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SC - USC could lose its island to UGA. Donor’s family says the school isn’t upholding the deal

Decades ago, Philip Rhodes gave the University of South Carolina an extraordinary gift: A Beaufort County barrier island.

While few strings were attached, they were significant. Rhodes wanted Pritchards Island — with a south-facing birds-eye view of Hilton Head — to remain in a wilderness state, and to be used for scientific, educational, charitable and general public purposes.

But now, Rhodes’ family says USC isn’t fulfilling its obligations to the island. If they’re right, the deeds say USC could lose control of the island to the University of Georgia or The Nature Conservancy. In a statement issued last week, the family said it has been “disappointed” by the university’s lack of engagement as it relates to the deed signed nearly four decades ago.

One USCB official says the school is eager to conduct research on the island and believes it now has the biologists to do it. The challenge is identifying revenue sources to fund the work.

Rhodes wanted Pritchards Island to always be what it was when he had the good luck to walk its sand and fish its waters. He knew that more development nearby was coming. He knew how barrier islands worked. And he knew he wanted Pritchards to remain a testament to what nature had put there.

He thought he knew how to do that.

In December 1983, Rhodes gave USC half the island. By February 1989, he donated the other 50% to the university.

Then, in the early ‘90s, Rhodes funded another gift. He paid for the construction of a raised wooden lab, set back from the ocean and among live oaks and palmetto trees. Inside was a kitchen, dorm-style rooms with bunk beds and a teaching space. The building was an idyllic and visceral experience for students and professors to study the island’s ecosystems, monitor threatened loggerhead sea turtles and grasp erosion impacts. Then-island director David McCollum said it would make research life “a whole lot easier.”

He’d made a good decision, Rhodes said during the lab’s 1994 dedication ceremony. The outdoorsman and sea turtle enthusiast called USC “great stewards of the island.”

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