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Fred Mears, naturalist

Remembering Fred Mears
September 24, 1927 -- January 16, 2001

by Clay Sutton

(note: Clay Sutton is a noted author and wildlife biologist. He read this at Fred Mears' memorial service, March 3, 2001. This tribute is also published in the Cape May Bird Observatory's Peregrine Observer.)

I went to the Concrete Ship today, not because the wind was right, or not because any birds had been reported there.
I wasn't birding, really.

I went because I wanted to remember Fred.

I wanted to think about Fred Mears and in some small way say goodbye, and the Concrete Ship seemed like the perfect place to do it.

concrete ship

The Concrete Ship was possibly Fred's favorite place around Cape May and he "checked the ship" almost every day. In the warmer months he would hold court on the deck of the Sunset Grilll most mornings, greeting friends and newcomers alike over coffee or breakfast. I doubt I'll ever bird at the Concrete Ship again without fond remembrances of Fred Mears, a departed friend, teacher, and keen observer of the natural world!

Few people become legends in their own time, but most would agree that Fred Mears became exactly that -- a legend, an icon in his time spent at both Peace Valley and Cape May. Few people in their lifetime have the honor and the joy of touching as many lives as Fred did, and he was legendary for that.

Pete Dunne loves to tell the story of the classic "CMBO phone call," reporting a bird on the ground in spring and his immediate standard reply before even any description is given, "It's a Flicker." In recent years at CMBO, a similar situation developed. Someone would say, "You know, I met this wonderful man who was so helpful and . . . ," and you could immediately reply, "It was Fred Mears." You could reply even without the description of the layered plaid shirts, the crewcut, the outdoor tan, and the wide engaging smile.

CMBO has many ambassadors for birds and birding, but Fred took the ambassadorship one step further. Fred was a true missionary for the natural world. Fred was the consummate naturalist, embodying everything the name should imply. When he retired after a long career at Peace Valley Nature Center in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he moved to Cape May, but of course we all know that Fred never really retired. He simply went back to work on his own schedule now, and in the place he had always wanted to live, but still "working" as a naturalist and a roving birding ambassador.

He was one of CMBO's full-time volunteer Associate Naturalists, and did that virtually full time, whether at the Concrete Ship, the Hawkwatch Platform, the Meadows, or the Seawatch.

I like to remember Fred as the recruiter for the growing army of birders. Anywhere Fred encountered people, he taught, he educated, he shared, and he enriched people's lives. I particularly remember how he would rarely get involved in the inevitable "tight groups" at the Hawkwatch, but instead would actively search out a beginner, a first-time visitor, or someone with a question that needed answering.

He had that rare quality of understanding a person's needs and the level of their question. On the Hawkwatch Platform, he could teach equally well a Ph.D. ornithologist or the person looking through the "25 cents for a two-minute view" pay binoculars. Fred imparted his considerable knowledge without any of the competitiveness or self-satisfaction you so often associate with not just top birders, but experts in any field. He was quiet, easy, understanding, and giving in his passing of lore or knowledge. Fred loved to share.

He enhanced so many lives that Fred became known, not just as "that nice man," but finally in the vernacular of the day, just "The man!" He was the man you could depend on, whether to teach a beginning birds course, lead a field trip, count at the Seawatch, help with the eagle survey, or to jump in and help out. He was a remarkable man.

Beyond his daily ambassadorship, Fred was a true and personal mentor to very many people. It's hard to imagine the number of people who got into birding because of Fred and the number who have remained lifelong friends with him. Ron French, Bill and Naomi Murphy, and Johnnie Miller are a few of the many, but my own favorite story is about Fred's longtime good friend and birding companion, Bobby Mitchell. A young Bobby would illegally ride his dirt bike (motorcycle) through Peace Valley and Fred would try to chase him down. Bobby jokes that Fred never caught him, but when they finally met, it began a lifelong friendship that got Bobby into birding and was instrumental in Bobby's eventual move to Cape May.

Most of us can count ourselves lucky or fortunate if we have a positive influence on or act as a mentor to even one or two people in our lives, but there are dozens and dozens of people who will name Fred Mears as their mentor and inspiration in birding.

Fred's bio is impressive enough -- machinist, Vice President of a Philadelphia manufacturing company, professional naturalist, active member of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club in Philadelphia, one of the founders of Peace Valley Nature Center. He was also a U.S. Army veteran, and, surprising to some, an avid and winning stock car driver in the early days of stock car racing. But these positions and places don't tell nearly enough of the story of Fred Mears. They can't tell what a fascinating man he was, how varied his interests, or the degree of his curiosity.

He was truly one of the most inquisitive people I've ever met. Fred always had a question, wanted to know more. He so often began each conversation with a question: "I've been noticing, why do you suppose that today the Green Darner dragonflies are heading south and the Saddlebags are heading north. Why is that?" Or, "Have you noticed that the sand they've been pumping on the beach has a different consistency than usual, the grains are much coarser. I wonder why?"

His inquisitiveness was not just related to birds and birding, or even natural history. It encompassed all aspects of both the natural world and even our physical world. He was fascinated by the lighthouse restoration, by the construction methods on the new Hawkwatch platform, commercial fishing techniques, by the dredging of Townsend's Inlet, how geotubes functioned, and by the dynamics of coastal erosion.

Though I was long into birding and natural history before I met Fred, I can think of so many ways he influenced and taught me. Last night at sunset I was thinking how the days are growing longer, and I remembered Fred telling me that the day's were a minute longer each day beginning at the winter solstice. As the full moon rose, I remembered Fred explaining the physics of why the moon looks larger when low in the sky -- that it's because you have a reference point on the horizon, that it's not an "atmospheric" phenomenon but a simple optical illusion. These are but a few of the many small ways I will think of Fred, every day, for many years to come.

There are many people I enjoy meeting in the field, and that includes no doubt everybody reading this account, but I can definitively say that there was no one person whom I looked for more often, either consciously or maybe at times subconsciously, than Fred Mears. I would go to the Seawatch and hope to find Fred there, or drive out to Sunset Beach Grill. If his red Ford Taurus was in the parking lot, I'd stop, maybe for breakfast, maybe for coffee, but always for his warm smile and camaraderie. So many times if Fred's car wasn't there, I'd decide it was time to get back to the office and drive away, in some way disappointed because I so enjoyed our chats. There was no one who I looked for on a daily basis more than Fred, to discover what bit of esoterica or avian trivia he had encountered or discovered or what I myself was overlooking.

So, I went to the Concrete Ship today. The sky and water were shades of gray, and there was no red Taurus in the parking lot to brighten the day. I wondered how long, for how many years, I'll pull up and look for that car and fondly remember Fred and all our wonderful chats and so much more. I birded a little, and saw some nice things -- Bonaparte's Gulls in the wash, Red-throated Loons in the eddy behind the ship.

I cleaned the binoculars more than once before I realized that the mist was not on them . . . I wondered about what I missed, what I didn't see that Fred's inquiring mind would have picked up on.

Whether it was that all the Red-breasted Mergansers going by were drakes, whether it was the return of the Ruddy Turnstones after a month-long absence, whether it might have been the purpose of the new marker buoys near the ship.

But there was no doubt that there was something, someone, I knew was missing and all of us miss. As I turned to go, I smiled as I realized that Fred's influence on us is as enduring, as permanent and ageless as the Concrete Ship itself. It was the perfect place to say goodbye and will always be a perfect place to remember "The Man."


concrete ship



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