Conservation group leader dedicated life to sea turtles
Jeff McClary couldn’t find a job in his chosen field, working with wildlife. Instead, he made it his life’s work.
As the co-founder and long-time coordinator of S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts, he led an effort that put Georgetown County at the forefront of sea turtle conservation.
“He did such a great thing with the turtles and his passion,” said Betsy Brabson, who oversees the SCUTE volunteers in DeBordieu.
McClary died Dec. 28 at Georgetown Memorial Hospital. He was 68.
The impact of his work was seen as SCUTE reached its 30th anniverary, about the age at which mature females return to nest on the beaches where they were hatched. The years of monitoring turtles and their habitat resulted in a record number of hatchings.
Where 100 nests were once the sign of a good season. The volunteers recorded over 300.
Jeffrey Scott McClary was born Oct. 14, 1954, in Louisville, Ky., the son of Lowell Reece McClary and Patricia Brewster McClary. He graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a degree in wildlife management.
“He was a Boy Scout. He loved to be outdoors,” his sister, Martha Isaacs, said. “He was hoping to make a career working outdoors with wildlife.”
When he couldn’t find a job in that field, he trained as an electrician. He was living in Florida at the time, but moved to the Pawleys Island area where his father had come to start a medical practice in 1982.
One of the first people McClary met was Chris Marlow, a plumber who had grown up at Pawleys Island and had a deep interest in its history and environment.
“He just had a love for the environment,” McClary said in a 2000 interview. “He was like the original Tom Sawyer; before you knew it, you were painting the fence.”
Marlow recruited McClary into the state Sea Turtle Stranding Network.
“Back in the early ’80s, all everybody did in the state was just document strandings of dead sea turtles that washed up on the beach,” McClary said.
In 1988, he and Marlow decided to turn their attention to protecting the turtle nesting habitat. They distributed pamphlets to residents and real estate rental companies, urging people to keep lights from shining on the beach during the nesting season from May through October and not to disturb the dunes where the turtles nest. The results were disappointing.
The next year, McClary, who served on the board of the Litchfield Beaches Property Owners Association, organized a project to plant beach grass along the dunes in Litchfield to draw attention to the impact that improperly installed sand fences had on nesting turtles. It was also a way to draw attention to the sea turtles, which were a threatened species.
Most people were interested, once they were made aware.
“I’ve had a few people say they didn’t care about the sea turtle, and you just smile and go on,” McClary said after a morning of planting dunes in the spring of 1989.
That year, at the urging of Marlow and McClary, County Council Member Glenn Cox of Pawleys Island introduced an ordinance to restrict outdoor lights along the beachfront. It passed in spite of some doubts from the other council members, making Georgetown County the first jurisdiction north of Florida to enact a light ordinance to protect turtles.
“Up until that time, it was just me and Chris taking care of the nests,” McClary said. “After the passage of that ordinance, we got over there and decided to form a sea turtle nest protection group.”
In 1990, the state Department of Wildlife and Marine Resources and the Santee Cooper electric utility launched a campaign: “Lights Out! Sea Turtles Dig the Dark.”
“When that bumper sticker came out, it was a big deal,” Isaacs said.
SCUTE was formed that year. The acronym was inspired by the name for the plates that make up turtle shells, “scutes.”
Mary Schneider was one of a handful of volunteers on Pawleys Island when she started 28 years ago. Now, so many people want to be involved, there are not enough days in the month to fit everybody on the schedule to walk the beach at sunrise.
She called McClary’s death a “loss.”
“Not only for Pawleys, but for all of us in SCUTE who respected him and learned from him,” Schneider said. “He’s been there for us anytime, and every time, we needed him, for all of us. You can’t say anything better than that for a leader.”
In 1991, after Brabson and her husband, Bill, moved to DeBordieu, Brabson happened upon a small group of people digging in the sand.
When she saw a man – who she later found out was McClary – pull three hatchlings out of a hole and release them, she was immediately hooked.
“It was Jeff that introduced me to turtles and Jeff that made sure that I got sucked into the family,” Brabson said. “I did, and happily, it’s a life commitment.”
Brabson recalled that in the beginning, volunteers would write everything down on paper and use the landlines at their houses to call in reports or invite people to inventories. No one had cell phones back then.
“It has come such a long way,” she added. “Jeff and Chris really started something. They planted the seed with a passion and taught us all what they knew at the time, which is ever-changing. We’re learning so much about turtles.”
Marlow died in 2000 at age 50. McClary continued as the coordinator of SCUTE, never failing to emphasize that he was the co-founder with Marlow.
“It’s because of what Jeff has done to bring SCUTE to the forefront. People know what the organization did and what it does due to his leadership,” Schneider said. “What he started is going to continue under new leadership, but we all know how to do it because he taught us all.”
“The sea turtle is important to the beach environment,” McClary said at the start of his journey to protect them. “They were here long before we were.”
In addition to Isaacs, he is survived by two other sisters, Kathy Adams of Prospect, Ky., and Melissa McClary of Asheville, N.C.
SCUTE plans to hold a memorial service for McClary on the south end of Pawleys Island on the first weekend in May, which is the start of sea turtle nesting season.