Warner Plahs is gone now.
He slipped the grip of old man’s dementia for a beautiful place beyond on Oct. 1.
But first he made his home in South Carolina a more beautiful place.
With hand tools, he fashioned “creatures” in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve on Hilton Head Island. Today, they are remembered almost like a dream: Did I really see that? Was it real?
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For 15 years, this quiet, thin, unassuming retiree from Toledo, Ohio, was caretaker of the 605-acre preserve that was the crown jewel of the Fraser family as they developed Sea Pines.
Plahs also was a developer of sorts. He “developed” a 2-acre wildflower field, with its kaleidoscope of colors and plant heights carefully studied and sewn by hand. Today, it bears his name.
He fashioned a rustic chair for a woman who came to visit most days with her ailing husband. He called it “Prill’s Perch,” with its prized view of the wildflower field.
And Plahs created folk art from the “debris” — and even the trash carelessly left behind — found in the preserve he knew so intimately.
“The limbs in the ground were like legs,” he once told me about the top of an oak tree that blew to the ground. “I put a head on it and called it an octopus. It stayed that way for years. But nature took over, and animals got into it, and if you go there now, it’s a squid.”
His art made people love the Forest Preserve, and maybe let a smile and a touch of wonder lift their workaday burdens.
Plahs made Uncle Sam for the Fourth of July, Easter bunnies with baskets of eggs, Thanksgiving turkeys with fans of palm fronds and Christmas trees strung with garlands of sweet gum balls.
Where have all the creatures gone?
Plahs retired a decade ago, pushing the age of 77, with his mind just beginning to skip. It was his second retirement. In a previous life, he was head of planning for the Toledo, Ohio, parks.
Many people came to honor him when he left the Forest Preserve. He went home with many framed photographs of his little piece of Eden from appreciative fans.
Several of his creatures are alive and well, indoors at the Community Services Associates building, headquarters for Sea Pines property owners.
One piece, the last one, graces the home of Carl Zies, who bought “The Last One” at a fundraising auction for the Sea Pines Museum and Forest Preserve Foundation. He said it’s a 7-foot-tall “rather bizarre, humanoid, fictitious creature that’s mostly legs.”
But the creatures have left the woods, from whence they came, and where they amused horseback riders, or guided visitors to the main gates.
But they do live on. They live in the hearts of anyone who wants to inspire the next generation to love the earth, protect the island and to make it a better place.
Only in America
Plahs passed away at the Veterans Victory House in Walterboro, where he was serenaded by U.S. Marine Corps musicians, and in a recent newsletter was pictured dancing with one of the aides.
His passing closed a chapter in a great American story.
His parents were immigrants from Germany. His mother came to Ellis Island at 18. She came with a friend, but without a penny, and not knowing a word of English.
“They were going to send her back,” said Warner’s wife, Patricia. “But a stranger came up and said she would pay her passage.”
She had family in the Cincinnati area. The stranger paid her train fare to Ohio. She became a nurse and maid to famous families, paid back the benevolent stranger, got married to a machinist and raised a family.
“Warner joined the Navy and saw the world,” Patricia said. He was a veteran of the Korean War, and will be buried in the Beaufort National Cemetery. With his GI benefits, he got a degree in ornamental horticulture from Ohio State University.
He worked eight years in a metro park and arboretum. They had three children before he went to the University of Michigan for a three-year program to become a landscape architect.
“I had a baby and worked full time,” Patricia said.
He liked his job in Toledo, riding a simple bicycle to work, even in the snow.
Warner and Patricia first came to Hilton Head when he was a finalist for a job in Savannah to keep up all the squares.
They returned for good when he retired the first time.
“His job was his plan,” Patricia said. “His job was always the most important thing. He enjoyed several of his jobs, but he loved the job at the Forest Preserve. It was the perfect job for him. They gave him a lot of freedom. It was truly him.”
Warner Plahs didn’t like power tools.
“He swept the boardwalks at the Forest Preserve with a broom,” Patricia said.
His boss at the CSA, David Henderson, said that included an 800-foot boardwalk into a rice field.
“He did not like chainsaws,” Henderson said. “He used a pruning saw with a 12-inch blade. He just loved hand tools. It was more of a connection to the woods, and made no noise. That was a neat part of him.
“He genuinely loved the Forest Preserve and really appreciated the visitors who came there.”
Plahs was an ambassador, Henderson said, for the preserve, but also for all of nature.
“He had such an honest soul, which is so rare today.”
Patricia took a lot of photos to his room at the Victory House, “Home of the Greatest Generation.”
She had a board full of pictures of supposedly familiar things, like his grandchildren and his home in Hilton Head Plantation.
“I labeled them all,” she said. “I called it ‘Warner’s World.’ ”
She took some of the framed photographs from the Forest Preserve.
“His favorite was a picture of an anhinga,” she said. “He loved looking at that one picture.”
She said she’s thankful for the opportunity Sea Pines gave her husband.
His creatures now wander only in our imaginations. But that’s where they came from. And it’s where they can still teach another generation.