S.C. conservationist dies after 40 years of work

sfretwell@thestate.comNovember 14, 2013 

Mary T. Kelly


Environmentalists are mourning the death of Mary T. Kelly, a New York-educated chemist who became one of the early leaders in South Carolina’s modern conservation movement.

Kelly, 90, died last weekend after suffering a stroke. Friends and family remembered her at funeral services Thursday in Columbia.

A former teacher who grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., Kelly moved with her husband to South Carolina in the mid-1960s, and soon thereafter, got involved in environmental activism in a state where conservation often was an afterthought.

She spent parts of four decades advocating for clean water and air, and for protecting the landscape across the Palmetto State. She inspired many of today’s leaders in South Carolina conservation groups, her friends said.

“We lost a pioneer and a mentor,’’ said Bob Guild, a Sierra Club member who met Kelly in the mid-1970s while he was a student at the University of South Carolina law school. “She was very firm in her commitment and always willing to speak the truth to power, and that is a quality we’ve all learned from Mary.’’

The petite, 5-foot-2-inch Kelly could be a ferocious opponent for businesses and governments if she believed they were pushing policies that could hurt the environment. Fellow environmentalists often sought Kelly’s advice because her background as a chemist helped make persuasive arguments for causes she represented. She had a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from NYU.

“Her opinions and her positions on things were always based on very intensive scientific research,’’ said state Sierra Club leader Susan Corbett, who, like Guild, said Kelly energized her to take up environmental activism in the late 1970s.

A one-time president of the S.C. League of Women Voters, Kelly fought for greater controls on toxic waste in a state that, at one time, had a national nuclear waste dump near Barnwell, a hazardous waste dump at Lake Marion, and a medical waste incinerator at Hampton.

In 1999, Kelly criticized the state and Richland County for recruiting and giving tax breaks to a chemical company that later was found to have a spotty environmental record. She also criticized the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control in 1995 for not including green groups in discussions about rewriting environmental regulations.

Kelly’s advocacy for environmental protection earned her the S.C. Wildlife Federation’s top award in 1984, as well as special recognition by former Gov. Dick Riley. She had taken a less active role in recent years, but long-time environmentalist Tom Clements said he spoke with her recently about conservation issues.

The mother of seven children, Kelly became interested in environmental protection in her teens, when she wrote essays on conservation issues, said her daughter, Mary Neuffer of Columbia. Kelly formed stronger opinions after seeing chemicals dumped into the Hudson River, Neuffer said.

“Her biggest thing was ‘Get an education,’ ’’ Neuffer said of advice Kelly gave to her children. “I can’t say all of us are involved with being activists, but we all felt like we had to have a purpose.’’

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