A true kindred spirit, Frank McGougan Nesmith, of Sunset Beach, N.C., departed this earth for a paradise in the heavens on the morning of July 16, 2020. At his home looking out to tidal marshes while surrounded by loved ones, Frank peacefully passed away just as a Great Blue Heron standing guard in shallow waters took flight.
Frank was born a little west of his beloved Sunset Beach in the once-thriving tobacco farm town of Tabor City, North Carolina, on October 19, 1926. It wasn’t in a hospital, but in a little green house on the west side of town where his serious father, Benjamin Lemuel Nesmith Jr and his dear sweet mother, Martha McGougan Nesmith first set up housekeeping. Frank and his only brother, Ben III spent their earliest formative years in a classic Sears & Roebuck bungalow on Hickman Road. It was next door to the gracious home of his maternal grandparents, D. F. and Dula Allsbrook McGougan, and a slew of aunts and uncles, with Esther and Frank McGougan, always more like siblings than elder relatives.
In the 1930s, Ben and Martha purchased a pig farm just across the railroad tracks and cleared the land to lay out a road, build a house, and plant a garden. It’s where their two boys grew into men. Frank graduated from Tabor City High School in 1943 and matriculated at The Citadel in Charleston later that summer.
Within months of turning 18, Frank was drafted and reported to the US Army on January 6, 1945. With Karma on his side, Frank was stationed at Fort Stockton, California on August 6, 1945, awaiting transport when the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He landed at Aomori, Japan mere weeks after the end of The War and served during the Occupation. In the aftermath of the destruction, Frank found moments of happiness at a Geisha House in the shadow of Mount Fiji. He later purchased two diamonds at a shop in the lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, one stone intended for his mother and the second for a future bride. Upon his discharge, Frank returned to The Citadel and graduated in March of 1949.
Always good with numbers and math, Frank started his professional career with Waccamaw Bank & Trust Company, first in Tabor City and then in Fairmont in 1949. In the following spring, when thoughts turn to love, he met Carolyn Floyd, who would later become his wife and the mother of his three children. Their first date was to South of the Border, just across the state line. Frank showed up wearing “white bucks,” the most fashionable shoe of the day. When Frank ordered a ham and cheese on rye and a Miller High Life, Carolyn immediately decided he was different from the boys she had known in high school in Fairmont.
Frank and Carolyn married on St. Patrick’s Day in 1951. Their honeymoon was a trip west to Denver where Frank had been recalled to serve in the US Army Reserves. After his release from the Reserves, Frank returned to work at Waccamaw Bank, first back in Fairmont and then in Whiteville where their son, Frank McGougan Nesmith Jr. “Mac,” was born.
With support from his father, who maintained working for yourself was better than being a company man, Frank and his brother Ben established Nesmith Insurance Agency in Tabor City in 1954. A year later, Frank built his home abode at 7 Nesmith Street. That shady, tree-lined street would serve as home for more than two decades. His two daughters, Eleanor Lynn Nesmith and Robin Nesmith (Murray), came of age there.
Frank was active, involved and an influence. He was a member of St. Paul United Methodist Church, and he sometimes preached when the pastor was away. (I don’t remember the sermons, but I’ve got to believe the message was far from fire and brimstone.) Frank was always ready to load up the car with neighborhood children and cousins for what was sure to be an unforgettable adventure. On an excursion to Fort Sumter when John Hughes dropped his ticket, rather than pay for another, Frank found the boat captain and pulled him over to look down into the Ashley River to see the ticket floating by.
When Frank rounded up a group of kids to walk the railroad tracks to Emerson, he could have been Daniel Boone leading pioneers across the Appalachian Mountains. He’d probably be arrested for child endangerment today since he didn’t bother to pack a single bottle of water and some of the boys might have been barefoot. Frank was active in the Boy Scouts, serving as Tabor’s Scoutmaster. (There were no Brownies in town, so I got to tag along and do the cool boy stuff and learn about the birds, snakes, insects and the stars. I never earned a merit badge, but it was still a lot better than selling cookies.)
For better or worse, in the spring of 1975, Frank moved to a cottage he and his brother and father had built along the Intracoastal Waterway in Sunset Beach. His life changed dramatically after his decision to divorce and to live along the water in the modest, late-1950s retreat called “Jinks Landing.”
It’s impossible to capture in words how much Frank loved his new life where the ebb and flow of the tides and the rising and setting of the sun now shaped his daily routines, as well as a new-found philosophy.
Although the beach house was no longer the best-unchaperoned getaway where countless Tabor City boys and girls made unforgettable high school memories, Frank quickly made his new home a congenial sanctuary for family and friends and fun for kids of all ages. That spirit of hospitality extended to his final days when he was always happy to see a kindred spirit come up the steps to say hello.
Some might refer to 1960s as the summers of love. Yes, there was Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock. But for Frank, the summer of 1975 was like nothing he had experienced before. Living at Sunset Beach inspired a new-found appreciation of art and poetry, which is reflected in his journal of poems and paintings of coastal landscapes he created over those warm halcyon days by the sea.
On August 5, 1975, Frank penned this poem.
A Pleasant Day
Another day, another bright star in the Milky Way of my Life.
This day should be framed and hug on my wall.
Oh, Lord, please give me the memory to relive this day.
When all is not ecstasy, I could replay this tape.
No dear Lord, do not allow me to live in the past.
Bring me new days, new experiences.
Every day was a new adventure where spirits soared and laughter filled the air, like the weekend when Frank and Amanda Bible hosted a committee meeting of North Carolina librarians at Sunset Beach. Who knew those professional young women would put down their books before sundown and be skinny dipping in the Atlantic as the moon rose that warm summer night.
Later that year, a chance meeting between Frank and Claudia Sailor, an artist selling her paintings in a booth on the island, changed both of their lives. Their collaboration would also greatly influence the lives of so many others. Together they came up with the notion of the Kindred Spirit. They mounted a simple metal mailbox on a weathered driftwood post and placed inside an empty notebook with an inscription inviting anyone who discovered the journal to read the existing messages and compose their own. A spit of land in Tubbs Inlet, accessible only by boat and christened Isle de Claudia, was the original setting of the Kindred Spirit Mailbox. Tubbs Inlet has always been defined by fickle currents and shifting sands and it wasn’t long before the island was disappearing, and the Mailbox was moved to Bird Island in the late 1970s.
Back then, Sunset Beach was a different world. In the winter it could be a desolate, albeit beautiful place. Only a few brave souls lived full time on the island. It might have been a cold day when Frank met Bill Hunt on the beach, but the sun always shined brightly on that pair of new BFFs. They were definitely two of a kind, and when you added Minnie and Claudia into the mix, it was quartet without equal in terms of fun, mischief, joy, pleasure, capers, and good deeds. How many folks got a ferry ride across the waterway in Frank’s Boston Whaler when the bridge broke down? Who was rescued at sea? Who got a tow off a sandbar in the marsh when the tide started going out?
Placing the Kindred Spirit Mailbox on Bird Island was a lark. No one could have possibly predicted what a positive impact it would have on the future of Sunset Beach. In the early 1990s when plans for developing Bird Island into a private resort were moving ahead, Frank started leading nature tours along the pristine stretch of beach. He always said, “If you could get them to go walking out there to Bird Island, they would fall in love with it.” The Kindred Spirit Mailbox was the destination and the magic of that place convinced a lot of locals and tourists that the island should be preserved. A frivolous lawsuit charging that Frank’s beach walks were trespassing brought national media attention, including an article in the New York Times on January 2, 1995.)
Bill Ducker, Minnie Hunt, Sue Weddle, Nancy Hughes Miller and countless other kindred spirits were instrumental in the formation of the Bird Island Preservation Society. Thanks to their effort, in 2002 the state of North Carolina purchased 1,200 acres and created the Bird Island Preserve. In 2019, an additional 35 acres were added to the original tract.
Frank’s calling to save Bird Island was motivated by his love of the natural coastal landscape of undulating dunes, sea oats, and maritime forest. The turtles and pelicans needed a sanctuary. Frank also understood that all the people (especially mainlanders like himself) should be able enjoy the strand, sunshine, and healing waters of the Atlantic.
Decades earlier in 1958, when Frank’s father purchased property along the Intracoastal Waterway from Mannon C. Gore an old-fashioned “Gentlemen’s’ Agreement” still held weight. Old Man Gore, as he was called by nearly everyone, shook Ben Nesmith’s hand and promised that the causeway road would extend to the Atlantic Ocean with a 100-foot dedicated public right of way. Property owners within Mr. Gore’s Twin Lakes Development on the mainland would always have free and easy beach access.
In 1977, Mannon’s son, Ed Gore, chose to disregard his deceased father’s promise and he put up a barricade to block the public from traversing the land, which came to be known as Lot 1A.
About a year after Ed erected his split-rail and barbed-wire fence, Frank parked his car and sat on the hood, openly defying the purported owner. Before the sun went down, Frank’s tires had been slashed, his nose punched, and his shirt bloodied. And he had been arrested for trespassing. It took twelve years, but in September 1990, Frank was vindicated by the NC Supreme Court. That ruling came after a five-year legal battle brought by Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association and co-defendants Albert Wells, Charles Smith, and Whaley Hunt.
The land where Frank had trespassed was rightfully returned to the public. Lot 1A is now home to the Gazebo, public parking, and a gateway for visitors to the beach.
Frank loved his Sunset Beach, but he also loved to roam. He traveled to all the lower “Forty-Eight” states in his rickety RV with his beloved white lab, Spartina, as his co-pilot. He even changed the seat out for an elevated plywood pedestal so Spartina could take in the view.
After he drove in his RV back to North Carolina for the last time, he thought his traveling days were over. But there were other journeys to come. In the summer of 1996, Frank met another great love, while leading a Bird Island Nature Tour, no less. After numerous walks that summer to the Mailbox with Cornelia Young Branch, Frank suggested they head west to hike the Grand Canyon together.
Without training and with little preparation, a youthful sixty-nine and a seventy-year-old embarked on the trip of a lifetime. They went down the South Kaibab Trail and spent the night in Phantom Ranch. Early the next morning, they set out to ascend the Bright Angel Trail. About halfway up the Canyon, Frank turned to Cornelia and said, “I can’t believe you agreed to come with me on this crazy adventure. If we make it out alive I want to marry you.” Once they got back to Phoenix, Daddy said to Cornelia that “Wal-Mart sells everything you could possibly need. I bet they have diamond rings.” Cornelia and Frank married in the spring of 1997. They shared many walks to the Mailbox and spent happy years in Sunset Beach. Cornelia passed away in 2018.
Frank shared his love of Sunset Beach to his family. He took great joy when Robin and her husband Dave Murray purchased the cottage next door and set out to build their forever home. Frank was very proud of his two grandchildren, Daniel Phillip Murray and Carolyn Elizabeth Murray, and cherished the fact that they loved to travel the world but still found time to come back to Sunset Beach.
Numerous nieces, nephews and cousins of all ages dearly loved their “Uncle Frank.” When his Tabor City pal, Phil Hughes married Christine, the twin sister of his wife, Carolyn, their two families become like one, often vacationing together at Sunset Beach. After the Hughes cousins lost their parents, “Uncle Frank” became the beloved patriarch to Philip Hughes and his wife Donna Van Engen; Lawrence Hughes and his wife Lynne; Nancy Hughes Miller and her husband Bryan; Carolyn Hughes Maxton and her husband Dan. With Frank sitting at the head of the Thanksgiving table, shucking oysters at the annual roast, or talking of the tides and stars during happy hour on his porch, coming to Sunset Beach was like coming home.
Even into his nineties, Frank was riding his trike to Bird Island and still the life of the party. During his last trip to the Mailbox on his 92st birthday, Frank eloquently retold the story of the Kindred Spirit. In the spring of 2019, Frank held court at the Market in the Park with scores of adoring fans lined up to buy signed prints and to take selfies with the original Kindred Spirit.
Once Frank couldn’t get out as often, nothing made him happier than visits from his good friend Annie, who came bringing notebooks to read aloud the best passages. And Katie Hovermale who made sure the journals made it to the Kindred Spirit Archives at UNC-Wilmington.
Frank’s last months were made comfortable thanks to Becky, Shannon, Courtney, Audrey, Wendy, Kim, Debbie, and Gary with Amedysis Hospice. He spent his last days and nights with loving caregivers, including three blondes, Karin, Pam and Rochelle, and Tina, the redhead. The girls always went the extra mile to make sure Frank was happy, whether pulling the wicker chair for a better view to the marsh, repositioning him in Big Red, or driving the 33 miles to Tabor City. No matter the weather or time of day, the girls were always game to help Frank get back to his beloved birthplace to sit on the porch of his grandparents restored home or eat a hamburger from Fowler’s Grill. What more could Frank have asked for? Ron to join in. He turned out to be a fast friend and someone Frank could complain to “man-to-man” about how much the girls talked.
In honor of Frank’s memory, please show an act of kindness to a loved one or a stranger, walk to the Mailbox and leave a message, pick up a seashell or a piece of trash, plant a tree, go for a swim, or make a donation to your favorite environmental charity. A “Celebration of a Life Well Lived” is planned for Saturday, October 17 at the Kindred Spirit Mailbox on Bird Island.
Posted in: sunsetnc.com
Posted on: 2021-05-13
Link to original obituary: https://sunsetnc.com/remembering-sunset-beach-pioneer-frank-nesmith/