To say that Walter Sumner is an Alljoy institution is an understatement.
Affectionately known as Wally and known for riding around in a golf cart with the family’s pet pig, Miss Lila, the master carpenter has been the community’s right hand for decades. Sumner and his wife, Diane Owens, and, of course, Miss Lila, live in the eclectic neighborhood of Bluffton, residing in one of the earliest fishing lodges called “The Fiddler House”. Located by a nearby landing, Wally always came to the rescue when people needed help.
Laura Wilson, a close family friend and neighbor, said she jokingly introduced Wally to a local pastor as “the sheriff and mayor of Alljoy”. And in typical Wally spirit, he ran with the joke never hinting that no such position existed in the unincorporated corner of Bluffton.
“Wally is kind of that person for us here, he’s just this steady Eddie guy,” she said.
The kind of guy who’s probably worked most of Alljoy’s fish camps or invited a new neighbor over to boil the Lowcountry or dropped off his famous homemade hash. Even the people of North Carolina have praised him for his craftsmanship, which comes with honesty and fairness.
But since May 24, he has been far from the close-knit community that relies on him.
A few days before, he had pain in his shoulder and neck. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, and especially for someone who does heavy carpentry work. In typical Wally fashion, he told those who worried that he was “fine” and the pain would go away. But that was not the case. Matthew Shoemaker, who said Wally was his ‘first call’ when something in his house goes wrong, led Wally to a orthopedic doctor in Savannah.
“When Walter opened the door to get out, he collapsed,” Wilson said. “He tried to get up but the attack was already starting.”
When Wally was settled into a bed in the intensive care unit about two days after being rushed to Memorial Health Hospital in Savannah, Wally looked at Diane, weak and unresponsive: “I don’t know what is happening, but I want to live,” he told his wife when he could still speak.
It was determined that Wally had suffered a stroke – a rare condition where blood flow to the spine is blocked. It left him paralyzed from the neck down. He needs a feeding tube to feed himself, a tracheostomy which is usually hooked up to a ventilator to help him breathe, and temporary dialysis to help his kidneys. Wally needed surgeries, countless tests and multiple MRIs.
The cost of care rose rapidly and took an even bigger hit shortly after his hospital stay.
Three days after Wally’s admission, the office where his wife had worked for more than 10 years unexpectedly closed. The couple do not have a consistent paycheck or insurance coverage. A long road to recovery, one that calls for Wally’s future placement in a spinal injury rehabilitation center, lies ahead of them.
Rehabilitation, which his family hopes to have at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, will begin after he completely removes the ventilator. On Saturday, Wally’s family and friends said he turned the ventilator on and off to strengthen his lungs, even though it completely exhausted him. He is still in intensive care.
On Friday, Diane had good news: “Wally is able to lift his left arm and place it on his abdomen.”
“I saw you move your arm,” she told her husband in his intensive care bed. “It’s awesome!”
Rally for Wally
Just as Wally would like – those who know him, those who don’t know him and those who will meet him – gathered at Cheap Seats Tavern 2 in Bluffton for a corn hole tournament.
“Oh, corn hole, horseshoe and there would be campfires in the winter,” said Mandy Dunn, who helped organize the event and went to school with Wally’s son.
It was typical, she said, to come home to a perfectly manicured lawn.
“Did you cut my grass? Dunn would ask Wally.
“Of course,” he replied.
“It’s Wally,” Dunn said Saturday as she collected raffle tickets.
This unrelenting kindness was nothing out of the ordinary for her growing son Weston Sumner. His father, his superman, the light of Alljoy. He said his father had lived in the same Alljoy home since the mid-1980s and had always put neighbors first.
When Weston heard the news from his New York home, the words “father” and “hospital” immediately caused alarm. Her dad was never one to go to the hospital. He immediately flew out and moved into a nearby rental in Bluffton.
“I want to be his son like the father he is to me,” Weston said at the Tavern on Saturday.
Even before the start of the event, intended to raise funds for Wally and Diane, the tavern had swelled by almost 100 people. Some measured how far apart the corn hole panels were. Others scribbled their names on tickets for dozens of raffle items, including helicopter rides, rounds of golf and dolphin tours.
“We were sitting together on a Sunday and were like, ‘We’re going to do this,'” said Joyce Cooper, who headed up the three-week organization.
Along with the event, a GoFundMe was launched to help with medical bills and Sumner’s recovery.
Cooper has known Wally for about 20 years, a friendship that began when the two worked on construction together. Since then, they have hosted St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah, an event where Wally dyes his beard Irish green, every year. And don’t forget Bluffton Christmas. She also couldn’t remember a time when they had gone undressed.
Then there were those who never knew Wally.
Call it Southern hospitality or Bluffton charm, but everyone who passed by the tavern wanted to know more about him. What was the event for, they wondered. How could they help?
Everyone was eager to know how he was progressing. Some said better. Others responded in a more subdued voice. Shoemaker called it treading water – let each day progress little by little.
His “progress is slow and steady, just like Wally,” said longtime friend Kathleen O’Carroll.
“He wants to live,” Diane said, repeating her husband’s wishes. And she will do anything to make it happen.
If aiding his recovery requires upgrading the golf cart by removing a seat and replacing it with a wheelchair, that’s what they’ll do once he’s released from a rehab facility. With Miss Lila on horseback and all.
This story was originally published July 23, 2022 5:01 p.m.