"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

St. Simons Activist Fights Anew in Book

By AMY CARTER The Brunswick News

September 8, 2009

She's back.

With her wiener dogs.

And a cause.

It's not a real cause this time, mind you. Virginia Gunn is not looking for another one of those.

"In fact, I never was," says Gunn, a former Glynn County commissioner and St. Simons Island resident whose island activism is the inspiration for a new book by television personality Nancy Grace.

The real Gunn's eponymous alter ego in the book, however, is passionate enough about protecting the beaches of St. Simons Island that she will spend hours in the Kroger grocery store parking lot, waiting to enlist in her fight the as-yet-unknown driver of a beaten up Volkswagen Beetle sporting a shiny new Greenpeace bumper sticker.

Meet the fictional Virginia Gunn, heroine of an entertaining little subplot in "The Eleventh Victim," a novel by HLN news host Grace, a Georgia native and former prosecutor of violent crimes in Atlanta.

Grace's Gunn is cocked to fight. Over condos. On the beach. Even if you weren't living here 18 years ago when the name "Virginia Gunn" and the word "beach" first appeared in the same news story, your interest should pique to find the two reunited again.

Grace read those stories of the real Gunn's fight in the community while still working as a prosecutor in Atlanta. A Macon-born Methodist who spent summers in youth camp at Epworth By the Sea, Grace says she remembers the St. Simons Island of old, "in a pristine condition." Keeping up with the development of the island through newspaper articles, she found fodder for the plotline of her first fiction book.

"Virginia Gunn has always been such a high profile celebrity in the city of Atlanta and we met when I was a felony prosecutor," Grace said. She wrote the story of the St. Simons Island beach first, and then named her character for Gunn later "because of her deep love for St. Simons."

Grace's novel is a thriller not unlike the kinds of books written by the real Gunn's fellow activist in matrimony, the late Bill Diehl. Diehl's fame was cinched when Burt Reynolds directed and starred in the 1981 movie version of Diehl's novel "Sharky's Machine." The couple married in a televised New Year's Eve ceremony at The Cloister on Sea Island as 1982 turned to 1983. They later moved to "Thunder Point," a house in King City that overlooks the St. Simons Sound. Diehl wrote seven of his nine bestsellers there. A retired Emmy-winning Atlanta television personality, Gunn was known during that St. Simons Island interlude simply as "the turtle lady." Until Glynn County proposed a nourishment project that would have rebuilt the unstable beaches of St. Simons Island with sand dredged from the ocean floor and held in place by two massive concrete groins, or jetties.

One of her earliest headlines in The News appeared on May 8, 1991: "Citizens Question Beach Renourishment." A sidebar asked: "Is Project a Threat to Turtles?" In that story, the real Gunn, a volunteer member of the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, asked government officials: "Why are you doing this (renourishment project) during turtle breeding season? The dredge boats killed 83 turtles last month. Turtles are coming in all sliced up and I know what's doing it. Five turtles were killed last week."

And so the war was on.

Eventually, Gunn and Diehl would parent an organization devoted to finding alternatives to the county's beach building plan. The Save the Beach organization argued that groins would only increase erosion; that beaches are, by nature, unstable, building and eroding as Mother Nature deems. They researched alternatives to the $7 million project. They picketed in front of the historic Glynn County Courthouse. They daily called in to the local radio talk show, bought full-page newspaper ads and made the cover of "Creative Loafing," an alternative newspaper published for the Atlanta market.

They fought the county for the better part of a year, until the idea of beach nourishment was finally abandoned.

"Bill and Virginia were perfect leaders for the Save the Beach movement," says Nancy Thomason, a former member of Save the Beach and owner of Beachview Books in the Village on St. Simons Island. "They had brains, glamour, celebrity and passion. They worked tirelessly and fearlessly because they knew they were right."

Like her fictional self, Gunn is a former member of the Glynn County Commission, elected the year the beach project died.

"Sometimes being commissioner felt like a blood sport," Gunn said.

Not unlike the battle for the beach. Still, the good memories trump the bad.

"Somehow Virginia, and others in the group, were always able to see humor in what was happening," Thomason recalled. "We laughed a lot. We always knew we were having more fun than the other side, even when it looked like they were winning."

The people were the ultimate victors, Gunn said.

"I'm very proud. The beaches look great, and we saved the taxpayers millions of dollars by getting this project abandoned. I hope it is a story that is never completely forgotten."

Meet Virginia Gunn.

Virginia Gunn - both live and fictional - will return to St. Simons Island on Saturday (Sept. 12th) to sign copies of "The Eleventh Victim" by Nancy Grace at Beachview Books on Mallery Street. She will bring bookplates signed by Grace. Gunn will be available from 5 to 7 p.m.

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