Laura Randolph Stevens Devendorf
A polymath. An empath. A delighted recipient and unparalleled giver of absurd humor. A loving wife, mother, and friend. An ardent warrior for righting wrongs. A guardian of the beautiful, vulnerable, and good. A wordsmith whom words cannot capture.
Laura Randolph Stevens Devendorf, inspired and inspirational, passed away peacefully in her home surrounded by family and friends on February 10, 2020. Born in Savannah, Georgia, on November 23, 1931, Laura, known to her family as Lolly, was the daughter of John Porter Stevens and Martha Jefferson Randolph Stevens of Savannah and Sunbury.
There was a constant dialogue between her enormous heart and her brilliant mind. Her heart would speak with love to her mind, and her mind would take up the shield and sword. To her, there was no problem that couldn't be solved without enough hard work and creativity. She was never satisfied with superficial knowledge and pushed herself to learn as much as possible about anything and everything that interested her. She gave all of her mind and heart to her projects and always sought to educate, encourage, ennoble, and empower others. She always spoke truth…and spoke up…often getting herself in trouble for all the right reasons. From her earliest years, she despised injustice and bullying. Throughout her life she advocated for people, animals, and places rendered powerless or voiceless. Despite being bullied as a child and fearing being hurt by others, she loved people and was deeply generous with her time, resources, and talents.
As a child growing up at Springfield Plantation, her family's Liberty County farm, she loved following animal trails just for the adventure. This is how she lived her extraordinary life. Her insatiable curiosity, razor-sharp logic, exceptional creative and conceptual abilities, and her immutable sense of fairness and love for others led her in diverse but universally connected directions for her whole life.
She attended Pape School and the Knox School in Cooperstown, New York. She played many sports, but her passion for horses surpassed all. As salutatorian, she graduated with highest honors in math and Latin, ranked in the upper 2% of students nationally, and earned a place in the elite Integrated Liberal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison which she attended for two years before returning to Savannah to marry her first husband.
In 1950s Savannah, she began her training as an advocate in the Junior League. She produced and wrote Let's Talk About You, a weekly public-service program on WTOC-TV providing problem-solving and resources for then-taboo social issues such as alcoholism. Later, as a single mother, she used her writing talent to secure a job as a copy writer at WSAV-TV where she both advanced to the position of Promotion Manager and met the love of her life, Don Devendorf. After marrying in 1961, Laura and Don moved to the West Coast where they remained until 1972.
After moving to the Bay Area, she balanced family with a successful career as a professional artist and art critic. Having studied under David Reese at the Telfair Academy, her art had already garnered accolades and awards in Savannah. In addition to 13 one-woman shows, her work was accepted in the 81st Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Museum of Art, and she was elected to membership in the San Francisco Women Artists. As a critic, she wrote weekly art reviews for the Marin Independent Journal newspaper and was a stringer for West Art and Art News. Passionate about education, she developed and implemented a pioneering parent-child art program for the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department that has been replicated in other cities.
When her parents died in 1969, Laura took over silvicultural operations at Springfield, quickly defying industry conventional wisdom by prohibiting the removal of centuries-old live oak trees thus embarking on a 50-year career as an environmental iconoclast. In 1972, she, Don, and their daughter Meredith moved back to Georgia. In the mid-1970s, they began hosting A-rated hunter-jumper horse shows at Springfield. Intrigued by a blend of art, math, and athletics, Laura, now 50, began designing jumping courses. She was one of the first course designers fully-accredited by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and helped craft licensure standards. One of only four American women licensed by the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) to design international-level stadium jumping competitions, she created and supervised courses for over 100 top-level competitions in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. She designed the 1993 Olympic Festival in San Antonio, Texas, and served as Assistant Course Designer at the 1992 World Cup in Del Mar, California. She worked extensively for the Federacion Ecuestre Mexicana designing courses for World Cup, Pan Am Games, and Olympic qualifying events. To empower her talented but socially-restricted Mexican crew to become more effective, she developed and implemented a training program that afforded them more autonomy. Several of those crew members were able to use their acquired skillsets to work internationally. From 1994-1996, she oversaw the design, painting, and transport of 60 obstacles for the 1996 Olympic Games. During the Atlanta Games, she served as Assistant Course Designer, the first woman in Olympic history to be so honored. Her events were regularly televised on ESPN, CBC, and other sports networks in North America and Europe.
In the midst of her sports career, she turned her attention to conservation, environmental education, and historic preservation. Over 60 years, she rehabilitated over two dozen historic structures for both adapted modern use and museum interpretation. Two buildings, among the first African-American rural structures in Georgia to be so, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. She believed buildings are manifestations and touchstones of a community's history, and engaged in humanities education, cultural preservation, and oral history collection for over 50 years. She was Founder and Past-President of the nonprofit Seabrook Village Foundation, the first museum dedicated to research, education, and the authentic portrayal of the history and culture of African-American landowners circa 1865-1930. She served as NEH Consultant to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, advising on the preservation and interpretation of a slave jail now integral to the museum's exhibitions.
Encountering resistance in the preservation community to "ordinary" vernacular structures, Laura advocated for the inclusion of everyone's history, not just of the famous and formal. As President of the Liberty County Historical Society, she insisted on the inclusion of African-American history in the area's narrative. In 1994, she was appointed Chair of the Regional Tourism Advisory Council for the Georgia Coast, and, under her leadership, the committee created the first African-American regional travel guide in Georgia. She believed strongly in the economic power of sustainable cultural and nature-based tourism to support traditional communities and natural and working landscapes. Under her leadership, Seabrook Village received Georgia's Best New Tourism Product Award in 1994-95 and one of twelve 1994-95 Cultural Olympiad Awards for excellence and innovation in humanities programming.
In 1997, she and her family opened 2,200 acres to the public at Melon Bluff to encourage the public to reconnect with the land through recreational activity. Drawing from her own childhood in the woods and marshes, she advocated for science-based environmental education as paired with the emotional and physical experience in nature. In her late 60s, she became a certified Master Tree Farmer and Master Wildlifer, an instructor for UGA's Master Naturalist Program in forestry and salt marsh ecology, and a teacher-training Facilitator for Project WILD and Project Learning Tree. In 2000, she was named Georgia's Tree Farmer of the Year, and the National Arbor Day Foundation honored her with their 2003 National Good Stewardship Award.
She served on the boards of many diverse organizations including the Georgia Forestry Association, the Nature Conservancy Coastal Advisory Board, the Poetry Society of Georgia, the Junior League of Savannah, Georgia Sea Grant Advisory Board, San Francisco Women Artists, Marin Society of Artists, City of Mill Valley Arts Commission, Junior League of Savannah, Liberty County Bicentennial Committee, Savannah Children's Theatre, Coastal Georgia Land Trust Advisory Board, Liberty County Chamber of Commerce, Colonial Coast Travel Association, Midway Museum, and the Savannah Symphony Children's Concerts. She lectured widely on everything from Forest Fragmentation to the Afro-Atlantic Diaspora to Artist Survival Skills.
Her greatest challenge was to protect the nearly 10,000 acres left in her care. When she was 12, her father warned her that it might be impossible. Thankfully, her innate gifts of tenacity, creativity, conviction, and courage resulted in the creation of the Springfield Legacy Foundation that will manage the property in perpetuity, and conservation easements ensure the land's permanent protection for everyone. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources presented her with the 2007 Rock Howard Award for "having made the greatest contribution to the state in the vital area…in the mission statement of the DNR…to 'manage, guide, and promote the wise use of the state's natural, historical, and recreational resources for the benefit of Georgia's present and future generations'." After the award ceremony, the selection committee informed her that the element that differentiated her from her fellow nominees was that she was the only one who had acted out of pure altruism and not for herself.
For the last 20 years of her life, she spent part of every summer writing. In 2009, she published Killing with Kindness, a well-reviewed collection of short stories about irony. She also wrote a cookbook Sauce and Sass with her youngest daughter Meredith.
She often said she would never retire. In the last year, her body finally asked for rest, but she lived fully to the end. She got to see her youngest daughter married in the chapel she had dreamed and designed. She travelled to Normandy to see Monet's studio and garden and to honor the fallen on the beaches 75 years after D-Day. A train fanatic, she took a last trip through the Canadian Rockies. A child at heart, she reveled in Christmas lights and watched her 2-year-old great-grandson play in the dirt where she once built imaginary cities populated by fiddler crabs. She peacefully went to sleep on a beautiful, bright, breezy day surrounded by her family and friends, caregivers and cats. Outside her window, the sun sparkled on the creek through an ancient oak. They were safe through her care. She left this world better, fuller, and rounder.
She was predeceased by her parents, her sister Martha Randolph Stevens, and her beloved husband Donald Allan Devendorf. She is survived by her daughters Daryn Peeples Beringer, Meredith Devendorf Belford, and Marla Stevens (née Peeples); sons-in-law Stuart Beringer and R. Scott Belford; grandsons Taylor Randolph Beringer and Stuart Marshall Beringer; granddaughter-in-law Kristin Jones Beringer; great-grandson Connor Randolph Beringer; step-son John Devendorf and his wife Karen; close family friends Deacon Alonzo F. Bryant and his wife Charlena, Deacon Donnell Golphin, Mary Ellen Wood, Ronald Anderson, Anthonette Bryant, and Bill and Becky Hardee; close childhood friends Jane Abbott, Ashby Angell, Janet Dixon, and Suzy Williams; and her kitties, Callie, Sabrina, and Sundae.
In the final months of Laura's life, dedicated caregivers covered her with compassionate attention. She enjoyed their company, and the family is eternally grateful to Julia Greene, Becky Hardee, Cutina Jones, "TK" King, Krystle McCray, Korpo Meyor, Delores Roberts, Sheneeka Roberts, and Mary Ellen Stevens Wood for their steady and graceful support.
The family wishes to express sincere appreciation to the staff of Amedysis of Hinesville, Compassionate Care Hospice, Dr. Lorraine McRae, and Dr. Rebecca Nash Sentman.
A memorial visitation gathering will be held from 2:00-4:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 23, 2020, at Fox & Weeks Funeral Directors, Hodgson Chapel, 7200 Hodgson Memorial Drive, Savannah, Georgia.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Liberty Humane Shelter, P.O. Box 1481, Hinesville, GA, 31310.
Please sign our online guestbook at www.foxandweeks.com
Savannah Morning News
Please sign our Obituary Guestbook at savannahnow.com/obituaries
Published by Savannah Morning News from Feb. 11 to Feb. 16, 2020.