On her way home from the grocery store, Aubra Carlton spied several boxes of books in a large pile of refuse left by the curb of a West Ashley home. An avid reader, she just had to pull over and peek at the titles.

She was surprised to find the books were mostly psychology textbooks and educational manuals. But she was downright shocked to find credit cards, diplomas and death certificates mixed in with the trash pile outside 12 Hunters Forest Drive.

Carlton, 71, did a little detective work and learned the books and keepsakes belonged to Earl B. Higgins, a respected local educator and champion of diversity who died in 1992.

A bank had seized Higgins' old house in a foreclosure proceeding after his widow's death in September. When no one responded to repeated eviction notices, Charleston County deputies arrived, and a crew hauled the house's contents to the curb on Dec. 8, leaving a lifetime of memories to the elements.

What's more, Higgins' son, an Army lieutenant colonel, had no idea this had occurred because he was deployed in Afghanistan at the time.

And that didn't sit right with Carlton, who happened upon the pile on Dec. 10.

"I just thought it was so disrespectful," said Carlton, a retired business manager for the Charleston

RiverDogs. "He and his wife both worked so hard and gave so much to the community and other people, and now the whole history of their lives was basically just being thrown out. It made me angry to think their personal belongings would be treated this way."

The boxes contained everything from Higgins' doctorate in education from Auburn University to his father-in-law's yellowed discharge papers from the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937.

There were family portraits and wedding photos, funeral programs and instructions for soldiers returning from World War II. Carlton also found a heartfelt eulogy from Higgins' funeral and a shoe box stuffed with old savings bonds.

Carlton had never met the family, but she thought they deserved better. So, with rain threatening, she began packing up the boxes and hauling them off to her home on the other side of Shadowmoss Plantation. With the help of her good friend Robin McCraby and a neighbor, she rescued more than 20 boxes of books and belongings before they were ruined in a downpour or hauled off by scavengers.

Her garage stuffed with boxes, Carlton then took to the Internet to find out more about Higgins and how she might reach his family.

Carlton learned that Higgins was a Charleston native and Army veteran who served as director of affirmative action and minority affairs at the Medical University of South Carolina. As such, he worked to increase opportunities for minority and unprivileged students to enter health care professions. The university flew flags at half-staff when he died at 45 from an aortic aneurysm, and MUSC still gives out an annual award in his honor.

"This guy was a major personality," said Thaddeus Bell, who carried on Higgins' work at MUSC. "He was a very fine gentleman and a force at the medical university."

Carlton also learned that Higgins' wife, LaValle, had been a longtime special-education teacher, helping kids with special needs. Their son, Earl B. Higgins Jr., graduated from The Citadel, where he also played football, and joined the Army, where he oversees a battalion of more than 700 men.

Carlton's amateur detective skills finally led to an Army public affairs office in Germany, where Lt. Col. Higgins is stationed with his family. Staff put her in touch with Higgins, who thanked her for saving his family's belongings and pledged to pick them up on his next visit home.

Reached in Germany, his wife, Lita, told The Post and Courier that her family returned home on a brief leave after LaValle Higgins died from diabetes complications. They did their best to preserve the family belongings and place them in storage in the short time before her husband had to return to duty.

They had no idea that whole crates of keepsakes had been left behind or that the items had been tossed to the curb until Carlton contacted them.

"We are just so very, very grateful to her for taking the time and getting these things for us," she said. "It's a blessing she came along when she did."

It was a good thing, too. Higgins' former neighbor, Joe Wilbanks, said the large pile was reduced to a mattress and some trash by the time garbage trucks arrived Tuesday.

"People really picked through it," he said.

Carlton got word last week that MUSC's Waring Library is interested in preserving Higgins' books and writings. She'll hang on to the rest of the items until his son can retrieve them.

"That's not a problem. I've got room," she said. "Besides, the story isn't about me. I kept thinking, 'What if all your family's stuff and history were just thrown to the curb to be taken to the dump? Wouldn't you want a chance to get it back?' "

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or on Twitter at @glennsmith5.