Tom Quay was a high school sophomore when he heard his first mourning dove singing near a little creek at the edge of his small, New Jersey town.
“I heard a doleful sound and looked up, and there, sitting on a limb, was a mourning dove, swelling up and bobbing its head and body, all those glistening, iridescent colors,” he recalled decades later. “I thought, ‘God, that’s beautiful.’ ”
Quay was in his 80s when he wrote about that memory for Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. It was part of a profile published when Quay was long retired from the zoology faculty at N.C. State University – and well into a second career he described as “full-time, volunteer, unpaid environmental activist.”
Quay died last month at the age of 97, having played a significant role in local environmental preservation, stretching from the Piedmont to the Outer Banks. His particular passion was birds, and those visiting the coastal islands of North Carolina can thank Quay when they see terns, pelicans, and the countless other bird populations that have thrived with the help of his study and advocacy.
During his 32-year tenure at NCSU, he directed 53 graduate students to their master’s and doctorate degrees, leaving a legacy as a beloved mentor as well as a strong researcher and academic. His involvement with many students did not end in the classroom, often blossoming during field trips to remote marshes and nesting grounds, and flourishing after that over shared meals and warm correspondence.
One NCSU graduate student says Quay played a singular role in shaping both her life and the life of her son.
Dayang “Diane” Chen came to the United States from China in 1991 to study adult education at NCSU and was in need of a place to stay. Then retired, Quay had been renting out rooms from his home near campus since he was widowed in 1983.
Their relationship quickly became far more than landlord and tenant. Quay became like a father to Chen, and he welcomed her young son when he moved to Raleigh from China soon after. Quay would take the boy to school and help him with his studies.
“I stayed with him almost 10 years, even after I graduated and my son left and I had a company. But we became just like a family,” Chen said.
He mentored Chen in how to assimilate in America and guided her in her professional choices.
“He said to follow your passion, your heart,” Chen said.
Quay fell in love with birds as a child, and he made choices in life that allowed him to follow that interest.
The son of a railroad conductor, he came from a rural area in New Jersey where most everyone farmed. He loved being outdoors and started documenting his wildlife encounters early on.
He spent two years working before he could afford to attend college, studying zoology at the University of Arkansas.
When he completed his studies at Arkansas, he took the train to Raleigh to begin his graduate work in how birds adapt to their habitat. Between his master’s and doctorate degrees at NCSU, he served in the Navy doing mosquito-control work in the South Pacific.
Quay was in the first gradating class of Ph.D.s from NCSU in 1948 and immediately accepted a position on its faculty.
He never left.
Quay was known for taking his students into the field to see local birds in action. John Connors, now coordinator of the Naturalist Center at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, studied under Quay as an undergrad and later in graduate school.
Once he took students to a large blackbird roost in what is now the Mini City area of Raleigh. It was sunset, and they watched the birds come in from all directions.
“It was just spectacular,” Connors said. What was even more exciting was Quay’s invitation to join him that night. Finding their way by flashlight as they slogged through four inches of bird guano, the students had the unique experience of having countless blackbirds fly up and land on their heads and shoulders.
Quay often took his son on field trips with his students, and Quay’s son, Bert, can remember being utterly uninterested in birds. Today he works with boats, and he says he learned how to be discerning, precise and practiced in his methodology thanks to his father.
Former students feel the same.
“Before I met Dr. Quay, I was interested in the duck more as a hunter and a naturalist, but then he taught me more” about how to study them as a scientist, said Eugene Hester, an NCSU graduate and former faculty member who went on to become deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Hester spearheaded the creation of the Thomas L. Quay Wildlife & Natural Resources Undergraduate Experiential Learning Award, a grant that gives undergraduates opportunities for research that usually is available only for graduate students.
Quay felt it was important for undergrads to have access to funding so they could find out whether what they were studying was actually something they’d enjoy as a career. He knew what it was like to have a career he enjoyed, and he wanted others to have that too.
“In North Carolina, the thing that worries me most is the rapid loss and degradation of our environment,” Quay wrote. “We cannot survive without the natural systems. … I think education must be the single biggest answer to our environmental problems.”
Quay’s work continued for more than a decade after he retired from the university. He later was inducted into the N.C. Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Hall of Fame.