Myrtle Beach area tourism promoter and critic Donald Wizeman found dead of apparent suicide

Donald G. Wizeman, whose tourism and marketing accomplishments were often overshadowed by his stinging criticism of Myrtle Beach area business leaders, was found dead Tuesday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was 69 years old.

According to a report in The Baltimore Sun newspaper, Wizeman fatally shot himself inside an emergency room bathroom at the hospital. He was found with a gunshot wound to his chest shortly after midnight Tuesday morning, Baltimore police told the newspaper.

Wizeman’s wife, Kay Sherfick-Wizeman, told The Sun News that she had no indication her husband was planning to kill himself. The couple, who lived in Virginia Beach, Va., had been together for 40 years and were married a year ago in Camden County, N.C.

“I thought he was going up there to check on a job,” she said. “I had no clue this was going to happen.”

Sherfick-Wizeman said there will be no funeral services for her husband, according to his wishes.

Wizeman was well-known in the Grand Strand’s tourism community, both for his innovative marketing ideas as well as for his biting wit, which often got him into trouble.

“All my life I have been like that kid in the Hans Christian Andersen story who, while everyone was fawning over the naked emperor’s non-existent ‘new clothes,’ piped up and exclaimed, ‘But he doesn’t have anything on’,” Wizeman said in an email to The Sun News earlier this month. “I have always known that I am my worst and my only real enemy, and while I certainly have regrets, none are related to how I have conducted my business nor what I have said about how others conduct themselves or their business.”

Horry County Councilman Marion Foxworth, who considered Wizeman a friend even though they worked against each other on political issues, called Wizeman “hard-headed and stubborn, but also something of a visionary.”

Foxworth pointed to Wizeman’s formation in 1987 of the United States-Japan Golf Association, which promoted golf in this area and elsewhere to Japanese tourists and businesses, as an idea that was ahead of its time. The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and other groups only recently have started promoting this area to Asian countries, which are seen as lucrative, up-and-coming tourism markets.

Chip Smith, owner of the TPC of Myrtle Beach golf course, said Wizeman was “passionate” about Myrtle Beach and wanted to see this area succeed.

“He cared a lot about it to the point where he was a little obsessed with the town and where it’s going,” said Smith, who became friends with Wizeman through his work in the Grand Strand’s golf industry. “I was sad to get the call.”

Wizeman in 2005 also formed Myrtle Beach Forward, a consortium of area business leaders working to leverage advertising dollars to compete with larger tourism destinations, such as Orlando, Fla. The hotel owners in that group agreed to impose a $1-per-night fee to guests that would be given to the chamber for marketing purposes. It’s an idea the chamber continues to use to supplement its annual marketing budget.

“I’m saddened to hear about Don Wizeman’s death,” Brad Dean, the chamber’s president, said in a statement. “Don always held strong and passionate views about golf, tourism, politics and the Myrtle Beach area in general. He was involved in a number of business ventures throughout the years and genuinely believed the Myrtle Beach area held great potential as both a community and a resort destination. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.”

As much as he worked to promote tourism, Wizeman also was a frequent critic of this area’s tourism leaders, including Dean, and his antics sometimes bordered on the level of juvenile pranks. For example, he once bought the Internet domain for Myrtle Beach developer Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. and then linked the site to a web page featuring the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.

In 2004, Wizeman started writing an Internet blog called “Myrtle Beach Insider” under the pseudonym “The Watchman.” The blog skewered area politicians, educators and business leaders with acid-tinged, sometimes mean-spirited – while, at the same time, often hilarious – diatribes.

The anonymous watchman was unmasked in 2007 after a post criticizing Coastal Carolina University officials ended with the phrase: “where is my shotgun, my bucket of tar and bag of chicken feathers?” CCU officials said they took the post as a threat and contacted the State Law Enforcement Division, whose investigators got Wizeman to admit to his authorship of the blog. No charges were ever brought against Wizeman.

Two years later, Scott Brandon – chief executive officer of The Brandon Agency advertising firm in Myrtle Beach – obtained a $1.8 million libel judgment against Wizeman for a post that referred to Brandon as a “failed lawyer.” The two sides eventually negotiated a confidential settlement.

Shortly afterward, Wizeman moved back to his hometown of Virginia Beach, where he did occasional consulting work until his death.

Wizeman began his marketing career in the late 1960s, creating the Virginia Beach Forever public service advertising campaign to foster business interest in that city. In 1970, Wizeman started a company called Rent A Girl Ltd., which offered escorts for visiting businessmen to take to parties, conventions and sales meetings in the Virginia Beach area.

He also tried his hand at movies, serving as executive producer of a film called “Moonchild,” which starred John Carradine and had its world premier in Norfolk, Va., in 1972.

He moved to Myrtle Beach in 1980 to start a magazine geared toward tourists called “Grand Strand Guide” and produced this area’s first Beach Music Awards show, with host Wolfman Jack, in 1982 at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. Wizeman started a golf course photography business in 1993, which lasted 14 years, and was hired by Mississippi officials in the mid-1990s to coordinate tourism marketing efforts for the Biloxi/Gulfport region.

In an email to The Sun News several weeks ago, Wizeman joked that he once wanted to trade places with Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine.

“But over the course of my life, and even in the darkest times, even now, there isn’t anyone that I’d trade places with – not one,” he said.