The ghost of Braxton Sumter

Published 6:27 pm Monday, August 20, 2018

Low country, South Carolina, 1981: In the early 80s, Perry Tuttle, Homer Jordan and Danny Ford were household names in the Palmetto State. Clemson and Georgia had a real football rivalry. A young man with a potentially bright future was slowly taking the path that leads to an early grave.

One town in the low country tells the story of one of the painful truths of life — imbalance leads the way to defeat. Every time. 

John Lowndes had just graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law.  He was the oldest child, and only male, born to wealthy resort developers. His extended family had four mandatory values for male offspring — success in business, honor, courage and pure loyalty.

On Dec. 24, 1981, John began to fall asleep early. At noon on Christmas, he would be married to Susan Lee Campbell, a beautiful young lady from middle Georgia.

However, he suddenly found himself on a city street late at night. He knew this street well.  It was located in his favorite city in the state, Charleston. He had spent many nights in the local taverns drinking Dewars Scotch Whiskey.

“How did I get here?” he thought. Charleston was over 70 miles from home. As he began to walk through the thick, humid air, a man walked out of one of the taverns. He was about 50, well dressed and seemingly a bit “over served” at the bar. It was Braxton Sumter Sr.  Sumter was once the most respected lawyers in John’s hometown.  But, his passion for the law coupled with his anger completely consumed him. He ignored his wife and children. They eventually left him. He died at the early age of 51 from cirrhosis of the liver and the loss of his will to live. 

John remembered him well. During football games when Clemson was playing away, John’s father would host parties with plenty of Clemson fans. Sumter would always attend in the best of moods. He would also visit with the 8-year-old John while the other adults ignored the boy.   John would never forget his advice on being successful.

“Boy, you cannot allow a Yankee, another lawyer or even family to get in your way. You must possess courage even at the point of a bayonet.”

Sumter approached John. John thought about turning away. But, as he looked for a place to go, Sumter said, “What do you fear, boy? I have something to show you. Follow me.”

John hesitantly followed him.

After walking three blocks, they stopped.  Sumter peered into a window. He said, “It is good to see you again, boy. Before you leave, you may want to take a look inside that office.”

John became angry. “Who would ever work until midnight on Christmas Eve? I have no interest in peering through his window. He is obviously a lonely old man with nothing but his work.”

Yet, John’s sense of curiosity compelled him to look into the window. He did want to see who this lonely man was. He saw the back of a man sitting at a desk with files surrounding him. Only one picture hung from the walls of the office. It was a painting of two children. There was also a familiar item on the desk that made John step back and lose his balance. It was a half empty bottle of Dewars Scotch Whiskey.

John quickly turned around and began to run.  But, the large hand of Sumter grabbed his shirt.  “Boy, it is too late for me. But, not for you. Confront your fear. Look closer into the office.”

Shaking, he turned back to the window. The man in the office stood up, filled his glass with ice and Dewars. Then, he looked up and their eyes met. John was looking directly at himself 15 years into the future.

As John began to fall to the ground, he suddenly jumped out of his bed. The sheets were drenched in sweat. He was still uncontrollably shaking. But, he eventually composed himself and put on his “game face.”

John would get married that day.  God would bless him and Susan with a boy and a girl. He would become a great lawyer. But, with God’s grace, he would temper his fierce ambition, balance his life by becoming a loving husband and father and defeat the pain inside of him.

John would never forget the ghost of Braxton Sumter Sr. John knew that the man who allowed blind ambition to destroy his own life actually saved John’s life on the streets of Charleston, South Carolina in 1981.