Coleen Reed named Aiken Standard's 2012 Person of the Year
Coleen Reed insists she was shy as a child and even in middle age, when she moved to Aiken around 1996.
There's nothing shy about her now.
With a vivid smile and shock of white hair in a ponytail, Reed is one of the most engaging, funniest people you're likely to meet.
You may have seen her as the leprechaun who walks around the downtown area on St. Patrick's Day or as an elf during the Night of 1,000 Lights.
At the Battle of Aiken, you may have seen Coleen dressed as a union lady — the mother of Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
She's enormously entertaining, but that's not why Reed is Aiken Standard's 2012 Person of the Year.
Since the late 1990s, Reed has thrown her passion for life and history into the community in many ways. Thanks to her initiatives, several facilities have found their way into historic registries.
Also, give Reed much of the credit for the revitalization of the Farmers' Market, as well as the key role of saving the historic Gaston Livery Stable farther down on Richland Avenue.
Over the past few years, Reed was instrumental with others in cleaning up Pine Lawn Cemetery off Hampton Avenue and documenting the hundreds of graves of blacks that date back more than 150 years.
Reed is an active board member for the Aiken Downtown Development Association and provided enormous assistance to the Aiken County Historical Museum's Horse Creek documentary and its Hickory-Shafted Golf Tournament. She has strongly supported a black history museum project and many other community efforts.
In a way, Reed has a kind of connection to novelist Jack Finney, author of the 1970 time-travel story, “Time and Again.” Finney described how a downtown scene from one day to the next would have only the most minuscule changes, yet, if one went back 20, 50 or even 80 years, he might still find fabrics of the past still decorating the present.
That's how Reed looks at the world within her community.
“All of this goes together,” she said. “Aiken is a tapestry and, even if you pull one thread, the story never stops. It's such a great place, and everybody's lines are tied together. You learn so much.”
Reed spends much of her time taking care of her 85-year-old mother and her mom's twin sister. Yet, she still devotes endless hours on all her historical timetrips within Aiken.
She credits much of that to her parents, who lived the military life.
“My father found me under a Nebraska cornfield,” Reed claimed with glee as she described their homes in Texas, Massachusetts and New Jersey. “We also had to have debates in the family,” she said. “My dad would take one side, and then we have to switch sides one day to another. It was a great way to grow up, discussing things and seeing the different perspectives.”
Reed went to nursing school but also appreciates how her father taught her about automotive mechanics. She could change tires and pull the engine from an Alfa Romeo, becoming her dad's right-hand person. Along the way, she learned how to be a potter's apprentice, too.
Long before the term “Women's Lib” came into existence, Reed was living it, not just through her skills in “men's work” but through her sense of history and her strong opinions. She was furious to hear about the camps that held Japanese-Americans during World War II. Her junior high school teacher told Reed that didn't happen, and she did the research to confirm that reality. Over time, she explored the stories about blacks and women and saw perspectives that were so different from the formal histories told in past eras.
Her mother and late father, Doris and Bill Reed, moved to Aiken in 1968. Reed loved the community during her visits here.
After moving to Aiken, she met longtime resident Rosamund McDuffie and soon learned about the Farmers Market. That building dated back to 1952 and was similar to the now-renovated train depot not far away. McDuffie was eager to preserve the market and get it designated it as a local landmark.
“The city was talking about tearing the market down,” Reed said. “Rosamund said 'no' and sent me on a crusade.”
She was so energetic and proved capable of managing and helping with the market, McDuffie said.
“The market has increased in value and with some needed restrictions on it,” McDuffie said. “It's been such a good improvement, and now we feel very secure there. Coleen has been a great addition in so many ways. My daughter and I went to the market (Saturday), and we found the collard greens were already sold out.”
More recently, Reed began to work just as diligently on the Gaston Livery Barn, just a few blocks from the market. It's one of just five all-brick barns in South Carolina and was constructed around 1893. Reed was worried that the barn, which needed extensive repairs, might be sold to a future owner and torn down.
Friends told her that she had to do something, and Reed contacted friends McDuffie, museum director Elliott Levy, historian Allen Riddick and construction firm owner Paul Sauerborn. Remarkably, they and others have brought the barn back to life.
“We raised $500 for a survey, because the building was not going to come down,” Reed said. “Less than a year later, we negotiated with Southern Bank & Trust for $165,000 and two acres. The bank was awesome, and it's all been pretty cool.”
Reed has served as the project's president and was thrilled to see the Gaston barn become part of the city's historic register.
Levy, too, has enjoyed Reed's dedication and courage, as well as her willingness to take on so many worthwhile projects while taking care of her mother and aunt.
“Coleen may not have a lot of wealth or power, but she puts in her energy, elbow grease and enthusiasm,” said Levy.
For more than seven years, Reed brought an astonishing devotion to the Pine Lawn Cemetery. She, Hallie Holland and many others committed countless hours to cleaning up the site and recording many of blacks interred there. Reed also works on the board of the Center for African American History, Art and Culture.
At Pine Lawn, she has been determined to find the tombstone of the Rev. W.R. Cole, a Presbyterian minister who started the Immanuel Institute for black children's education in the late 1800s. The school is now the center on York Street.
Hallie Holland praised Reed as an astute historian; her work helped get Pine Lawn on the city's historic register.
“We can always depend on her,” Holland said. “She has a responsibility for our register, which now has 1,300 graves. Thanks to her documentation and photos, it helps us locate all of them. Coleen takes the work she's doing very seriously.”
That's what people may not recognize: The bubbly, friendly Reed also cares deeply about her adopted community and does far more for it than most people know.
But she does appreciate the fun opportunities. The documentary-drama “Edgewood – Stage of Southern History,” was filmed a few years ago. It describes the Edgefield County plantation house that now serves as the Pickens-Salley House on USC Aiken's campus. Carla Cloud, the Aiken Downtown Development Association executive director, portrayed the second owner of the home, Eulalie Salley.
Reed was among five very amused women playing the parts of the “Tipsy Tea Ladies” in a scene with Cloud as Salley.
“She's like the energizer bunny,” Cloud said of her friend. “Coleen is quite often like a kid in a candy store, and you can see her face light up as she giggles. But she is so valuable, bringing a huge passion for historic preservation.”