The late John E. Fairey III was a much-loved botanist who inspired generations of students at Clemson.

The late John E. Fairey III was a much-loved botanist who inspired generations of students at Clemson.
Image Credit: Clemson University

CLEMSON, South Carolina – When John E. Fairey III retired in 1998 after 30 years at Clemson University, he left behind a legacy that still enriches the lives of everyone interested in the natural world.

Professor Fairey was a native South Carolinian and a well-known – and much-loved – botanist who inspired generations of students at Clemson. He was also the curator of the Clemson Herbarium, and an early champion of the Bob and Betsy Campbell Museum of Natural History. At the heart of this passion was Fairey’s lifelong fascination with plants and his deep conviction that understanding and protecting the natural world is everyone’s responsibility.

“John was very interested in teaching about and preserving the natural wonders of South Carolina,” said Dixie Damrel, current curator of the Clemson Herbarium and a friend of Fairey’s in his later years. “He wanted to keep the study of flora and fauna alive, and he wanted to make it easier for individuals and institutions to be able to do the right thing to protect our heritage.”

Professor Fairey took his own self-imposed commitment to the natural environment seriously. A significant part of his professional research involved monitoring the floristic health of isolated plant communities affected by state-wide industrial development, and later he made significant personal contributions to the Congaree Land Trust. In the early 2000s, he and his family acted to permanently protect important borderland plant communities along the Edisto River.

“John was serious about sustainability long before it became the watchword it is now,” Damrel said. “Even after he retired, he was a friend to Clemson and to the Herbarium and helped in every way he could.”

When Fairey passed away in 2015, he left behind an endowment that annually supports the work of both his beloved Clemson Herbarium and the Vertebrate Collection in the Campbell Museum. “His gift to the museum was a tremendous gesture that the Clemson community should treasure and help grow for years to come,” Damrel said.

Fairey was born in Rowesville, S.C., not far from Orangeburg. The family farm, where he retired after leaving Clemson, bordered on the Edisto River, and the rich and distinctive plant and animal communities there helped inspire his love for biology and especially botany. After earning his B.S. at the University of South Carolina, he completed his doctorate at West Virginia University and eventually joined the faculty at Clemson in 1968. A gifted and popular teacher, he was unassuming, approachable, and always willing to help.

The Bob and Betsy Campbell Museum of Natural History is located between Long and Kinard halls on Clemson's main campus.

The Bob and Betsy Campbell Museum of Natural History is located between Long and Kinard halls on Clemson’s main campus.
Image Credit: University Relations

Professor John Nelson at the University of South Carolina (the well-known “Dr. John” of the SCETV series Making It Grow) was one of John Fairey’s students, and he fondly remembered his former mentor’s generosity and described him as “one of the most humble and easygoing people you could ever know, quick to smile and offer a laugh.” Nelson also warmly recalled that Fairey was also the instigator and conductor of “legendary field trip courses” that plunged students – ready or not – directly into the unique plant communities scattered across South Carolina.

Recalling Fairey’s retirement years, Damrel said, “John Fairey was funny, friendly and absolutely charming. He was a natural, unhurried story-teller, and you learned something important from him every time you heard him speak.” Whether recounting tales of his extensive world travels, or of his deep inside knowledge of the history of the University, “John knew so much about plants, about people, about the University, that it was a pleasure to hear him open up about what he thought was important and about what he thought we – as individuals, as well as communities – needed to do about it.”

The changes that Fairey had seen in South Carolina are vividly illustrated in a recollection he shared with Stanlee Miller, former curator of the Clemson University Vertebrate Collection and Fairey’s friend and colleague for decades. “John once told a story of how his mother loaded him and his brother into the family car and drove to see the new highway (I-26) connecting Columbia with Charleston,” Miller said. “When they reached it, his mother asked who in the world would ever use a road that wide?”

Melissa Fuentes, the current curator of the Clemson Vertebrate Collection at the museum, is appreciative of the legacy that Fairey left behind. “Having heard stories of John from Dixieand Stanlee painted a beautiful picture in my mind of a man who was passionate, larger than life, and extraordinarily aware of humanity’s need to step up as stewards of the land,” Fuentes said. “Every professor, researcher, student, and visitor who has visited or used the museum owe a debt of gratitude to John. Without his help and his contributions, the museum wouldn’t be what it is today.”

The dramatic changes that Fairey saw over the years made him deeply aware of the pressures to our state’s wild areas and the important roles the Clemson herbarium and vertebrate collections could play to protect them. “John considered the museum collections as essential resources in and of themselves,” Damrel said. “You can’t effectively enable conservation without them, and that’s why John bequeathed a legacy to help support the museum.”