By all accounts, Dr. Mark Finlay was a gem of a human being—one of those smart, kind people who couldn't elicit a mean word or a backhanded insult from even the most cantankerous Savannah citizen.
If you know anything about the cranky tongues in this town, that's quite an accomplishment.
His students respected him. His colleagues admired him. His neighbors liked him. They would have gladly told you that before the news came that the acclaimed history professor had been killed in a car crash last Sunday night on a dark stretch of I-95. Nobody is happy about having to tell it now.
"Mark was a great scholar, teacher and friend," mourns Tania Sammons, a curator with the Telfair Museums. "I'll miss talking to him about history and collaborating on history projects, which began when I was a Master's student years ago at Armstrong."
On the faculty of Armstrong Atlantic State University since 1992, Dr. Finlay served as assistant dean of Liberal Arts and garnered top teaching awards at local and state levels. In 2010, he won the top prize from the Agricultural History Society for his book about Savannah's brief foray into latex production, Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security.
He was an avid sports fan, a world traveler and unrepentant research wonk, softspoken and shy with one of those funny streaks that seemed to pop up unexpectedly, like when he lampooned himself in a beige polyester leisure suit in a photo recently posted on Flickr.
He leaves behind a wife, two sons and a bereft community.
"His is one of those great lives cut short," laments fellow history professor and friend Robert Batchelor, a faculty member at Georgia Southern.
The loss of Dr. Finlay also means a sudden vacuum in the conversation about local conservation. He was in the midst of writing a book about the undeveloped islands of Georgia's coast and how they came to be protected — and how they might still be at risk. He had the uncanny talent of stitching together disparate disciplines to distill the bigger picture, an uncommon trait for a lifelong academic.
"In his writing, our relation to the environment was intertwined with local knowledge, politics, economics, national security and innovation," continues Batchelor. "These are things we know intuitively but often forget when we think of the environment as a separate issue."
By documenting the histories of the wild places of Wassaw, Cumberland, St. Catherine's, Ossabaw and other sea islands, Finlay shed light on everything from early Native American inhabitants to the role of the paper industry to America's financial elite. He also gave voice to the nascent coastal environmental movement of the 1950s, a time when Savannah's liberals and conservatives united to defeat corporate interests that would have sludged up Wassaw Sound for phosphate and built condos on the landfill.
But Finlay never abdicated his role as an objective researcher.
"He was a historian. He did not project his views, he did not have an agenda," says Dr. Paul Pressly, educational director of the Ossabaw Island Foundation. "By bringing forth the topic, he hoped to influence the discussion."
Pressly lauds the work Finlay did with the foundation, bringing back participants of the island's original Genesis Project and spending hours with Ossabaw's most vociferous defender and only full-time resident, Sandy West.
Finlay's rigorous research has brought awareness and authority to the cause, and Pressly hopes that it will be published posthumously. An international environmental symposium on Ossabaw is being planned for 2016 in Finlay's honor.
"He was a Renaissance Man — a restless mind that could tie things together in different areas, bring together administration and faculty, environmentalism and industry," Pressly remembers.
"He understood the long view."
To underscore that point, Pressly shares a story that took place just a few weeks ago: He was with Finlay and his wife, Kelly Applegate, in Plains, Georgia, where 89 year-old former President Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church.
"After lunch, Mark did something very touching — he pulled out campaign buttons from 1976 and talked about how as a young teenager in Iowa, he worked for the Carter campaign," retells Pressly. "He had saved them all those years. President Carter was very moved."
I didn't know Finlay all that well—we have friends in common, and I worked with Kelly, a talented graphic designer, at another publication years ago. Our kids attended the same school for awhile, and sometimes we'd exchange the apologetic nods of busy grown-ups who would really like to stop and chat one of these days if we could just find the time.
I did get a glimpse of his exceptional way with history when I interviewed him in January for an article about Ossabaw and the rest of the sea islands on the occasion of West's 100th birthday. We met at Skidaway State Park's Big Ferry Trail to put context to content, and as we traipsed through the saw palmettos and curtains of moss, he pointed out a Native American oyster midden here, a decomposing moonshine still there, the centuries piling up in the misty maritime forest.
Without a trace of pedantry, he explained the connection between the untouched marsh and the Rockefellers while invoking cellular biology, loggerhead turtles and Lester Maddox. We also talked kids and chess and even a little UGA football.
I learned more about the Georgia coast in an hour sitting with Dr. Finlay looking out onto the choppy waters of the Skidaway Narrows than I had in the entire time I've lived here. I sure do hope to read his book someday; his research may be the reason that future generations will be able to poke their toes into the pristine sand dunes of St. Catherine's Island or track wild pigs on Ossabaw.
I humbly offer my deepest condolences to Dr. Finlay's family and friends in this difficult time. I'll also extend a gentle reminder to all of us to hug our loved ones a little tighter, take things a little slower.
And to remember that how much value there is in history, and how much we need those who make it matter.