If you want to feel the heartbeat of Bluffton, the indescribable essence of what makes the town so endearingly unique, drive past Town Hall where Bridge Street turns into Alljoy Road.
The Alljoy neighborhood is a time warp to an era where life moved only as fast as its residents wanted, filled with natives and long-time residents who literally created the mythical Bluffton State of Mind.
It is the epicenter of kindness, of eccentricity, of a work ethic built around working the waters and the land. For the past 40-plus years, Wally Sumner has been the human mascot embodying all that is good and right with Alljoy.
He and his wife, Diane Owens, cruised the streets daily in their golf cart with their pet pig, Miss Lila, getting the latest news from friends and welcoming the latest newcomers. Their home, one of the area’s first fish camps known as The Fiddler House, is a social staple, a spot known for its warmth, hospitable aura and party regularity.
“I moved here eight years ago, I wanted to downsize, to write and watch the water. Wally was one of the first folks to greet me, told me to come by the house,” said close Sumner family friend Laura Wilson. “I get there, and there’s 30 people just laughing and talking and everyone I met, they told me the same thing. They got an invite just like I got and within hours of moving in, had an instant family of friends. That’s just what Wally and Diane do. He is the sheriff and the mayor of Alljoy. Everyone knows it.”
Sumner has been a selfless champion for his neighbors, a skilled handyman who is always the first on site when trees fell or storms damaged his friend’s homes.
“It was never ‘How can I help?’ He just jumped in,” said his long-time friend, Capt. Tony Hill.
Back in mid-May, Wally told Diane and close friends that he felt a crick in his neck, a pain he couldn’t massage away.
“He told us all it was nothing, that he was fine, just typical carpenter pain that was slower to go away as he got older,” Hill said.
It turned out to be far worse.
By May 24, the pain had finally worn Wally down. He had long-time friend and neighbor Matthew Shoemaker drive him to an orthopedist in Savannah. As he tried to get out of the vehicle, Wally collapsed.
Turns out that crick was the beginnings of a spinal stroke, a rare blockage of blood flow to the spine. Hour by hour, his body began shutting down. Diane rushed to see him at Savannah Memorial Hospital, but doctors had few answers as they triaged Wally’s escalating litany of ailments.
His situation continued to deteriorate as he was moved to the intensive care unit. Wally was frightened by his waning health but made it clear he was going to keep fighting.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but I want to live,” he told Diane in one of his last sentences before he lost his ability to speak.
Sumner is currently paralyzed from the neck down. He’s being fed via a tube, a ventilator is helping him breathe and a dialysis machine is helping his kidneys function. He’s had a steady stream of surgeries, tests and bills accumulating over the past eight weeks.
The family went into the hospital with insurance, but three days into Wally’s stay, Diane found out the dentist she worked with for over a decade had suddenly closed his doors, leaving the family without a steady paycheck or medical coverage.
“It’s just one gut punch after the other. It’s just crazy that this is one of the most vital, alive humans I’ve ever met and just like that, he’s facing this,” Wilson said. “Time and again, I’ve seen Wally roll up on that cart and just begin helping people with repairs or house chores. The stories of his kindness, they’re just never-ending. So we all knew that we needed to mobilize and help them get through this.”
Wilson joined with neighbors Kathleen Mary O’Carroll and a group of Alljoy residents to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Sumner’s ongoing medical care.
Hill said it’s precisely the kind of effort Wally and Diane would champion all the time.
“I’ve seen it time and time again over 40 years of knowing him,” Hill said. “A young couple scraping by after having a baby, he’d drop care packages off with diapers and baby food. The countless repairs he has helped with. The lawns he mowed just to save a friend from the hassle when they got home from work. He was everyone’s first call when something went wrong. To see our community respond like this, it makes me smile and gives me hope for Wally.”
A fundraiser was held at Cheap Seats Tavern 2 on July 23, an event that drew more than 200 friends that played in the cornhole tournament and bid on donated raffle items.
“It reminded a lot of folks what a typical weekend is like at The Fiddler House, with the cornhole, horseshoes, folks laughing and drinking and enjoying each other’s company,” Wilson said. “We raised well over $10,000 that day, and the donations just keep coming. The cornhole tourney winners donated their winnings. It was just a great day, but we all know this is just the start of the fundraising. There is a big hill ahead.”
Diane stopped by the event after spending the morning with Wally. She was pleased to report to friends that he was now able to move his fingers and his hand. “He knows what y’all are doing here, and he’s so grateful for this,” she said.
Wally’s son, Weston, flew in from his New York home immediately after hearing the early diagnosis. He has moved into a nearby rental house in Bluffton, determined to be there for his father.
“I want to be the son to him like the father he is to me,” Weston told the crowd at Cheap Seats.
Wilson said the Wally stories were abundant at the event. Friends talked about his love of St. Patrick’s Day, where he annually dyes his beard green, or the array of costumes he has sported for the Bluffton Christmas Parade.
“Wally has to get better so he can get back to work on my house,” said Larry Bundy, a longtime friend and neighbor. “We’ve been working on it for a while. I help him, but pretty much everything we’ve done to it, Wally has done.”
The road ahead is uncertain for Sumner. There have been positive signs. Wally has been able to lift his left arm and place it on his chest. The family is slowly trying to ween him off the ventilator to strengthen his lungs, but it is a slow and steady process. But that fits Wally just fine.
“Slow and steady” was a term that came up in many conversations about Wally.
“He just doesn’t give up, he always finds a way. That’s the Wally I know,” Hill said.
As he continues to progress, the family hopes to get Sumner into the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the country’s top spinal cord injury rehabilitation centers.
“It’s a costly program, so we know we need to keep fundraising for Wally,” Wilson said. “This was just the first event and we’re going to keep pushing the GoFundMe to everyone we can.”
The road to recovery is a long one for spinal stroke victims. Many patients make a full recovery, but the rehab could be a multi-year endurance campaign.
“We know Wally is in this for the long haul, and we’re all in it right there with him,” Hill said.
To donate to the GoFundMe campaign for Sumner, go to gofundme.com/f/walter-sumners-recovery-fund.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at email@example.com.