John Henry Whitmire, 71, jeweler whose work celebrated local icons – Coastal Observer


John Henry Whitmire, 71, jeweler whose work celebrated local icons

January 26, 2023

When a restaurant closed at the Hammock Shops, several years ago, John Henry Whitmire thought about what had gone wrong. “I think they missed the idea that Pawleys Island is a very casual place; that we like our fun and we don’t like to get dressed up to have it,” he said.

A jeweler who spent most of his 51 years in business at Pawleys Island, John Henry embodied the stylish and the casual in pieces that combined artistry with coastal themes.

He died Jan. 18 at his home on the river at Hagley. He was 71.

John Henry, as he was known to everyone, was an adventurous, gregarious and charming unofficial world ambassador for the community where he lived and worked.

He was born Dec. 28, 1951, in Greenville, the son of Woodrow and Arla Mae Piephoff Whitmire. He grew up in Easley, and attended and played football at Easley High School before entering the University of South Carolina and majoring in English. 

At USC, John Henry took a class in jewelry making. After leaving Columbia, he worked for a jewelry shop inside the Gay Dolphin gift shop in Myrtle Beach.

He was asked to open a new location in North Myrtle Beach, where he was joined by his childhood friend, John White.

“At the end of the season, the shop got robbed,” White said. “We lost a bunch of cash and lost most of the jewelry inventory. It really set us back. It was a hungry fall and winter.”

In a demonstration of his resourcefulness, John Henry took his craft on the road, doing enough jewelry shows to get through the winter.

“What I saw from that was his resilience and generosity during those times,” White said. “Even though we had very little stuff, if we met someone who had less, he would take them in. He made sure they had something to eat on the way out.” 

He then opened his own business, October Silver, at Pawleys Island in a former chapel at the corner of Highway 17 and Waverly Road. He later moved to the Hammock Shops and renamed the business Whitmire Fine Jewelry.

“I felt like John Henry was a mentor for me in so many ways,” White says. “Nice and naughty and adventurous. He repeatedly taught me how to live life to the fullest, recover from the hard knocks and love people unconditionally. He was a true character in the Southern sense. He was a living legend.”

If charisma was a form of legal tender, John Henry was loaded. He rarely entered a building on Pawleys Island where he wasn’t approached by old friends. He never left without trying to make a new one.

A world traveler, who’d made his way through Europe, Australia, Asia, South America and many places in between, he had a talent for spinning tales.

Louis Osteen, the renowned chef,  once joked  that John Henry believed “it’s more important to have a good story, than for it to be absolutely, totally true.”

When Osteen and Warren Johnston started the Pawleys Island Crawfish Festival, John Henry became its first director. It grew to become a state-sponsored event to promote aquaculture.

John Henry saw life as a series of adventures; stories to be told, to be shared and told all over again. The more dramatic, the better, even if he needed to use a bit of poetic license honed during his years as a creative writing student at USC.

There was the tale about him riding in a carriage at Buckingham Palace, where he had friends, past the startled queen’s window. Or, the time he and a traveling companion were mistaken for terrorists in Ireland. He talked of being at Woodstock.

The late journalist and author Christopher Dickey recalled John Henry offering to teach him to play the harmonica. Dickey was skeptical. He discovered a YouTube video of a riff by John Henry with 30,000 hits.

Through his travel both in this country and abroad, he made thousands of true friends. A lifelong bachelor, he showed extraordinary dedication to his brothers, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles. He enmeshed himself in the Pawleys Island community, adding to its lore and allure. He skied some of the world’s premier slopes and sailed in the ocean. 

He had a long-time interest in politics, worked on several campaigns and once ran for Congress.

His generosity was legendary. He would complain of being broke, but then buy dinner for an entire table. He always was ready to repair someone’s treasured necklace, or throw an impromptu meal for dozens of friends or relatives. John Henry paid faithful attention over many decades to his oldest brother, Woodrow Wilson “Whit” Whitmire, who lived in a group home for most of his adult life.

He is survived by his brother Ralph Clayton “Clay” Whitmire (Lynn) of Indianapolis; his nephews, Andrew Whitmire (Leah) and Matthew Whitmire (Daphne); his great-nieces, Kate and Kendall Whitmire, and great-nephew, Will Whitmire; and four godchildren, many cousins, children of cousins and grandchildren of cousins. 

In addition to his parents, his step-mother, Elizabeth Jones “Lib” Whitmire, and his brother Whit died before him. 

A memorial service will be held Feb. 1 at 11 a.m. at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, followed by a celebration of his life at Frank’s Restaurant. 

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the charity of your choice or or to the next person who crosses your path.




Georgetown County Board of Education: First and third Tuesdays, 5:30 p.m., Beck Education Center. For details, go to Georgetown County Council: Second and fourth Tuesdays, 5:30 p.m., Council Chambers, 129 Screven St., Georgetown. For details, go to Pawleys Island Town Council: Second Mondays, 5 p.m. Town Hall, 323 Myrtle Ave. For details, go to   , .