Savannah Morning News column
Oct. 6, 2014
Let’s see. She’s an abstract painter, an art critic, an equestrian course designer, a noted historic preservationist, an outspoken and creative activist, an astute parser of legalese who could in another era have been a fine lawyer, an environmental steward, a tree farmer, an interior designer, a restorer of vernacular architecture, the owner of a piece of property that’s been in her family’s hands since England’s King George II (granted to them in 1755), a relative of Thomas Jefferson (who was her fifth great-grandfather on her mother’s side), the great granddaughter of a Savannah mayor, a wag of the first order, and a native Savannahian who grew up in the era of crisp linens, white kid gloves and out-of-town boarding schools.
What could possibly be left for Laura Devendorf to do?
Can you say a book?
Laura insists “Killing with Kindness,” a collection of short stories, is fiction, ”modified by the clarity gained through time and by the creative needs of the stories.” She writes, “Names and locations have been changed and characters should not be presumed to be people you know, even though your private experiences make them seem so.”
Sixteen years after starting this book Laura is ready to put it out to the world and she’s got some stories to tell.
Consider this: Here’s a woman who grew up in Ardsley Park, went to The Pape School (which morphed into Savannah Country Day), was shuttled off to the boarding school-du-jour, did the whole coming out thing, and then, with characteristic Laura Devendorf moxie, chose for her college years the University of Wisconsin, the country’s most progressive, liberal, public school, a state-centered university that only accepted 150 out of state students in an enrollment of 18,000.
Yes, Laura, now 82, was smart. But mainly she was contrary.
“I was a rebel, a maverick,” she said. “There would be no lady ivy school for me. My father was scandalized at my choice. This was not my destiny.”
The school was tough (“chastening”), academically rigorous, a jolt for the Savannah freshman who described herself in the book as a “sad Southern troglodyte.” She finished a year, wrote for the Daily Cardinal, the school newspaper, then sprung back to her native city to marry, have a few children, get divorced, meet someone new from New York and move to San Francisco for another couple dozen colorful chapters that included neighbors such as Santana, Janis Joplin and members of Blood, Sweat and Tears.
By this time she was taking what she learned from David Reese at the Telfair Art School in the late ‘50s – and from designing sets for the Junior League with the late Danny Zarem – and turning it into a career as an artist. But then, after returning to her family’s 10,000-acre property in Liberty county, following the death of her parents (her father operated the successful Stevens Shipping Co.), she made another 45-degree turn and became an international equestrian course designer, one of a handful of women in the profession.
Decades later, after engaging in multiple confrontations, meetings and battles with Liberty county commissioners, state legislators, lobbyists and developers over her passion for cultural preservation and the environment, Laura credits the University of Wisconsin’s Integrated Liberal Studies program, an interdisciplinary approach to learning, for aiding her activism and developing her philosophy.
“Everything is integrated,” she said. “Politics, architecture, culture, history. You’ve got to be able to see all of these things happening in a certain time period.”
In her fights to ward off intrusion by the state and to protect Melon Bluff, the 2,000-acre nature preserve Laura owns and operates with her daughter, Meredith, the mother-daughter team knew they needed to do something if they wanted their land to stay pristine and free of development. That’s when they set up the Springfield Legacy Foundation, a consortium between the University of Georgia, the University of Western Florida, Seabrook Village and Sea Grant, an oceanic research operation. Meredith has a masters in environmental management and is working on a doctorate in the environmental history of the Georgia coast.
The foundation they formed, Laura said, is more airtight than most land trust programs.
“If you’re going to do this work you’ve got to do your homework and look around the corners,” she said. “Most people are passionate for about a year but if you’re going to be prepared you’ve got to get on your hands and knees.”
Then, without skipping a beat this storyteller nonpareil continued in another direction.
“Oh, did I tell you I have two brain tumors? One 26 years ago and another one two years ago. Well, I can’t get all fists to furrowed brow about it. But the cyber knife they use: it’s like a giant oilrig. That’s another story. You live with what you have. I really think overall I’m very lucky.”