Almost everyone over the age of 35 can remember where they were and what they were doing the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
By mid-morning that day, it seemed there were only three places in the United States where there was any kind of activity. In and around New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Shanksville, Pa., that activity was furious and heart-wrenching.
The emotional fallout rolled across the country like a tsunami from all three sites, affecting everyone. Even the youngsters knew something monumental and horrible had occurred.
Many wondered what they could do, including a fifth grader at Michael C. Riley Elementary School in Bluffton.
John “J.W.” Wilkerson, the new varsity baseball coach for Hilton Head Christian Academy, was that boy.
“I just felt like there needed to be something, like a memorial of some sort to represent the people that lost their lives, and everybody who’d been doing all the searches, and the soldiers going overseas,” Wilkerson said.
He started talking to his dad, Mitchell Wilkerson, a golf course superintendent, about building a memorial garden at his school.
The next year, when he was in sixth grade at H.E. McCracken Middle School, he and his dad had a plan. They created a memorial garden at M.C. Riley in time for the first anniversary of the terrorist attack.
“My dad was the superintendent at Moss Creek, and he went to the Low Country Golf Course Superintendents Association. They actually donated the palm trees and we dedicated them at M.C. Riley to each of the crash sites,” said the younger Wilkerson. “From 2002 to 2009, on weekends I’d go up there and take care of the trees. We’d plant new plants, eat sandwiches there, and just keep taking care of them.”
For several years following, the school held a 9/11 memorial ceremony for the community, at which the elder Wilkerson would speak.
Today, under the shade of a magnolia tree, a commemorative plaque is still visible. It reads: “We Remember, We Honor, We Unite, September 11, 2001, Low Country GCSA.”
“I wanted something in Bluffton that people could drop by. Bluffton wasn’t that big then and Riley was a central place and the only middle school,” Wilkerson said. “And I think at that time everybody wanted to do something, whether it was putting a flag in the front yard or something. Mine just happened to be a memorial garden.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.