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Why Ohlandt Keeps Watch Over Lighthouse
Tuesday, August 3, 1999  —  Charleston Post and Courier

Johnny Ohlandt isn't just interested in saving the Morris Island Lighthouse.

He is passionately, energetically, unwaveringly determined to save "the ole gal" and what she stands for.

Two or three times every week at low tide, he takes his not-for-company johnboat from his dock on James Island to the base of the lighthouse.

He ties up to a rusted, barnacle-encrusted sheet of metal sticking out of the ocean.

And he scrambles up a wall of crumbling rip-rap, broken brick and chunks of cement to reach the doorway of the lighthouse.

At 70, Ohlandt hardly stops for breath before he trots up the iron steps that wind around and around the inside of the solid brick tower until they reach the room at the distant top.

That's where lighthouse keepers once polished the brass and glass of the oil or gas-fueled beacon.

And that's where, every time, Ohlandt finds inspiration.

360 degrees

Sometimes it's hazier than others. Sometimes it's hot. Sometimes the wind wants to blow him clear out of the aerie. But every time, he finds a view that explains why God lives up in heaven.

Every time, Ohlandt finds a mystical connection with the sailors who relied on the lighthouse's beacon to guide them safely around tricky shoals.

And every time, he envisions Civil War battles on neighboring Black Island and centuries of fishermen pulling in nets.

He reminisces about childhood visits with the lighthouse keeper's children. While his father fished, they did balancing acts on the wall that separated the lighthouse grounds from the rest of the sandy island on which it stood smack dab in the middle.

Being introduced to the Morris Island Lighthouse by Johnny Ohlandt is like watching a loom weave together a strand of mystery and a strand of strength, some old fibers with some new, some vivid drama with some whimsy.

Landmark

His stories about the lighthouse keeper polishing sky-high windows daily are almost enough to make you forget that you are one tiny step from plunging to your death on the jagged concrete below.

His explanations about the light being operated by long cables and weights almost dispel the dizziness that settles in more because of the long view down than because of the circular path of the steps.

His joy in sharing a spectacular 360-degree view comes close to balancing the anxiety you feel when he leads the way around the narrow catwalk and says, "The rail is sound except in one place".

Generations have admired the Morris Island Lighthouse. Ohlandt loves it.

A man like Ohlandt doesn't toss around the word "love". This is a man who spent childhood weekends hunting boar and spending nights outside in croaker sacks.

Stand Tall

In a Lowcountry brogue as thick as pluff mud, he recounts the history of the lighthouse - how it replaced one that Southerners took down to keep it out of the hands of the enemy during the Civil War.

He explains how it was built to last. Piles and concrete and 12-by-12 beams, two walls of brick climbing higher than things were supposed to go in 1876 and separated by a narrow cushion of air.

That was when there was a Morris Island, he says. Later, engineers altered the entrance to Charleston Harbor, and the water flow chiseled away at the island until it disappeared nearly altogether.

Ohlandt knows the challenges the old gal faces. Yes, she lists slightly. Yes, vandals have chipped up marble tiles from the ground floor and popped out tinted glass that gave upper levels a cathedral-like glow. And the derned pigeons have left enough poop to do some serious corroding.

But Ohlandt isn't daunted by challenges. Recently, he managed to string some lights atop the ole gal on a whim.

If engineers come up with a way to stabilize the lighthouse, he's ready to go into high gear. He has taken state legislators and agency heads to visit the lighthouse. He has helped raise money for Save the Light Inc., which owns the structure until the state can take it over.

Not everyone will be able to enjoy the breathtaking, heart-stopping view from the top. It was never meant for everyone.

But, if we preserve it, everyone can look at the noble tower standing strong against the elements and feel inspired by its past and take pride in its presence.

©1999  Charleston Post and Courier  —  All Rights Reserved.
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