"You made my day. You made my year," Pembroke Mayor Judy Cook exclaimed at a recent council meeting.
Not exactly the way most council meetings start, but this was a special occasion: A piece of Pembroke history had found its way home to South Georgia.
Pembroke has made a concerted effort to stay connected to its roots, maintaining physical reminders of its past, including the former railroad town’s train car featured downtown and historical homes and buildings that stand proudly alongside the new.
City Hall also has visual reminders of the past with a wall of photos showcasing prominent figures of the city’s history and each mayor who has served. Until Monday, however, there was one individual who was conspicuously absent — the man for whom Pembroke was named, Judge Pembroke Whitfield Williams.
The reason for his absence was simple: No photo of the judge could be found.
That is until one of his descendants, through a series of unlikely events, strolled into City Hall one day last fall and was introduced to City Clerk Sharroll Fanslau.
It all began when Mary Benefield’s ailing father realized the need to move from his apartment and she took on the challenge of helping him sort through his things. As an only child, he had inherited a great deal of family history, not just the oral history but many of the documents to go along with it.
For Benefield, it was a labor of love to sort through all of that history with her father while he was still living and able to contribute his personal memories and knowledge of the material. Through this process, she came to know her great-great-grandfather, Pembroke Whitfield Williams — the very same Pembroke Williams who was once a judge in Bryan County and for whom the city took its name.
Benefield’s research of her family history from her home in Tucker brought her to South Georgia via the internet, and then in person as she explored her family connections to the region and specifically the city. That lead to her chance encounter with Fanslau and their ensuing plan to finally fill in the missing space in the Mayors Gallery at City Hall.
The Sept. 18 Pembroke City Council meeting was the culmination of that plan as four of Pembroke Whitfield Williams’ descendants came to town to present a long sought after photo of the man to the council and mayor.
For Benefield and her siblings, it was a homecoming of sorts to visit the town with which their ancestor had a strong connection.
"It’s a sense of timelessness and roots and being connected to something … that a long time ago part of who made you was there and had an impact," Benefield said. "So, it’s kind of a grounding feeling, a timeless feeling."
In addition to providing the judge’s photo, the family was also able to shed light on another issue of importance to the residents of Pembroke and one about which everyone has an opinion — pronunciation.
Whether it’s pronounced "pem brook" or "pem broke" will likely always be debated around town; but according to Williams’ family, despite the spelling, it is pronounced, "pem brook."