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Dreaming big on a very small island

Stephen White is on a one-man mission to save a home and a memory.  NBC News correspondent Bob Dotson reports.
/ Source: TODAY

Holland Island is in the middle of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. It is a tiny speck of land where one man is trying to keep a very special promise.  NBC News correspondent Bob Dotson has the story.

Some places have a powerful hold on our lives. Stephen White has spent 10 years trying to save an island — and a spirit — that is slipping away. 

His house stands alone on Holland Island.  It is the last of 60, the final remnants of a neighborhood that once stretched two miles down the shore.

White remembers Holland Island in its heyday.  “It was a bustling community,” White says.  At one point, 68 children attended the island school.  That is, until rising tides forced the residents — that is, all but one of them — to abandon Holland Island.

Working alone, Stephen White began to haul hundred-pound stones across Chesapeake Bay to build up his shoreline. 

Bob Dotson:  How much of your savings have you spent on this island?

Stephen White:  All of it.

Dotson:  $40,000?

White: Three times that.

White does not care that some people think he’s fighting a losing battle.  “Maybe they think I’m just a dreamer, but the world is built of dreams,” he says.

For a time, White seemed to be holding his own against the wind and the tides, even though they sliced his island into three parts.  Then, two years ago, Hurricane Isabel punched through, knocking out nearly all he had.   

“Swept everything out!  It was like someone had come in with a big broom,” White says.

His house was now open to the sea, more windows than wood.  But the island still held him, powerfully.  And White wondered, “Why?”

He wanders to the one place that holds an answer.  An overgrown cemetery lies hidden in the island’s last stand of trees.  A broken gravestone marks the remains of 13-year-old Effie Wilson, who died in 1893.  The former Methodist minister cleans her inscription and reads:  “Forget me not is all I ask.  I could not ask for more.”

"I knew then when I saw it, I knew why.  Because she's asking not to be forgotten,” White says.

So, White never wavers.  Week after week, he leaves his other home on the mainland to keep a promise to a little girl he never met.  “I vowed that I’d fight til I die to save this island and that, if I lived long enough, I would do it.”

And he continues to try, one rock at a time.  But he is now 75.

Dotson:  Why start again?

White:  You succeed when you get up one more time than you’ve fallen. 

He plods on, like a modern day Job — persistent and patient.  As he points out the birds that fly overhead, he is alone, but not lonely.  “My word, they’re like my family.  Look at that!  Look at that grace!”

This island is part of his geography of hope. The world as he wishes it could be.

Dotson:  Why don't you get discouraged?

White:  I guess I can't.  I still believe that what I'm doing is going to work.

He holds fast to his commitment, even though Holland Island is now just 80 acres, less than half the size it was when Stephen first came here as a boy.

Dotson:  Can you beat nature?

White:  With me, the island has a chance of surviving.  Without me, it doesn't.

And with him, Effie Wilson will be remembered. Without him, she washes away.