Featured in the Manning Times, October 4, 2001
From striking out on his own business at age 19, to battling back from a near-fatal plane crash, to putting it all on the line to make his dream of developing an air park here a reality, Joe Witt has always had a fierce determination to “get things done”.
“When he gets it in his mind to do something, he’s going to do it,” says longtime friend Bobby Jonte of Greeleyville, “Really worthwhile goals take a while to accomplish, we merely need to get started. That’s one thing Joe’s taught me.” According to friends, Witt’s not the type to let anything stand between him and his goals. And never was that more clear than following a 1998 plane crash that left his body – but not his spirit – broken and bruised. Witt has endured years of surgeries, rigorous physical rehabilitation and mental anguish, but is on his way to fulfilling a dream by completing a development that he says will allow him to share his love of flight with others across the country
Witt grew up in the Holly Hill area, where some of his family still lives. After high school, Witt who says he always loved working with metal, took several courses at a local technical school and by age 20, was running his own business in Walterboro. “I was young. … Things didn’t work out,” he said. And so Witt spent the next several years traveling and working all over the country. “I came back to Holly Hill and was doing straight commission sales work, driving around, riding up and down the interstate,” when the idea to build a truck wash came to him. “The truck stop was here,” he said, referring to Jerry’s Travel Center off Interstate 95 in Manning. “And this was just a big vacant building. It was originally built for a tractor dealership. … This is the type of business that has to start out as a coattail business,” he adds. “You couldn’t take one of these businesses and go to … an exit where there wasn’t already activity and make it a success. It had to be at the right location.” Witt spent two years planning, saving, and trying to find people “willing to support and endorse me.”
Eventually, he did and leased the property in 1985. “They believed in what I was doing,” he said. “I had a package, a plan, and a willingness.” The name, Mid Eastern Truck Wash, refers to the customers he serves, Witt explains. “I serve … the truckers going from the New York area to the Miami area, and we’re right in the middle,” he said. After about three years of washing trucks by hand, Witt says he started buying and selling specialty parts, things like chrome bumpers, mirrors, and mud flaps for the 18-wheelers he was working on.
“The vehicle lettering part of the business, Mid Eastern Graphix, came about from having a captive audience,” he explains. “There’s usually a time span, with customers waiting to have their truck washed and they’re mandated by law to have certain information on their trucks, so it was a kind of a perfect marriage.” The equipment used in the lettering business enabled me to run the sign business,” which was his first involvement in providing a service to the local area, Witt said. Witt, who went from washing trucks by hand to having between 25 and 30 employees among his businesses, says he couldn’t have done any of it without friend Jerry Bradshaw, owner of Jerry’s Truck Stop, and the help and support of many others. “I wouldn’t be here without them,” Witt said.
“My dad was a pilot,” said Witt, who rode in his first general aviation plane around age 10. “A very close friend of mine in Holly Hill, his father had a plane also, so I was always around planes.” Witt, now 41, took his first lesson in 1987 at the county airport. “The day I met Bobby Jonte I didn’t think I could afford to take lessons,” said Wirr, who recalls meeting his now close friend on a Friday afternoon. “But it’s like everything, you just kind of decide what you want to do and do it. He and I talked,” Witt continues, ” and I told him I’d like to get my license, but told him I can’t afford it. ‘You can’t find $50?” he asked me, Witt said. “Yeah, I guess I could find $50,” Witt replied. “Good, we’ll start at 8 o’clock in the morning,” Jonte said, matter-of-factly. “I guess the moral of it is, with everything, you’ve got to get started,” Witt said. “Yeah, it cost a lot to get my license, but I didn’t have to get it that day. You just chip away at it.” And that theme has played itself out several times throughout Witt’s life. “Whether it’s business, personal, or a goal,” he said, “you just have to keep working at it.”
He and Jonte became “very close” friends from that day forward. At 27, Witt earned his pilot’s license and bought his first airplane – a Cessna-152. “Actually, I bought my first airplane before I got my license,” he said, adding that it wasn’t as expensive a venture as some might think. “That’s something people don’t understand. The car you drive cost more than my first airplane, which was less than $20,000. There’s been this huge misconception about all this money spent on airplanes when in reality, you can buy them, leverage them, make up your payments, … pay the interest, resell them a year and a half down the road, and make some money toward the next one,” he continues. Whole some people hunt, fish, or boat in their free time, Witt insists “this is my hobby.” Buying and selling aircraft is a common practice among aviators, Witt said. “Used aircraft are appreciating at about 10-20 percent a year, so with prudent purchasing, you can buy and sell airplanes, own them and fly them, and it not really cost much,” he said. “Now I own two airplanes in partnership with Bobby.” Again, it was travel that brought to mind a new project for Witt to pursue. “I’d seen lots of airparks and took an interest in them,” said Witt, who defines air parks as “subdivision communities for people who own airplanes.” “What a better deal than being able to keep what you love to do the most in your backyard,” he said. “If boating is your big deal, you want to live on the late; if airplanes are your deal, you want to live at the airport.” According to Witt, there are more than 450 of them in the United States. After three years developing the idea, Witt acquired some property off U.S. 301 and began building his own “field of dreams” in January 1997. “I hired people to help, but I did a ton of that work myself: … clearing, grading,” he said. “I had been working on it for 15 months when I had my accident in March of 1998,” said Witt, his voice immediately becoming more and more quiet. As Witt prepares to recount the details of his accident, his eyes shift downward as he clasps his hands together, almost bracing himself.
“I had flown with Bobby for many years,” he begins. “We landed at a friend’s place over in Calhoun County. There was an ultralight there.”An ultralight, Witt says, is a very lightweight aircraft with a limited amount of engine power that is very limited in its abilities. Often, the aircraft are homemade from kits. “It’s a non-regulated, non-certified, experimental aircraft,” he said. But after some gentle nudging from friends, Witt decided to try it out. “I just did something I didn’t have any business doing,” he said. “I didn’t have any training. It was late March. It was windy. A first-time flight. “All I did was take off, got spun around, got scared, immediately tried to land, and through my own error and the wind, … just spun it in [to the ground] from about 125 feet. “With his friends looking on from the other end of the runway, Witt crashed feet first into the ground. He remembers “pretty much everything” about what happened next. But as Witt begins to recall being “cut from the aircraft,” he pauses to gather his thoughts. It becomes clear that the memories are painful. “I remember them cutting me out. I remember being loaded in the helicopter, … and I knew if I was being put in the helicopter it was bad,” he said. Witt sustained 15 fractures. He broke his back, his pelvis, both ankles. “I wasn’t supposed to walk,” he said. “I wasn’t supposed to live.” Witt remembers Dr. Deanna Constable, a doctor at Palmetto Richland Memorial Hospital, telling him that as she performed some primary orthopedic work. “Someone commented, ‘You really don’t need to do all this.’ And she said, ‘Oh yeah. You might not think so, but I’m going to put him back together,'” Witt said. Witt was hospitalized for a total of six weeks, including 30 days of physical therapy. “I was there where I could be taken care of if something went wrong, but I was lying there for 22 hours a day and listening to the wrong stuff. And so, … I just said I’m going home.”
His determination to return home to Manning came from waking up to find his hospital room filled with family and friends, flowers, and cards and letters from well-wishers, many of whom he didn’t even know. “I just drew off of that,” he said. “Against all odds and against almost everybody’s wishes, I came home. It was grueling. It was just awful.” But Witt said he had “a very special person,” Phyllis Watford, who took care of him at home and helped him to recover. “For months, Phyllis worked all day and then cared for me at night, and made certain I did my daily therapy,” Witt said. “She brought me back to life. She made me get well. Phyllis was just part of the blessing,” he said. “The average person would have left. I know God played a part in helping her to help me.” When I came home, I couldn’t move. I literally could not turn myself over in the bed,” he said. “I had to put my airport project on hold.” But 18 months – and nine surgeries – later, Witt was moving around on heavy equipment, driven to complete his development. “Without any doubt and with all certainty, in retrospect, I did the right thing,” he said. “There’s some that have questioned that, the coming home.” Still wheelchair-bound, Witt was put into an airplane and took a short flight with Jonte. Though some might think it strange for them to fly so soon after the accident, Jonte says, “If a family member was killed in a car crash, you’d still drive to the funeral, wouldn’t you? … When he gets it in his mind to do something, he’s going to do it,” Jonte said of Witt. “He’s just the kin of fellow that’s learned, you need only to start a project and things will be revealed to you.” Jonte says he’s been so inspired by his friend that he dedicated his book, The Same Old Lie, a collection of stories from various people, to him. Witt calls the accident a “big turning point” in his life. “I was 38 years old; I was wide open,” he recalls. “I had a big boat at the beach, an airplane; I was doing a development; business was thriving. I had good friends. I went from that to zero in a split second. Boom. I certainly didn’t have my spiritual life on track [before the crash],” he said. “Too much emphasis on ‘stuff’ instead of the real important things in life, which are the most simple: like caring about one another. Stuff can come and go.” Likewise, Jonte says the accident had an impact on his life. “If you witness something like that, it does put things in perspective,” he said. “We take things for granted.”
The spark quickly returns to his eyes when Witt begins talking about Palmetto Air Plantation. “I’ll be the first to admit the selfishness in it,” he says half-laughing. “It will allow me to fulfill my dream.” But the development also will bring at least 45 new families into the area, he said. A typical mix of about 50 percent working families and 50 percent retired folks that he describes as “movers and shakers.” The purpose of the air park is to “develop a community for aviation enthusiasts that promotes peaceful living, protects investments, provides the use of a private, one-way gated entrance and Common Areas for homeowners.” The kind of people Witt believes the air park will attract are community- and civic-minded people who will contribute to the quality of life in Clarendon. “One lot’s already been sold, and except for a few final details, everything’s in place for completion,” Witt said. The development is centered around a FAA-approved lighted runway, 150 feet by 3,720 feet. To promote the development off the ground, witt and others are organizing a fly-in, slated for this weekend. The event includes a free lunch for those who fly in and golf, skeet shoot, or a lake tour. “I want to showcase the county,” Witt said. “It’s designed to attract the full gamut of flyers with all the activities. But there are no high-pressure sales though,” Witt adds, “simply an opportunity for folks to come see the air park and experience all the wonderful things Clarendon County has to offer.”