Hilton Head musical pillar retiring after 25 years of leading church choir

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Don’t be surprised if the frozen Presbyterians of Hilton Head Island stand and throw roses at the altar on May 19 when their music minister of the past 25 years clasps his hands in thanks for the last time, smiles and exits into retirement.

Samuel Russell “Rusty” Floyd III came well-credentialed to First Presbyterian in 1999: degrees from Furman University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Michigan State. He was a college professor, choral director and composer.

He wanted to get closer to home, the small town of Lake City in South Carolina’s Pee Dee section, where piano lessons from Miss Ruby and the church youth choir of John Stoudenmore helped shape his life. And it’s where he fawned over the Beatles and played in a garage band, The Spyrles, that made it all the way to The Pavilion in Myrtle Beach.

But many would say the best thing he brought to this calling was his wife, Laura Sutton Floyd, a daughter of musical missionaries to Brazil whose operatic soprano voice was discovered when she was in the fourth grade and cast as Gretel in the “Hansel and Gretel” opera.

“Music was our life,” she said.

They have added life to the local music scene.

He is co-principal clarinetist with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and has led the community presentation of Handel’s Messiah. His church choir performed at Carnegie Hall. She sings in the Mary Green Chorale, teaches voice and has performed in countless memorial services and special musical programs. They created a number of new choirs at the church over the years.

Mary Green, whose 50 years of conducting orchestras and choruses includes 13 seasons as music director and CEO of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, said they are both “very modest, humble and self-effacing” but have contributed heavily here on stage and behind the scenes.

“He is a great pleasure to work with, always well-prepared,” she said. “And Laura has a remarkable voice presence that reaches out and holds the audience in her hands.”

The Sanctuary Choir that weathered the Zoom rehearsals of COVID to include some 50 voices will pour all it has into a service of song on Rusty Floyd’s last day May 19.

A piece of music has been commissioned for the occasion. And the 10:30 a.m. service will include a piece written by Rusty when he was in the Furman choir, where he was indelibly marked by Dr. Milburn Price and where he met Laura.

The title seems appropriate.

“Lord Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace.”


Rusty and Laura Floyd were married twice.

The first time, his father did the honors in his living room due to complications in getting to her home in Brazil. Russell Floyd Jr. was a lawyer and magistrate judge in Lake City. Rusty’s mother was the witness, and a neighbor took pictures.

“You’re as married as you’ll ever be,” he said.

But a month later, Laura’s father performed a marriage ceremony for them in the chapel at the Southern Baptist seminary in Brazil where he taught choral conducting, worship planning and voice. Her mother, a violinist, translated a hymnal full of songs into Portuguese, in addition to a large portfolio of choral music, including the whole Messiah.

The weddings followed a long-distance courtship while he was in seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in which he sent her tapes of music that might help her understand who he was.

He was a combination of things. He was an only child of a father reared on a farm with 10 siblings and a mother who was an art major. He was in part Miss Ruby Smith who taught his mother piano and was an “extremely demanding teacher” to young Rusty, introducing him to Sergei Rachmaninoff.

And he was a product of the “golden era” of youth choir productions that the kids of Lake City First Baptist Church hit the road performing. He says the peak was “Celebrate Life!” Two pieces from it were performed by his island choir this Easter.

Rusty Floyd says his department head at Hope College in Michigan wept when he told him he was leaving after 14 years on staff.

They felt like Hilton Head was the right place, in part because of a chance meeting during his interview here. They were taken to the Long Cove Club for lunch, and there sitting with parishioners was the Rev. Robert Cuttino, a longtime Beaufort County Baptist leader who was Rusty’s pastor growing up.

And they felt it all fit together in a larger plan for their lives when they were able to adopt Samantha, their “miracle” who is artistic and musical and working on the island as she turns 21.


Retirement plans are hazy for Rusty.

He hopes to do more composing. He’ll stay with the symphony, and Laura hopes he’ll have time to play the guitar more.

They’re proud of special productions at the church on his watch, including the British one-act opera “Noye’s Fludde.” Local youth played in the orchestra. Mark Taylor built the ark, and his wife, Ginny, made the masks. Mark Taylor’s late parents, Charles and Ellen Taylor, had taken the Floyds in almost like their own children when they moved to the island.

Rusty says music is unique because “very few forms of art move the soul, move the spirit, inspire, change one’s life like music does.”

A choir allows people to take their talents and their voices and come together, to participate, and support each other in and out of the choir loft, he said.

Laura Floyd says that when Scripture is set to music, it makes it easy to remember.

“It can carry you through difficult situations,” she said. “It’s the words of hymns that come back to you.”

She said, “We are commanded to praise. Music is a way to express our faith, express what the Lord has done for us and what we believe. It helps us to grow spiritually.”

Rusty Floyd said the music ministry can hold a church together.

“It’s that solid river flowing constantly that has always helped sustain the church.”

David Lauderdale may be reached at LauderdaleColumn@gmail.com.