and out of the house as it pleased. Some of the hogs, believed to be descendants of swine brought to the island by Spanish boats in the sixteenth century, were shipped to the mainland decades ago. Today, chefs covet pork carrying an Ossabaw lineage.

Sandy has tacked up her own trophy near the massive stone fireplace: a child’s stuffed animal that resembles Bullwinkle. “If you have to have a head on the wall, there’s my answer,” she says.

Sandy also has had persistent run-ins with the state about its efforts to open the island to more people. Her position, plain and simple: Ossabaw is the way it is supposed to be. Human beings cannot leave well enough alone. The irony here is that Sandy has spent years trying to restrict the very access that her family’s wealth made possible for her. “I love this island so much that I would do anything to save it,” she says. “I have no faith in the public.”

Sandy’s maternal great-grandfather, John Baptiste Ford, founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in 1883. One of its products—a twelve-by-fourteen-foot picture window in Sandy’s great room, which overlooks Ossabaw Sound—was one of the largest of its kind when her parents built the Spanish Colonial Revival house back in 1924.

Sandy laments that her father’s brilliance often gets lost in the family narrative. Henry Torrey was a gifted surgeon—he could operate with either hand—but moved away from surgery after the trauma of World War I.

Sandy grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a wealthy suburb of Detroit. In photos, her childhood home resembles the White House. Her family spent the winters at their forty-room house in Savannah. After the Georgia home burned down in 1923, Sandy’s parents bought Ossabaw from a shipping company that had used the land as a hunting preserve. They paid $150,000 and built the 20,000-square-foot pink stucco mansion.

At the time, Georgia’s barrier islands were playgrounds for America’s industrial barons. The Carnegie family owned 4,000 acres of Cumberland to the south, and Howard Coffin, who’d started the Hudson Motor Company, owned Sapelo. Coffin was good friends with Sandy’s parents. “He said, ‘I want to build you a car,’” Sandy recalls. “I was just a teenager, but I told him I wanted a roadster with a pointed back. And I wanted it to be half yellow and half red. Can you imagine anything more hideous? But he built it. I drove it all around Grosse Pointe for years. It was that kind of a life.”

When Sandy and her family traveled to Ossabaw, they brought along their cook, waitress, butler, maids, housekeeper, and chauffeur. But the island transformed Sandy and her older brother, Bill. They went from pampered children to young adults who could fend for themselves.

“It changed our lives. I could change a tire, I could ride a horse, I could run a boat,” Sandy says. “I can’t tell you what confidence that gave me.” Sandy and her brother each had a tutor on Ossabaw. “Mother and Dad would be downstairs having breakfast, and we’d say we have to go to the schoolroom on the second floor. We’d go up one flight of stairs and down the other, and they never knew. The tutors were just as bad as we were. We knew so much more than the kids who were sitting in school.”

Private boat is the only way to get to Ossabaw. There is no ferry, no causeway. When I went in early December, the water was calm and the ride from Savannah took just twenty minutes. The road from the dock is flanked by cabbage palms and passes through breathtaking canopies of live oak.

Sandy’s house was showing signs of neglect. There were few traces of her mother’s gardens, designed in part by the pioneering landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman. Some of the windows were broken. And everything, it seemed, could use a fresh coat of paint.

But the front door, rimmed in stunning bright yellow tile featuring deep purple grapes and bright green leaves, was still inviting. The fifteen-bedroom house looked much as it did a decade earlier—actually, much as it did when Sandy’s parents built it. The same drapes. The same Jacobean chairs. The same LuluBelle. I had forgotten all about the life-sized mannequin that Sandy’s father hid around the mansion to scare the bejesus out of guests. Featured in photographs with presidents and governors alike, LuluBelle scared me when she was merely sitting in plain sight.

I made my way up the back stairs and down a long hallway of photos and tributes that spoke to Sandy’s remarkable years and range. The 1972 diploma from Witch Gundella certifying Sandy as a witch’s apprentice. The award Sandy received from the Garden Club of America recognizing her work in environmental protection. Photos of past Georgia governors—George Busbee, Jimmy Carter, Roy Barnes. Sandwiched between the pictures of art historian H.W. Janson and linguist Roman Jakobson was one of Sandy with a very tattooed Gregg Allman (yes, the rocker), who lives in nearby Richmond Hill and comes calling from time to time.

I knocked on Sandy’s bedroom door. A maniacal reader, Sandy was in bed with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I pulled up a rocking chair. “These shitty politicians are ruining this country,” she announced. I told her I had prepared myself to find a different Sandy at ninety-eight. She let out that beautiful wicked laugh.

Not far from the pink house is a modest, single-story, white frame one built by Sandy’s late brother, Bill, who took over management of the island at one point and used it to raise cattle. Today, Roger Parker, the pensive island cowboy who has worked for Sandy or some member of her family for sixty years, bunks there. Sandy and Roger have fought and made up so many times that they have stopped counting. “I love Mrs. West to death, but if I’ve told her once, I’ve probably told her fifty times—there ain’t going to be no man who can stand to live with her, because she’s got to run the show,” Roger said. He recently turned seventy-five but is still fit and trim.

The state’s island manager and his wife live close by, while Jim Bitler—who works for the Ossabaw Island Foundation, a nonprofit that runs the educational programs and oversees the buildings—lives in a trailer not far from the boat dock. Every spring, Bitler accompanies Sandy to Hell Hole Road to look at the dogwood blooming. “I told her that I didn’t know what I would do when she was gone,” Bitler said. Her answer to him: “If you don’t see me behind every bush or tree, I have not done something right.”

Sandy’s Savannah friends tag-team visits so she won’t be left alone. But mostly Sandy keeps to herself. She has been doing a lot of listening, she told me. Not to the radio or TV—she does not own either. “Archimedes said, ‘If I could only sit on the edge of the universe and forget everything that I ever knew, I might have an idea that could save us.’ That is sort of what I have been doing,” she explained. Not too long ago, she would have contemplated such things across the island in the hideaway that Roger built. Today, her bedroom is the edge of her universe.

The room is stocked to conserve steps. There is a refrigerator, a microwave, and a table full of crackers to fling out of the window to the resident goose, Christmas; Sandy’s aging horses, Poco and Phoenix; and a boar named Paul Mitchell, born in need of a good coif. Sandy shares her inside world with her well-fed beagle, Toby.

Sometimes anxious thoughts invade the listening, especially in the mornings. Sandy worries about her four children—products of two marriages that ended in divorce. There are thoughts about what would happen if she ran out of money. I asked where she wanted to die. “It doesn’t matter where I die. I’d just as soon croak at Belk’s,” she snapped. “But I do want to live the end of my days here.”

She insisted she is not lonely. “I was tremendously social when I was fairly good-looking,” she told me. “I always had lots of boyfriends, and two husbands, but I always liked being by myself. I have my books.” Some of the books lying about were written by the people who came to Sandy’s artists’ colonies. One of her favorite authors? Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man. “He was so gentle,” she said. “I just adored him.”

In the great room downstairs is a luscious oil painting of a fair-haired child version of Sandy leaning against her striking mother, who is dressed in a flowing green dress and pearls. It is a reminder of the money that brought the Torreys to Ossabaw. On the desk, not far from the Bullwinkle head, sits a chocolate-brown leather register embossed in gold with the words Ossabaw Island Project, the artist colony that Sandy ran in the sixties, seventies, and eighties and the answer to the frequently asked question: Where did all the money go?

In the front of the register is an old contract spelling out the mission of the program, dreamed up by Sandy’s second husband, a painter. “The Ossabaw Island Project wishes to offer the Island and its facilities to men and women of creative thought and purpose as a place . . . to interpret their ideas and to gain understanding in ordinarily distant fields,” the contract reads. Living quarters, workspace, meals, etc., would be provided “for a nominal sum of twenty-five dollars a week”—a fee that Sandy says didn’t cover the lemon in their tea.

Sandy and her husband wanted their program on Ossabaw to be on a scale with MacDowell in New Hampshire and Yaddo in New York, artists’ colonies started by wealthy patrons in the 1900s that continue to exist today.

“I fell heir to this island,” she explained to me. “All I wanted to do is give people a place that had no demands on them and where they would be with other interesting people in different fields. I didn’t care what they did here. I cared what the island did to them.”

Ellison and Aaron Copland sat on the project’s advisory board. Composer Samuel Barber, novelist Margaret Atwood, and sculptor Harry Bertoia were among those who attended the project. Olive Ann Burns read the first pages of Cold Sassy Tree in the great room, where the group gathered every night after a dinner at the walnut table in the elegant, blue-tiled dining room.

Sandy used her own money to pay the cooks, butlers, boat captain, and other staff. She took offense when I asked if she spoiled the artists. “You couldn’t spoil people like that. Spoiling is for people who don’t know anything.”

The Ossabaw Island Project fellows stayed in the pink house. But the accommodations for the fellows of Genesis Project—an off-the-grid artists’ colony for students that Sandy had at the Middle Place plantation site—were rustic. There was no running water or electricity.

Most who participated in the programs—writers, linguists, photographers, pygmy experts, conservationists, even a taxi driver—weren’t well known and were never going to be. That was part of the plan. Not part of the plan was for Sandy to sap her own fortune to keep the programs going.

Dr. Mark Finlay, a history professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, is researching a book on the history of Georgia’s coastal islands. He’s been going through the dozens of boxes that Sandy donated to the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah. His research indicates that Sandy spent about $100,000 a year to keep the programs running, totaling about $2 million over the years. Sandy herself wouldn’t discuss money with me, however, saying simply, “I never realized how fast the money would go. Maybe it was asinine.”

Painter Craig Rubadoux doesn’t think so. All of the fellows took a piece of Ossabaw with them, says Rubadoux, who spent time on the island not long before the programs ceased. “It was just amazing to be in an environment like that. You don’t forget experiences like that—they are engraved into your psyche,” says Rubadoux, now seventy-four, from his Florida home.

Sandy’s youngest child, Justin, an electronic media professor at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, doesn’t begrudge his mother’s decision to spend her money—and his inheritance—on all of those artists. “Was it a good investment? I’d probably say no,” he told me. “On the other hand, was the money worth a Cold Sassy Tree or a piece of music? Could it have all been done smarter? Probably. Could it have been done better? I don’t think so.”

When the money ran out the first time, Sandy began hunting for a sympathetic buyer who would allow the island to continue on as it had. The state of Georgia was an unlikely choice, says Joe Tanner, a lobbyist at the Gold Dome. Tanner served as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for four governors.

In the hallway outside of Sandy’s bedroom is a picture of a much younger Tanner sitting on a tree swing on Ossabaw. He and Sandy are now close friends, but their relationship got off to a rough start when Tanner began inquiring about buying her island for the people of Georgia. Unlike the tycoons and developers and foundations, Tanner understood something about Sandy: She had no interest in selling.

“What I realized with Sandy was that Ossabaw was like her only child, and here comes the big, bad state of Georgia and it wants to buy her child from her. Think about the mentality of selling your own child. Period. Much less to someone you are very suspicious of,” he told me. Sandy was convinced that the state would turn Ossabaw into another Jekyll with oceanfront hotels and miniature golf. Tanner finally gave up trying to convince her otherwise. Why? The state lacked the money to buy Ossabaw, even at a bargain price.

But one day in 1977, Tanner was summoned to the office of George Busbee, Georgia’s governor at the time and a lover of the coast. Busbee explained that Robert Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate turned philanthropist, wanted to help the state purchase Ossabaw. Woodruff would end up writing two personal checks of $2 million each, and the state matched his donations. It was enough. In 1978, Busbee signed an executive order dedicating Ossabaw as the state’s first heritage preserve to be used for “natural, scientific and cultural study, research, and education.”

Public recreation—which Sandy calls the “kiss of death”—would have scuttled the deal. As it stood, Sandy and her brother’s heirs likely could have held out for a lot more money, given the island’s proximity to Savannah. Imagine the place today if a developer had taken over.

“Ossabaw got preserved because, quite candidly, Sandy West was very hard-headed—bull-headed—and just wouldn’t waiver to the very end,” Tanner said. “If you want to go lay on the beach in your bikini and drink beer, go to Tybee. If you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, you can go to Sea Island. Ossabaw is different.”

Under the terms of the sale, Sandy retains a life estate that includes the main house and twenty-six acres surrounding it. Tanner chuckled at the notion of the actuaries who grossly underestimated her lifespan. “I told someone, ‘I bet she lives to be eighty or ninety.’ I had no idea that she would live to be ninety-eight years old and still functioning. I am glad she is,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, she can stay there as long as she wants to. And we have to be respectful of that. I certainly am. I am more than respectful of it. I love her.” He choked up.

Over the years, Tanner has thought often of that image of Sandy selling her only child. “She had to sell. She had spent her last dime trying to save that island,” he said. At the closing at an Atlanta law firm, Tanner remembers Sandy taking the check for her cut and throwing it on the floor in disgust.

Five years after the sale, Sandy, who had continued with her artists’ programs, was out of money again. Today, even the desk that the brown leather register sits on doesn’t belong to her. She sold all of her furnishings to the Ossabaw Island Foundation so she could remain on Ossabaw. Even so, she seemed more upbeat, less worked up than when I was last here—as long as you don’t bring up the hogs. The state has cut the population by 60 percent through trapping and public hunts, a measure it says is necessary to protect the endangered loggerhead sea turtles’ nests.

But the number of annual hunts has dropped to a half dozen. The turkey and duck hunts have ended. Power now flows to Ossabaw through a line from the mainland. The Ossabaw Island Foundation has raised more than $4 million in the past decade. Two of the three cabins are being restored through grants and private donations—including money from actress Sandra Bullock, who owns a house on Tybee and has visited Ossabaw. A beautiful restoration of a century-old boarding house where island staff once lived is now complete and available for writers and think tanks. Sandy’s house now has a $300,000 new roof—the old one leaked so badly that the plaster ceilings crashed down around her. The foundation wants to do more to restore and spruce up the house. But Sandy vacillates between wanting workers to patch the walls and wanting to slam the door in their faces. Right now, the welcome mat is up.

Fewer than 1,000 people visited Ossabaw last year through the foundation’s programs, which include day trips and primitive camping. Most were students. That’s a far cry from the almost 40,000 who go to Cumberland every year. The foundation is currently brainstorming what to do with the pink house when Sandy dies. It may be an artists’ retreat yet again.

“So which you is on horseback—the young you or the ancient you?” I asked after Sandy recounted the dream where she travels the island with Roger. “As I am today, of course, lovey,” she told me. “You know I believe in natural systems. This is nature’s thing—you do not look back. I have just decided that I would sit back and be this age. It is very interesting, because most nobody else is.”

I worked up the nerve to ask if she was afraid to die, an altogether different question from where she wished to die.

“Oh, heavens no,” she said. “Again, thinking about the pattern of nature and everything. It doesn’t look like it would be terrible. Why? Are you?”

My husband, two children, and I had spent the last two days on Ossabaw. Walking on the beach, watching the kids run barefoot down the unspoiled coastline, collecting sand dollars by the fistful and hanging from driftwood branches, I’d felt closer to a higher power than I ever had before. At that moment, dying there didn’t seem like it would be terrible at all.

Sandy understood right away. “I do know there is a higher power, because I see it here every day,” she told me. “It just isn’t Christian or anything like that.” She had imagined that when her time came, she’d shove off in a boat from that very beach with a bottle of something stiff. Her kids have talked her out of it, she said, given what a pain it would be for them if she loses her nerve out there.

We said our goodbyes. I didn’t know when I’d be back. If it’s another eleven years, chances are that things at the pink house will be very different. But Ossabaw won’t be.

When night falls, Sandy West will jump on her horse and explore an island that looks much the same as it did almost a century ago when she came here—and as it will a century from whenever she leaves.

This article originally appeared in our March 2011 issue.

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