His impact on Tybee Island can be seen in the many historic structures he was instrumental in preserving and restoring, but Cullen Chambers' legacy stretched far beyond one small Coastal Georgia island town.
Chambers was an established historic preservationist in Florida — most notably for his roles in restoring Fort Zachary Taylor and a lighthouse station in Key West and another lighthouse station in St. Augustine — when he was lured to Tybee in 1994 to become the executive director of the Tybee Island Historical Society.
The 63-year-old Chambers held that title until his sudden death Monday.
Chambers was responsible for all operations at the Tybee Island Lighthouse Complex — its lighthouse, several historic cottages and a museum — and was an integral figure in several restoration projects on the island.
"He left a tremendously positive imprint on our island that can be seen in the preservation and restoration of our lighthouse and its grounds, our historic (Tybee) Post Theatre, the Fort Screven guardhouse and the many raised cottages he helped to save from the wrecking ball," said Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman. "The success Tybee has had in preserving our Island's heritage and history is in large part thanks to Cullen.
"On top of that, he was such a kind, friendly, giving individual. He will be sorely missed by our little tight-knit community."
Jim Klutz, the former Tybee Island Historical Society president who helped hire Chambers, Tuesday recalled long conversations on a variety of topics with his late friend that showed Chambers' kind-hearted, passionate nature.
"Everybody's unique in their own way, but Cullen was unique in a truly unique way," Klutz said. "He knew who he was, and he was one of the few people I've had the pleasure of working with who not only could see the big picture ... he could also take that picture and get it where it needed to be."
Convincing Chambers and his wife Christine to leave St. Augustine for the Savannah area was fairly simple, Klutz said.
"When he came up here, he looked at these sites — Fort Screven, the cottages — and he said, 'There's an amazing number of things on Tybee taken for granted.' He said to us, 'These things are so unique,'" Klutz said. "He didn't really know anything about Tybee at the time, but he came up and he could see — not physically because we were a long way away then — but he saw what we had here and what it really could become."
In his 20 years working on Tybee Chambers made many of those visions a reality and was often recognized with awards for his work. Yet he never sought the limelight, often spreading recognition among his peers.
"He did so many things that he never took credit for," Klutz said. "He always let other people take the credit, but those of us who were in the know, we knew who was really responsible. He was. He was something; he really was."
Even as Chambers guided preservation and restoration efforts on Tybee, he often consulted and volunteered on projects across the country.
Recently, Chambers had been helping an effort to preserve and restore a 1920s-era one-room schoolhouse on St. Simons Island called The Harrington School.
The primary grade school for black children who lived on the island, the building is the last remaining link on the island to its Gullah-Geechee culture.
Chambers, through his role with the Historic Preservation Technical Advisory Committee of the Coastal Regional Commission, had been working with the Georgia Trust and the St. Simon's African American Heritage Coalition to keep the schoolhouse standing.
"He was just doing that out of the goodness of his heart," said Daniel Carey, president and CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation. "He just believed in it."
Carey considered Chambers not only an integral member of the local preservation community but also a mentor and close friend.
"He's one of those irreplaceable people, one of those just good people that everyone liked," Carey said. "He was just a sweet guy who was one of those people that we were lucky to have with us as part of our life."
The Tybee Island Historic Society will honor Chambers today with a bagpipe performance on top of the lighthouse at 5 p.m. A "Food and Friendship" celebration will follow at the American Legion Post on Tybee at 6 p.m.
Chambers is survived by Christine, his twin brother Curtis Chambers and his younger brother Roy Lain.
In lieu of flowers, donations in his name should go to the Friends of Tybee Post Theater or to purchase Historic Preservation Auto Tags.
Those were causes Chambers was truly passionate about, Klutz said.
"He just loved preservation and history — the stories of our history and other people's history," Klutz said. "He was special, and he's going to be missed.
"Tybee is clearly a better place for him having been here, and we were lucky he was here as long as he was."