Henry and Mary Pratt have spent more time volunteering in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary than most people have spent in their paid careers.For 50 years, the Hilton Head Island couple have assisted local flotillas and held nationwide leadership roles. In fact, Henry Pratt served as commodore for two years.
The Pratts were recently honored for their half-century of service by Flotilla 10-11, the local Hilton Head auxiliary unit both belong to. The couple are still active members of the auxiliary, which uses personal boats to participate in rescues and train others to help save lives.
The Pratts, sweethearts at Emory & Henry College, married in 1963. They joined the auxiliary in September 1964 at age 24 after being recruited during a boating course in Washington, D.C.
Henry rose through the elected ranks after that, and in 1989, he was named national commodore, in charge of 34,000-plus members. The nonpaid position took the Pratts around the country to meet with auxiliary flotillas. Mary worked as an administrative assistant for the auxiliary’s elected officials, including her husband.
Since moving to Hilton Head in 1991, Henry has been director of operations and Mary the materials officer for the local flotilla. They participate in training the auxiliary conducts with Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort each week and continue to perform boat inspections and teach educational sessions about boater safety.
50 YEARS OF MEMORIES
Fifty years in the auxiliary have brought plenty of memories for the Pratts.
Henry was one of the first Coast Guard officials on the scene for the Air Florida Flight 90 crash in Washington in 1982. When he heard the news on his radio scanner, he called the auxiliary director in Baltimore, who hadn’t yet heard about the crash. The two worked the first few days at the crash site coordinating the Coast Guard response, using a radio and antenna from Henry’s car.
When the 1984 Summer Olympics used the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., for soccer matches, the Pratts’ 19-foot Boston Whaler was pressed into service as a search-and-rescue boat while the Coast Guard’s boats were on patrols. Henry and another auxiliary member helped put out a battery fire on a disabled boat, using the faster private boat to arrive long before the Coast Guard.
In 1986, the Pratts were in New York for the reopening of the Statue of Liberty, to oversee the largest flotilla of tall ships in history. But the night before the celebration, they were alerted to a missing child in the area.
They and other auxiliary members spent all night searching for the child, who was eventually found. Worn out from the search, the Pratts fell asleep on their boat and awoke to find they had missed the entire flotilla’s passage.
“It was a little bit of a disappointment,” Henry joked.
The couple, both golf enthusiasts, began vacationing on Hilton Head in the 1970s. They bought property on the island in the 1980s and attended auxiliary meetings whenever they were in town. The couple relocated to Hilton Head permanently in 1991 from Arlington, Va., after Henry had spent a career in bank branch management.
There was never much doubt about how they would spend the bulk of their volunteer time on Hilton Head.
In 1996, they worked on security detail for the Olympic sailing course off Savannah. In recent years, Henry has coordinated rescue responses for an oil spill and for the Dixie Crystal refinery fire in 2008 in Savannah.
He has also had some unusual rescues, like the time he had to save a couple stuck on the New River near Bluffton in the boat they had rented from Harbour Town. The couple boated far past where the rental company allowed, and the sight of an alligator caused them to stay in the boat until Henry and the rental company’s owner found them.
“The husband got chewed out all the way back to Harbour Town” by his wife, Henry said. “I asked the (rental) owner if he was going to say anything to them. He said, ‘I think he’s gotten enough today.’”
While the Pratts have seen plenty of action over the years, some of their best memories are the quiet ones on the water with their son Skip, Mary said. The family often headed out for twilight safety patrols when Skip was about 10 years old, something that would no longer be allowed under current regulations, Mary said.
“There was no question of bringing our son with us,” she said. “It was much less formal then.”
Though the auxiliary has changed over the past 50 years, one thing that won’t is the Pratts’ involvement.
“We’ve really enjoyed it,” Henry said, “and we’re going to continue to enjoy it.”