Personal Journeys: Keeper of the island

Ossabaw’s matriarch must leave island, lacking funds for own care

Sandy West, the 103-year-old doyenne of Ossabaw Island, will leave her beloved barrier island near Savannah next month.

Frail, with fading memory, West will be moved to a personal care facility in Savannah. It’s the end of a storied era along Georgia’s coast, one that the indomitable matriarch and fierce lover of nature helped shape.

“This is a very, very sad day for Eleanor Torrey West and the island and for those of us who love her and the island,” Jill Stuckey, a longtime friend and frequent Ossabaw visitor, said Friday.

West had hoped to live out her days on Ossabaw, the largely unsullied barrier island twice the size of Bermuda that her parents bought in 1924. But money for the one-time millionaire, who plowed nearly every cent into the island and its educational and cultural pursuits, is tight.

A GoFundMe account was established to cover West’s home health care and to keep the electricity flowing at her circa 1925 Spanish Revival mansion that has seen better days. She was recently the subject of a Personal Journey profile in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that helped trigger donations to the account.

Nearly $67,000 had been raised from more than 600 people, more than one-third since the AJC story ran. But that wasn’t enough, apparently, to keep West on Ossabaw.

“We didn’t raise the money that the family felt they needed to do long-term care on the island,” Stuckey said, adding that the remaining funds will likely be donated to the nonprofit Ossabaw Island Foundation.

West’s wondrous life is beyond Hollywood depiction. As a girl in the 1920s and 30s she gamboled on Ossabaw’s pristine beaches, oak-lined pathways and marshes that change color depending on the time of day. A thick forest of oak, pine, palmetto and wax myrtle covers much of the island.

Boar roam the island in profusion, descendants of those brought here by Spanish explorers who carried their food across the Atlantic Ocean. Bald eagles, blue and white herons, wood storks, snowy egrets and hooded merganser ducks fill the sky.

As a young woman, West traveled widely in search of spiritual enrichment. Later, she became a film producer and children’s book author. In 1961, West and her then-husband combined their two great loves — art and nature — into the Ossabaw Foundation, an artists colony where painters, scientists, writers, historians, mathematicians, linguists, sculptors and other intellectuals from around the world worked on their craft surrounded by the beauty and solitude of the island.

West also created the Genesis Project in 1970, at the dawn of the environmental movement, for college kids and others to live off the grid while experiencing a slower, quieter, communal way of life.

West, beset by earlier financial woes, sold the 25,000-acre island to the state of Georgia in 1978 for a deeply discounted price in hopes of staving off developers. Terms of the deal allowed her to keep the Spanish Revival mansion and 30 acres. Upon her death, though, the property belongs to the state.

The GoFundMe page last week offered a poignant tableau of West, in a wheelchair alongside a grandson, on Bradley Beach, staring into the Atlantic Ocean. Those days are too quickly coming to an end.

“She is an anciently old person who needs assistance, but that she has a good quality of life,” said Lisa White, a Savannah attorney and old friend. “She is engaged and engaging with visitors, talks on the telephone, goes out for drives and watches the evening stars from her patio. She dresses and goes downstairs for dinner and a ‘nip.’ It’s not a bad life at all.”

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