Dr. Joe Collins’ eyes would blaze when speaking about St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The late herpetologist, a world-renowned professor from the University of Kansas and the Center for North American Herpetology, was first drawn to this area by the federal government and the allure of that island.
An island, Collins loved to say, was unique in the state, a barrier island which had remained largely untouched since the Native Americans and explorers found this part of the world.
To Collins, who tragically passed away in 2012 while in the area for the annual counting of snakes and amphibians by the kind doctor and his merry band of “herpsters”, the island was something new to discover, something a man of science with decades of experience in all things snake could find new, exciting.
That impish pleasure in the things that go ick in the night on that island remained part of the boyish charm of this 70-something man until his passing from a heart attack while doing what his heart loved most.
And how he loved St. Vincent.
That island was his first exposure to North Florida, coming through a contract with the federal government to assess the vitality and diversity of the cold-blooded population within the national wildlife refuge.
For some six years, Collins and crew would alight on St. Vincent and walk merrily through the forest to look under the sheets of plywood and sheet metal that Collins would scrounge from the area to scatter about the island, providing habitat to the creeping crawlers.
That habitat was also perfect for counting.
Where most of us, myself especially, would impulsively run from something wriggling from beneath a board we just pulled up, for Collins and his band of “herpsters” that wriggling was cause for celebration.
A chance for gazes like a long-lost lover found, for photos and high fives – at least the herpetological version, maybe “low eights” or something.
Another species counted, another species documented.
Collins’ lifelong love of snakes and frogs and lizards satiated for at least a moment.
From those years of research would come a pocket-sized guide to the snakes of St. Vincent Island. What also arrived was rabid advocacy for St. Vincent.
By picking up and reading that guide, going out to the island to explore, an individual, Collins said, would become invested in the island, invested in preserving this unspoiled 12,000 acres located in Gulf and Franklin counties.
The local folks and tourists alike, Collins said, should more fully grasp the uniqueness of this barrier island with no land connection, an island that provided so many clues to the diversity and natural gifts of this postcard paradise.
There was simply nothing like the island for providing a snapshot of what nature provides; the breadth and depth.
“It is an island refuge that has been relatively untouched for a century,” Collins said. “Find me another in Florida.”
And Collins loved the Supporters of St. Vincent Island for the group’s passion for the island and maintaining it. The Supporters have become even more essential over the years as budget cuts have impacted staffing and programs.
Next week’s annual Open House is on a Friday for the second-straight year due to staffing cuts.
But it is an Open House worth attending for no other reason that as a reminder of the natural gifts this spot on the map offers and what we must nurture and save for our descendants.
As much as that Open House is a celebration of natural gifts, this Friday will provide a full-throated celebration of a man-made asset, Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf.
Or as I like to refer it, the little hospital that could.
Built long before it would have been under usual circumstances, this facility was constructed in substance to meet the expected need created by the build-out of WindMark Beach, now long in a holding pattern.
But the hospital was embraced by the community, which chipped in more than $2 million in construction costs as well as support of a half-cent sales tax to underwrite indigent care.
And having had occasion to visit the hospital a number of times, having had to make use of the facilities and staff, this has turned into one sweet deal for the community.
The doctors, nurses and staff are extraordinary with bedside manner, their treatment of patients as humans, for the timeliness of services provided and provided with a smile, a kind word or a soothing touch.
The ranks of the volunteers inject this facility with the human touch and grace that represents the best of any community, there to help, to wheel a chair, to sit and assist with paperwork and logistics for transportation, there to complement, by any definition of the word.
And despite the lack to date of the population boom the hospital was constructed to meet, the facility has grown by leaps and bounds since its grand opening three years ago.
A new medical office building offers a variety of services and health care.
New doctors have come onboard, a Women’s Center opened and the latest in equipment installed.
This is a $38 million hospital that has meant far more than dollars by, if nothing else, carving into the “golden hour” that is the critical window in medical emergencies and which far too many county residents had come to spend on the road heading to Bay Medical Center.
So, take a time for a short drive out to the hospital this Friday and enjoy the festivities to celebrate the anniversary of the arrival of this community marvel.
And next week, head out to St. Vincent Island and bask in the beauty that nature has provided.
Then, praise yourself for your choice of homes.