Coastal Icon: Jeff George
“It’s in an old house,” he says. “You go outside, and there are five little concrete tanks out there, basically 4 feet by 8 feet and only about 3 feet deep. And then there are two steps and a little stage, and this lady comes out and puts costumes on turtles and talks about the Kemp’s ridley, an endangered species, for two hours a week. And now we’re here.”
That “here” is Sea Turtle Inc’s (STI) multimillion-dollar facility across from the beach, where George now serves as executive director. His office sits just off a 30,000-square-foot education center, part of a $6 million renovation project unveiled in February 2018. In its spacious gallery, children measure themselves against life-sized turtle cutouts on the wall, and a walk-through exhibit offers a sea turtle’s view of the buildup of trash in the ocean.
Out the back door, rehabilitated sea turtles — greens, Kemp’s ridleys, loggerheads and more — swim in huge tanks with windows, the better for visitors to see their occupants. Across a walkway over a pond are more turtles: fish-hooked turtles, shark-bitten turtles, baby turtles and healthy turtles about to be released.
George quickly says this exponential growth from backyard hobby to multimillion-dollar rehabilitation center and tourist hotspot isn’t entirely his doing. Yet his passion — and the enthusiasm he cultivates and inspires in others — is the lifeblood of an organization that has made an impressive mark on the Texas coast
A fit, 60-something with smile lines around his eyes, George grew up landlocked in Pittsburgh, Pa., but was always fascinated by the ocean.
“When someone asked us what we wanted to be, other kids would say, ‘I want to be a firefighter.’ Well, I wanted to be an oceanographer,” he says. “I didn’t really understand what an oceanographer did or what a marine biologist was, but I always had that interest in the ocean.”
At the University of Pittsburgh, George put his oceanography dreams behind him and studied mathematics. He loved the clean calculations and the idea of math as another language, and considered becoming an actuary when he graduated.
His first job out of college was with the U.S. Census Bureau – a challenging but low-paying position. By this time, he had married and started a family, so he eventually took a higher-salaried job at a nearby steel manufacturing plant.
His academic background and open-mindeness about technology provided an edge in the industry, and George moved up fast. By 1990, the mid-level executive had a wife, three children, a big house and a BMW. Then disaster struck.
That winter was frigid in Pittsburgh, and the dangerous weather caused a car crash that killed George’s youngest son, two-year-old Noah Zbozny George. For the Georges, it was a wake-up call that life is short and precious. After a year of mourning and discussion, the family packed up and moved to an extreme opposite of western Pennsylvania: the Texas coast.
In South Padre, the family order shifted. George’s then-wife, Denise Zbozny, a registered nurse, began working more, and he took on the role of homeschooling their two children. The curriculum required volunteer hours, and George scouted the area for organizations that could benefit from the help of two young children and their father. Of course, the volunteer work also had to support the school curriculum.
“When we looked at volunteer opportunities, Sea Turtle Inc. was right down the street, and it was pretty cool,” he says. “It was two mornings a week, and it fit our homeschooling schedule — it was just coincidental.”
From his perspective, though, working with the turtles turned out to be the perfect project. “Sea Turtle Inc. had very few volunteers at the time, and people were standing around the tanks asking questions like, ‘What kind of turtle is that?’ ‘What does it eat?’ ‘How long does it live?’ ” he says. “As a parent of homeschoolers, I’m thinking, okay, here are research opportunities for my kids.”
He and his son Eliot, then eight, and daughter Sarah, then six, began showing up and helping out at the gift shop or with routine tasks. While his children stuck to the required hours, George began devoting more and more of his time to the turtles. Soon, he was spending 40 hours or more each week at STI. Sarah George remembers one Thanksgiving when her father’s commitment to the turtles became evident.
“He got a call that all these turtles were freezing and washing up on shore, and I remember my dad going out and helping get all the turtles in, even though it was Thanksgiving,” she says. “That’s how dedicated he is.”
George continued volunteering for eight years, gradually taking on more and more responsibilities. When Loetscher died in January 2000 at the age of 95, STI’s board chose George as the obvious choice for the organization’s executive director.
Now, 18 years later, George has hired countless staff and interns, helped move Sea Turtle Inc. into a new facility not once but twice, and stays on call to move turtle nests, supervise hatchling releases, and help injured turtles.
“If somebody rings the bell that there’s a turtle in trouble, Jeff responds no matter how busy he is, no matter what he is doing,” says longtime friend David Cohen. “That is really the heart and soul of why he works so hard being a manager. He doesn’t love being a manager, but he loves the sea turtles, and it is so obvious.”
Cohen and George met more than 20 years ago when Cohen made an hour-long documentary on Sea Turtle Inc. After spending months capturing footage of George and the STI team, Cohen finished the documentary and went back to his life.
“I went through a winter [in South Padre] and I only saw Jeff once or twice, kind of casually, and I said, ‘This is not okay. I like this person too much.’ ” Cohen says. He and George began meeting weekly, and now their once-a-week breakfasts are a ritual neither likes to miss.
The friends even worked together to prepare the vows and conduct the wedding ceremony when Cohen’s son got married. George had taken an online course to become a wedding officiant to help a friend who owned a wedding venue, and found that many couples liked the idea of someone who worked with sea turtles performing their marriage on the beach.
“Jeff is so smart and so sensitive to human beings and the human condition,” Cohen says. “It is just amazing how many hats he can wear so effortlessly, and the number of things that are in the air at Sea Turtle Inc. at all times.”
Talk to people at STI and they all make the same observations about George: his skill at business and communication, and his deep love for the turtles as well as for the people who help them.
Mary Laddis, a longtime volunteer and board member, started at STI shortly after George did. “The early days were a lot of fun,” she says. “We didn’t have an office or anything. We conducted business out of my guest bedroom.”
It was George’s foresight in starting education and internship programs, Laddis says, that helped propel STI to its current status as a tourist destination and world conservation force. “He almost single-handedly made Sea Turtle Inc. the success it is. It’s been a joy working with him.”
George credits the success to the team he hired.
“I think passion is what drives all of us,” he says. “We don’t make a lot of money. I can’t pay our aquarist what she is worth. I can’t pay our vet tech what she is worth. I can’t pay our marketing person or our gift shop person what they’re worth. But it is a cool job and they love it and they are passionate about it.”
George notes that the outcome of this passion manifests among the public in small ways that add up over time.
“Are people going to make major changes in their life? Probably not,” he says. “But are they going to buy a t-shirt? Yeah. Are they going to buy a membership? Yeah. Are they going to donate $1.5 million? Maybe.”
Sea Turtle Inc. hires eight interns a year, and it’s not uncommon for interns from years past to drop in to say hello to old friends — and new turtles. Mariana and Chris Devlin met as interns at Sea Turtle Inc. in 2010, and four years later, George flew to Mexico City to attend their big, joyful wedding. “I literally danced the heels off my shoes,” he recalls.
Mariana Devlin returned to STI as conservation coordinator in 2016. “Jeff is the kind of person who leads by example,” she says. “If he asks you to do something, he is going to do it with you until the end. If you are gone by 10 at night, he is going to be there until 11.”
Under George’s hands-on leadership, STI flourished and now sustains itself on gift shop proceeds, memberships and donations. Most of its revenue — including the $6 million spent on the new education center — comes from tourism. Sea Turtle Inc. tops TripAdvisor’s list of Top things to do in South Padre.
The organization is an independent nonprofit, and George refuses to partner with or take funding from the government or educational institutions. “That way there is no pecking order,” he says. “We can do whatever we want as long as it supports our mission.” Next on George’s agenda is a total overhaul of the sea turtle rehabilitation center. He wants it to be world-class caliber, just like the new education building, and thinks that could become a reality in 2019.
George oversees all aspects of the operation, including the rehab center, where on one recent day he gently held a turtle named Verde while the veterinarian technician administered a cold laser treatment for a fish hook wound on its front flipper. In addition to rehabilitating injured turtles, Sea Turtle Inc. recently took responsibility for relocating sea turtle nests from public beaches on South Padre Island, a task previously performed by the federal government. STI employees dig up the nests, move them to safe spaces, and monitor the offspring for record keeping and scientific work. They release thousands of hatchlings each year, and each turtle, hatchling or rescue is treated with care.
STI also funds international sea turtle conservation projects, including working with conservationists in Tamaulipas, Mexico, to protect Kemp’s ridley turtles, educating local children in Guyana about conservation of leatherback turtles, and protecting nesting sea turtles and their eggs in Michoacán, Mexico.
“The legacy that I want to leave is that I helped build Sea Turtle Inc. into a world-class center, but more importantly, I want to help international conservation,” George says. “We do give money away, but we have a $6.5 million facility to pay for right now, so we are limited as to what we can do. Now imagine if we have a $1 million profit every year and no debt — how many projects could half a million dollars help? Dozens.”
In George’s dream for STI, he can call Earl Possardt, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s international sea turtle coordinator, and offer to fund sea turtle projects worldwide.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to call up Earl and say, ‘Earl, I’ve got three-hundred-thousand dollars. Which 10 projects do you want me to fund?’” George says. “That’s what drives me, making us world class for the benefit of sea turtles and the benefit of my community, but also being able to leave a legacy that Sea Turtle Inc. can help others outside of Texas and outside the United States.”
It takes a certain kind of person to run a conservation nonprofit. Jeff George does not have a degree in marine biology and had never run his own business when he started volunteering for Sea Turtle Inc. He had never worked with sea turtles. But from the moment he stepped into Ila Fox Loetscher’s house in South Padre Island, the future of Sea Turtle Inc. — and that of thousands of turtles — was changed forever for the better.
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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.