SUTTONS BAY — Tom Kelly launched the Inland Seas Education Association in 1989 with the idea of protecting the Great Lakes. Since then, his emphasis has changed — as has the whole ecosystem of the lakes.
“Now we’re using ships and kids to change the Great Lakes,” he said just days before his retirement as ISEA’s first and only executive director. “And I’ll be just as interested.”
Since 1989, zebra mussels, quagga mussels and 150 other invasive species have migrated into the Great Lakes system in the ballast tanks of international freighters.
Their voracious zooplankton eating habits have clarified the water, which has allowed more sunlight to reach lake bottomlands,created underwater growing grounds for algae and a whole raft of problems for Great Lakes native fish and water birds.
ISEA has schooled 98,800 students, young and old, during the last 25 years and expects to hit the 100,000 mark during schoolship season in mid-2014.
Kelly’s last day of work was Dec. 20, but he will continue to work on donor relations and as a captain on ISEA’s 77-foot science education Schooner Inland Seas.
He said it’s a little early to tell yet what effect the program has had on stewardship, but the aquatic biologist is heartened by letters and talks with former students who have grown up, attended college and told him how their schoolship experience changed their lives.
Friends and colleagues describe Kelly as a humble, knowledgeable and thoughtful conservationist and scientist who thoroughly researches before making decisions.
“He has long-range vision and staying power,” said Jim Olson, a Traverse City environmental attorney. “He stays on course and that’s reflected in ISEA. The nonprofit he has built is groundbreaking, not to mention the body of knowledge and information he’s gathered.”
Kelly won a Lighthouse Award earlier this year from FLOW (For Love of Water), a water policy organization founded by Olson.
Kelly first came to Traverse City in 1972 as an University of Michigan undergrad aquatic biology student to collect Grand Traverse Bay water samples for a long-running study of the bay. Fervor for environmental awareness, land conservancies and watershed consciousness was beginning to grow across the nation and in northern Michigan.
He moved to Traverse City in 1974 when the university created a lab here. By then, he had a master of science degree in fisheries biology, an interest in research and an itch for sailing. The U-M study ended after three years and for the next decade Kelly patched together aquatic biology sailing and consultant jobs.
Both his love for sailing and environmental awareness began at 14 when his father, a retired Air Force physicist, purchased a wooden sailboat for the family to use on environmentally troubled White Lake near Muskegon.
In 1977, Kelly bought the Cygnet, a 35-foot ketch (two-masted sailboat). He sailed to Florida and back with friends. Then, he started a charter sailing business on the bay when he returned and continued thinking about his quest to create a dream job that would combine is love for sailing, his commitment to environmental science education and preservation of the Great Lakes.
In the mid-1980s a friend suggested that he go sailing on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a replica built by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, who built the boat to save the heavily polluted river. The Clearwater was one of the first vessels in the U.S. to conduct science-based environmental education aboard a sailing ship.
“For me that was the model,” he said. “We’re a spinoff and we’ve evolved.”
It took two years of planning, cajoling and “a convergence of stars” to turn a dream into ISEA.
Meanwhile, tall ship owner John Elder brought the Tall Ship Malabar from Key West, Fla., down the St. Lawrence Seaway to Traverse City, where he started the Traverse Tall Ship Co., which offered sailing tours on Grand Traverse Bay for a few years.
Kelly pitched Elder the idea of offering a science education program aboard the Malabar in the spring and fall. Elder liked it, but Kelly had no start-up money. At a friend’s urging, he approached Leland residents Ed and Bobby Collins, who founded the Leelanau Conservancy in 1988. Kelly outlined his plan and they gave him $500.
“They did that totally on faith,” he said. “I got stationery printed, stamps and $300 off to the IRS with the submission of a nonprofit application, he said. That’s how we got started.”
Kelly, Elder and Traverse City attorney Peter Doren launched the ISEA schoolship program on the Malabar in 1989. For five years, ISEA also received $25,000 from an unnamed donor.
“Without that, we would have just sputtered out,” he said.
Today, grants fund about half of ISEA’s operating funds. Another third comes from individual donations and the rest from program fees.
Schoolship programs were taught on several boats — Cygnet, Falcon, Manitou, Westward, Mishe Mokwa and Liberty – over the next two years, while Kelly and supporters raised $750,000 from more than 500 donors, including Rotary Charities, to design and build the Inland Seas. Dow Chemical pledged $225,000 after Kelly traveled to Midland to explain his science education plan. Even Seeger sent him a check and wished him luck carrying on his dream of connecting young people with the environment. Kelly still has the note.
The Inland Seas launched in 1994.
“Time went by so quickly,” Kelly said. “When I think back to all the details, it’s absolutely packed – mostly with the thousands of people who have come out to support, teach or help sail the boat. They did the work. I’m just a facilitator.”
ISEA’s new executive director, Fred Sitkins, officially takes over on Jan. 1. Sitkins has been Boyne City’s elementary school principal for 13 years and crewed as a volunteer on the Inland Seas in his 20s. Sitkins brings with him experience in education technology that will help him bring ISEA education programs to the next level, Kelly said.