Fond memories brought world traveler back to Hilton Head
“Where are you from?
It’s a question that Susan Ochsner loves answering because she gets to tell her story of how seeing the world led her back to Hilton Head Island.
“I was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but I’m 100 percent Swiss,” said Ochsner, owner of Premium Properties of Hilton Head. “My parents are from Lucerne and Chur. But all of my early memories are from this island.”
Her parents retired to the island in 1971 after an extensive search for the right East Coast home. Her father, an executive with Sherwin-Williams, had many of the Ohio-based company’s execs telling him of the beauty of Hilton Head. After spending three months looking from the Florida panhandle to the Outer Banks, Ochsner got her first taste of the island.
“I went to Sea Pines Academy and McCracken High School and got to roam the island back when there were no stop lights. We used to chase wild boar, there was still that much free space,” she said. “Coming from Sao Paulo, I had learned the Queen’s British English. So coming into fourth grade on the island, I remember a lot of red marks on my homework papers.”
Her parents quickly became fans of the William Hilton Inn, a 56-room resort opened by Charles Fraser on the current site of Marriott’s Grande Ocean Resort. Her parents would play golf while she and her brother got a nature-filled daycare experience, filled with crabbing and fishing.
Even with all that fun, as Ochsner graduated high school, she could not wait to get off the island.
“I wanted to leave this place real bad,” she said. “After I graduated from USC in Columbia, there was no way I was coming back to the island. I wanted to see the world.”
That journey took her first to Atlanta, soon followed by what we thought would be a short-term stay in Zurich, Switzerland.
“I was planning to get experience there, learn the language, see my homeland and come back stateside to work in international banking,” she said. “Then I met someone, got married and had both my boys in Switzerland. Before you knew it, 16 years went by.”
As she faced divorce in 2000, she found herself longing to show her boys the island life she remembered more fondly as she matured.
“You take it for granted when you’re a kid. I never thought I’d come back here, but as I matured, I just found myself drawn to the lifestyle and wanting to show my kids this life and have them around my parents,” she said.
“We used to have to go to Savannah for everything, eye appointments, braces, went there twice a week and bought all our stuff there. I saw a very different place when I returned and it has just continued to evolve into its own place, no longer dependent on Savannah.”
One of the first things she did upon her return was found the International Women’s Club, a means for a single mom to meet fellow moms who shared her life experiences.
“It’s very easy to kind of get in that Lowcountry lull and forget that there’s a great big world out there,” she said. “I quickly found there were women who had seen the world, so we started meeting at my house 15 years ago. Now, we’re up to 80 members.”
Her sons, Marc and Tim, grew up on the island and are attending Southern colleges – Marc at Georgia Tech and Tim at USC - but were shown the world much like Ochsner learned it.
“We traveled to Switzerland twice per year and just this year, we traveled to Brazil for two weeks,” she said. “It was a like a party with so much of my family still in Brazil and Switzerland.” Her older brother has made his home in Geneva.
As strongly as she feels about seeing the world, Oschner is just as adamant about honoring her island roots and helping newbies find their piece of paradise in the Lowcountry.
“I used to be a pool person, but the last couple years, I can’t go a day without taking my dog for a walk on the beach,” she said. “I love that without all the street lights, on a clear night, you can see every star. When you come over that bridge, you just feel like you’re home. The marsh smell, that home feeling, it’s intoxicating and breathtaking.