IN MEMORIAM: Dr. John Edwards Fairey III (1940–2015)


John Nelson

Additional Authors:


June 2015


In Memoriam

It is a sad joy to provide a few thoughts about the life of John Fairey, who passed away on Sunday, 1 February 2015. (Note to the reader: There are a number of people named ‘‘John’’ in this brief statement, so pay attention.)

John Edwards Fairey III, a beloved teacher, researcher, and friend of many, died at the Heartland of Columbia Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Columbia, South Carolina. He was a true gentleman and a voice of botany for South Carolina, touching many colleagues and students with his cheerful attitude and positive manner.

He was born on 15 March 1940 in Orangeburg, South Carolina to Iva Lee and John E. Fairey, Jr., residents of Rowesville, South Carolina, a small town just south of the city of Orangeburg. It was here that John began a lifelong appreciation of nature, and especially plant life. The family farm in Rowesville was a natural history treasure trove, featuring ancient pecan orchards, extensive fields and forests, all on a setting of 19thcentury outbuildings and agriculture. Additionally, one of the state’s premier blackwater rivers was a short distance from the house: the floodplain forest of the Edisto River (north fork) was (and still is) visible from the back (west) side of the house.

He graduated from Orangeburg High School in 1958, and entered the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia that autumn. At this time, he lived in one of the two brand-new ‘‘Honeycomb’’ dorms. As a freshman, he declared a major in the Department of Biology, and took many of his classes in LeConte College, the science building, situated then and now along Pickens Street. Roundly known at the time as ‘‘Johnny,’’ he was particularly taken by the botanical aspects of the growing department, which at the time was chaired by his beloved professor and mentor, Wade T. Batson, Jr. One of my own favorite stories about John Fairey comes from another of his mentors, John M. Herr, Jr., who was also on the biology faculty at that time at USC. John Herr was teaching ‘‘Survey of the Plant Kingdom’’ in the fall of 1961, with John Fairey as a student. Professor Herr recounts that young Fairey, at the conclusion of a serious one-on-one discussion concerning the reproductive morphology of Marchantia, quietly and proudly maintained that, because of his great interest in plant life, he (Fairey) indeed intended to become a botanist. I, along with John Herr, have always been struck by the charming gravitas of this story.

John Fairey graduated with his B.S. degree in 1962. In the fall of that year he began his graduate career at West Virginia University (WVU), obtaining his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in 1964 and 1972. It was at WVU that he began his investigation of the sedge genus Scleria, under the direction of Earl Core. John was particularly pleased to be Dr. Core’s student, one of Core’s very last, and often commented with pride concerning his academic ‘‘parentage,’’ which stretched back to N.L. Britton, who had been Core’s advisor. John’s love of botany was further deepened by his close association in Morgantown with Jesse Clovis, Roy Clarkson, and especially his close friend and confidante, Elizabeth Ann (Betty) Bartholomew. This was a time of great botanical activity at WVU, as well as the growth of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Club, in which John was very active. He served within the club as its vice president in 1981 and as president in 1982.

In 1968 he joined the faculty at Clemson University within its Department of Botany and Microbiology, and served officially as curator of its herbarium until 1977. He remained at Clemson until retiring in 1998, all the time closely involved with the vascular plant collection. John’s first graduate student was William Ann Barnes, who developed her thesis around the plant life of Lake Issaqueena, in Pickens County. My experience with John Fairey began in 1973, as I was just arriving at Clemson from USC, ready to start work on my M.S. degree in botany, along with Jake Bickley, also from Columbia. Jake and I had been students of Professor Batson at Carolina, and it was Batson himself who strongly urged the two of us to get into the graduate school at Clemson. Dr. B was serious about this, maintaining that Clemson’s botany program was indeed a good place to go. I’ll never forget his phraseology: ‘‘Its [Clemson’s] star is rising!’’ It was advice that I took, and one of the best decisions I ever made.

That particular term, Dr. Fairey had taken on at least six M.S. candidates, along with his various teaching and committee responsibilities. It was a very busy time for all involved, and yet Fairey always made time for his students. I was so busy that first semester that I hardly had time to think how stretched out I was getting. The semester after that, I had started wondering if I had made the right decision with grad school at all; my professor came to the rescue. Somehow he knew that I might actually have some potential as a botanist, and drawing me aside, encouraged me to stick it out. I did.

John’s classes and force of personality far preceded him. His field trip courses were legendary, with undergraduates and grad students alike commonly remembering his classes as the best they had ever had. He regularly hauled students for an overnight outing to a place near the coast called Bear Island, which involved shepherding two van loads of students through collecting stops in the Sandhills and Coastal Plain, arriving after dark in that remote section of Colleton County. The botany of the place was fascinating, and the gators and mosquitos also memorable. At the end of one of these trips, the vans were as filled with insects as they were with students, and John was reprimanded by the motor pool for all of the blood smeared on the interior of the vehicles.

During my student days and now as a teacher, I’ve always basically thought that botanists are pretty nice people. John Fairey was one of the nicest, always willing to share his time and knowledge with whomever needed it. One of his great virtues was that of generosity: he was eager to help out those around him, frequently offering his home as a temporary dwelling place as needed, and quick to engage with his students socially. He was one of the most humble and easygoing people you could ever know, quick to smile and offer a laugh. He wasn’t above poking fun at himself, either. John’s great interest in photography and incorporating slide shows into his lectures got him into a bit of trouble, with thousands of unsorted slides taking up most of the space in his home, which was always the cause of good-natured ribbing from his students. He loved to travel and he loved to tell stories, and each of his various trips would result subsequently in an animated travelogue and slide show, of course.

More recently, and after retirement, John Fairey became deeply involved with local conservation efforts in central South Carolina, devoting considerable time as a board member for the Congaree Land Trust, whose offices are in Columbia. In 2007, John and his brother Danny made possible the permanent protection of portions of high quality bottomlands along the Edisto River, as well as associated farmland. In all, 2.214 acres were protected.

He was a one-of-a-kind colleague and friend, and will be missed by many.

John Nelson

[email protected]

A.C. Moore Herbarium

University of South Carolina

Columbia, South Carolina 29208