By Sam Bland
The N.C. Coastal Federation lost a good friend in late September with the passing of Jack Cleaves. Jack, 71, was a transplant to coastal North Carolina and quickly fell in love with its beaches and salt marshes.
I first met Jack a number of years ago when our paths crossed while cycling on the roads of Bogue Banks. Over the years, we cycled together from time to time, but I knew Jack best from his volunteer work with the federation.
At Jack’s memorial service recently, the reverend asked if anyone wanted to speak or share a story. A number of wonderful tributes were told, but I sat frozen to my chair, too shy to speak in front of the group. The next day I was embarrassed with myself that I had not spoken because I did have a couple of things to say.
First, I wanted to say, thank you, Jack. Thank you, for spending your valuable time with us to support the mission of the federation. Thank you for preparing hundreds of oyster shell bags and placing them in the estuaries to create habitat where you paddled your kayak and glided your wind surfer. Thank you for helping with our plant sale where you encouraged the use of native plants that benefit our coastal habitats. Thank you for stuffing envelopes to help us recruit members to build a strong foundation for our organization. Thank you for planting trees and shrubs to create wetlands that improve the water quality of our coastal streams and rivers. Thank you for cleaning our properties and beaches, making them beautiful and safe for others to visit. Thank you for maintaining our hiking trails, monitoring water quality and helping with our annual cycling event. Thank you for the hundreds of hours of your time over the past 10 years.
Secondly, I wanted to talk about Jack’s laugh. Since his passing, I have spoken to a number of people that knew Jack and they all remembered and will miss his laugh. It was not a loud belly laugh but more of a hardy chuckle. I especially remember his laugh from a day in March 2009. Jack and I both volunteered to help dismantle a tall 150-foot tower at the federation’s North River Farms property. The tower housed a gauge to study wind patterns to determine if the site suitable for a wind turbine. The study, conducted by N.C. State University, was over and the tower was to be removed.
Jack Cleaves could always be depended on to lend a hand. Here, he helps Sam Bland disassemble a a tower at North River Farms. Photo: Sam Bland
On the morning we showed up, the tower had already been lowered to the ground. Jack and I were assigned the task of finding and removing the cable anchors that supported the tower. The anchors were about five feet long with large discs on one end that were screwed into the ground. The end that was above the ground had an eyelet where the tower cables had been secured. About six anchors were scattered in a field with head high weeds, a distance away from the tower. We were given a thick four foot crow bar to slip through the eyelet and then twist the anchor out of the ground.
Off we went in search of the anchors. Piece of cake. “I’ll do the first one,” I volunteered. With both hands gripping the crowbar, I twisted the anchor counter clockwise with all my might. The anchor didn’t budge and the force of my effort recoiled, throwing me to the ground and the crowbar flying. Jack took a few steps back and stayed well behind me to make sure he didn’t get slapped in the face with the flying metal. I tried pleading, commanding and cajoling this length of metal to release itself from the soil. It silently stared back at me like a defiant stubborn Burmese python reaching out of the ground.
As I wrestled with this beast, a few colorful adult words slipped past my usually tight lips. Eventually the grip of the anchor released from the ground and I slowly twisted the anchor out of the ground as the sweat dripped through my brow, stinging my eyes.
Victorious, I turned to hand the crowbar to Jack and said, “Your turn, Jack.”
Silence was the only reply.
Jack was nowhere in sight. He had vanished into the weeds. As I carried the anchor to a trailer, I could hear the whirling of ratchets and the clinking of tools against metal. There was Jack, contently hovered over the tower taking apart the sections bolt by bolt. He looked up at me and began laughing and couldn’t stop. Finally, he blurted out, “I’ve been assigned a new task.”
Each time I walked past the tower to deposit another anchor into the trailer, I could hear his laugh and see his shoulders shaking.
Jacks commitment to the federation was recognized in 2006 when he was honored with the Volunteer of the Year Pelican Award. Jack was an inspiration that encouraged others to follow his example. He gave back, and he paid it forward. Jack contributed his time to do his part in making our beautiful coastal resources something we all can be proud of, because it is something that he believed in.