Island Vibes March 2024

n Aug. 13, 1920, a baby girl was born in Brooklyn, New York. The timing of her birth, just days before women were granted the right to vote, proved to be quite the coincidence, since she would grow up to become the first woman to be mayor of Isle of Palms. Like many women of her time, Carmen Ramirez worked as a typist when she finished high school. But unlike most women, she joined the U.S. Navy several years later during World War II – against her parents’ wishes. Since she could speak three languages – Dutch, Spanish and English – the Navy put Ramirez to work interpreting and translating communications, some top secret conversations, between Allied forces. She was initially stationed at Hunter College in Manhattan, then in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and finally at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia. While in Norfolk, Ramirez met another sailor, Jack Bunch, whom she would later marry. After the war, the couple moved to the Isle of Palms, Jack’s hometown and ran his family’s restaurant, the Inlet Inn, at Breach 24 HISTORY The First Lady Carmen Bunch: IOP’s first female mayor By Mary Coy O Inlet. They lived in a small apartment above the restaurant. Ramirez, now formally known as Carmen Bunch, found that moving to a small community of 300 people was a huge adjustment for her. She even admitted sometimes she cried herself to sleep at night. But the new bride eventually settled in and became friends with islanders who frequented the family’s restaurant. Since the Bunches had served in the military, they were able to use the GI Bill to purchase two lots on 17th Avenue and build the house where they raised their two children. In 1950, the couple left the restaurant business and went to work at the Charleston Naval Shipyard, the biggest employer in the Charleston area, where she worked for 22 years as a recreation specialist. Living on the island, Bunch became interested in civic affairs and when the city was incorporated in 1953, she began attending city council meetings. She ran for mayor in 1981, two years after her husband’s death, but lost to the incumbent. She would, however, win the next mayoral election in 1985 after serving four years on the city council. And so began Bunch’s 16-year tenure as the island’s only female mayor. Bunch’s moxie was put to the test in a big way when Hurricane Hugo blasted the island in 1989. The devastation was widespread. About 95 percent of the homes on the island were destroyed or rendered unsafe. Roads were impassable, even the Ben Sawyer Bridge which was the only route onto the islands at the time, was dismantled and out of use. But Bunch had concerns that looters would still be able to make their way onto the island - and some did. So, with the approval of then-Gov. Carroll Campbell, martial law was imposed and only civil authorities were allowed to access the island. That meant anyone who had evacuated before the storm was unable to return, even those who were full-time residents. This decision angered and frustrated many island property owners who were anxious to assess the damage to their homes. Some also questioned whether it was the best move for Bunch’s political future. But Bunch was convinced that it was the right thing to do. And despite the swell of controversy surrounding her decision, she was re-elected mayor. After serving four consecutive terms, Bunch contemplated one more run for mayor at the age of 81, but finally decided against it. She retired in 2002 and died in 2014. At one point, all three mayors east of the Cooper were women -- Bunch and mayors Kathleen Cantwell (1991-1992) of Sullivan’s Island and Cheryll Woods-Flowers (1992-2000) of Mount Pleasant. The three formed a camaraderie that came from serving simultaneously as a coalition of mayors east of the Cooper. And being the first women at the helm of each of those municipal governments, the group had made history. Bunch had begun her adult life in service to her country. So, when the World War II monument was dedicated at the mall in Washington, DC in 2004, she was among the veterans present and was interviewed there. In 2013, the city council used Charleston County Greenbelt funds to purchase a 1-acre lot next to the Island Center to be used as a public park named in honor of a woman who, as she was known to admit, did it her way. Photos Provided.