Sue Bailey had the elegant demeanor and red hair reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn. But instead of comedic romps on the silver screen, Mrs. Bailey rambled through the marshes and sailed on the waters of Sabine Lake, while wearing lipstick and making sure her red hair was fixed.
She became the beloved expert on the creatures and plants of Southeast Texas.
Early Sunday morning, she died in her bed at Bailey’s Fish Camp, only a few feet from the waters of the bay she loved so much. She was 84, and had lived her whole life either along the waters of Sabine Lake, or nearby.
“Sue Bailey looked upon the natural world with curiosity and wonder and shared her discoveries with others,” said Mark Dunn of Bridge City, who grew up near the Baileys. “She lived a simple life on the edge of Sabine Lake, where she became an observer and activist on behalf of local wildlife preservation and the protection of our marshlands. It earned her acclaim, but she would laugh with those who considered her an academic.”
Though she didn’t have a college degree, scientists with doctorate degrees went to her to get information. Some compare her to Henry David Thoreau. She learned by standing still to watch and listen. She knew the tides, the birds, the fish, the stars, the flowers, and the time of the year when thousands of monarch butterflies would spend the night in the marsh as a stop on the fall migration.
And she would do anything to protect the nature she loved. She was an environmentalist before anyone knew the word.
“She was our own Rachel Carson,” said Michael Hoke, executive director of Shangri La and a former teacher. His reference was to the biologist-writer Carson, who is credited with starting the modern environmental movement with her best-selling book “Silent Spring.”
Hoke met Mrs. Bailey in the early 1970s when he moved to Orange as a young science teacher. They shared a love of nature. He said she was plain-spoken and to the point.
He recalls an early conservation meeting in 1972 at Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School as people gathered to discuss pollution in the waterways. A representative of a chemical plant talked about how much the company had done to keep the water clean.
Mrs. Bailey and her husband, Rob, attended the meeting. After the chemical plant representative spoke, she turned to her husband and said out loud, “Tell him what you told me last night.”
Rob Bailey said “All fish in the Sabine River taste like no-knocks,” a fuel additive at the time.
The Baileys lived on Lake Street in Bridge City, which is known as “Bailey Road.” Rob’s parents operated a store-gas station and dance hall on the road in the 1930s, before the Rainbow Bridge, when a ferry took cars across the Neches River.(His parents survived the 1900 Galveston storm.) Eventually, Rob operated a fish camp at the end of the road, and his brother, Fred, had their parents’ old place. Rob sold bait and no beer, and Fred sold beer and no bait, so they didn’t compete.
Sue Bailey raised their six children and worked at the fish camp, where they also lived. She sold bait, Cokes and cheese crackers to people fishing and crabbing. In addition to becoming an expert on the flora and fauna, she was an expert on fishing. For many years, she gave a weekly fishing report on KOGT’s “Let’s Go Fishing” show.
The beauty of wildlife around Sabine Lake, which is actually a bay of the Gulf of Mexico, led her to become a photographer. Her photographs of birds, butterflies and flowers are professional quality. Through the years, she presented slide shows with her talks about the marshes.
She particularly liked sharing her knowledge with school children. She knew that if they learned about the land, they, too, would love it and protect it. For a number of years, she invited school children and their teachers for a day-long field trip in the marshes. The lessons included information about the Native Americans that had once camped along the lake. Of course, Mrs. Bailey had arrowheads and artifacts.
She was active in the Audubon Society and in the 1970s and 1980s, served as a warden for the society when nearby Sydney Island had the largest roseate spoonbill rookery in the country.
Hoke said Mrs. Bailey kept a close eye on the birds and visitors. It was fine to take a quiet trip to the island, as long as you let her know.
One time, he was doing graduate work and took other graduate students with him to the island. They didn’t check in, and she caught them.
“She wasn’t mean. We had to listen to her lecture us,” he said. “For a grad student, that’s as bad as it gets.”
Mrs. Bailey also had a sharp sense of humor and was quick with quips. In 1986, Hoke asked her if he could set up his telescope at her place, away from the lights of the city, and bring a few people to watch Halley’s Comet. Word of the planned observation traveled through Orange. By the time Hoke got near her house, dozens of cars were parked along the road as people came to see the comet.
“I see you brought a FEW people,” Mrs. Bailey quipped.
Sue Bailey was featured in stories in magazines, newspapers and television. Texas Country Reporter and Bob Phillips rode through the waters and marshes with her.
But for all the acclaim, Mark Dunn remembers simple Mrs. Bailey, who would give him complimentary sodas or even homemade ice cream, when he was a kid fishing in the lake. He liked to eat the ice cream while sitting under the shade of the big live oak trees by her house.
She made him feel special. And she made everyone feel special.
Funeral services for Mrs. Bailey will be Thursday, at 2 p.m. at Claybar Funeral Home in Bridge City. Visitation will be from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the funeral home.