By Lanier Laney
You may know Beaufort native Paul Sommerville from his newly elected position as chairman of Beaufort County Council, where as a councilman he has been committed to water quality and education. But you may not know why he’s devoted to these issues.
Besides spending his childhood growing up in the salt marshes and exploring its watery byways; Paul has very fond memories of being with his grandfather there. Says Paul, “When I was a teenager, I water skied almost every day on Factory Creek and sometimes Battery Creek near Parris Island. I skied with my brothers, friends and my grandfather, Arthur O Christensen, who taught me to ski when he was 75 years old. We pulled him to Savannah and back on a slalom ski and he made it all the way.
This event is referenced in Pat Conroy’s book “Prince of Tides.” There was a ski jump in Factory Creek that we practiced on. We were always going ‘down the river’ where we camped and swam and hunted. We used to hunt wild pigs on Fripp Island and on one occasion, an irate wild pig chased me up a tree. During the early Water Festivals, my grandfather and I did a grandfather/grandson act. He had a banner on his slalom ski that said ‘Mr. 1882,’ his year of birth. As a youth we would take sailboats out to the sandbar in the Beaufort River and enjoyed stirring up the phosphorous and watching the glow.”
These early experiences led to a lifetime commitment to preserving the pristine waters he knew as a boy.
In his role on Beaufort’s County Council, Paul has this to say: “Beaufort County has a long way to go to begin undoing the water degradation that has taken place. But we are at the point now, I believe, where we have stopped the degradation. Our next step is to begin to claw back to the pristine waterways I grew up with. This will require some major retrofitting of stormwater systems and septic tanks, among other things. Also, we all have a stake in public education and there are a lot of people working to improve public education.”
Paul knows a lot about education. In fact, his family helped start public education in Beaufort County, which did not exist before the Civil War. His Christensen family ancestors came to Beaufort from Boston in 1862. Paul said, “My ancestors were staunch abolitionists who put their money where their mouth was. They started and ran and funded schools for freedmen in Beaufort County, among other things.” His relative Abby Holmes Christensen was the first teacher with Laura Towne in the Port Royal Experiment that led to Penn Center. Adds Paul, “With that background, I have always believed that everyone deserves an equal opportunity to be heard, to succeed and to fail. I have had plenty of experience in all three areas.”
Paul sees his role on County Council as one of service. “My family has lived in Beaufort for over 150 years and Beaufort County has been good to all of us, “ he said. “We all need to give back in some way and elected office is one small way to do that. Leadership is just another form of service. As our Lord said: ‘He would be the leader of men must first be the servant of all.’ ”
Faith has been an important part of Paul’s life, and like his ancestors he’s been a church missionary. Paul said, “My first mission trip was to Guatemala in 1976 in the wake of a terrible earthquake. We rebuilt churches. I have been to the Dominican Republic probably a dozen times on various mission trips. Some were for Vacation Bible School, some for construction of schools and churches, and some were medical missions where I served as a translator. I am fluent in Spanish and have served as a translator for migrant workers in Beaufort County for decades. I have always felt an obligation to help wherever my limited talents permit.”
Paul has been married to Ann Sommerville, a chemical engineer who works for the U.S. Marine Corps as a civilian, for 19 years. The two celebrated their anniversary this past Tuesday. They have two children, Alexis Ann Sommerville, age 13, and Paula Carol Sommerville, age 17. Says Paul, “My family has always been the most important thing in my life. My wife and I have been blessed with two daughters, and although I am an imperfect parent, I always strive to improve. All of our children are our future.” He adds, “The proudest moments of my life are seeing my children turn into good, decent, productive citizens.”
And as far as Paul Sommerville’s personal heroes? Paul says, “My heroes are the little people who go about their lives every day trying to do their best and often inconveniencing themselves to help others who they may not even know. In other words, my heroes are people who consistently practice little acts of kindness.”
And his goals for the future as chairman of the County Council? Says Paul,” When I ran for office in 2006 I had three goals: One, a park on Lady’s Island — which is now complete. Two, better relations among the municipalities, county and school district. And three, making development pay for itself. While progress has been made on the last two, there is still room for improvement. We are all public servants spending the same pot of tax dollars, so the better we cooperate and work together, the more efficient and productive we will be.”
Thank you Paul for all you have done in your service to Beaufort County.