This week’s Q & A feature is Sue Sprout, a part-time Sanibel resident with a passion for shelling and a love for sharing her knowledge about shells, nature and history with others. Keep reading to find out what Sue’s ideal shell-find would be and why she counts a Civil War cannon among her repertoire of mastered musical instruments (which includes the piano, harpsichord and dulcimer)!
Where did you grow up?
My husband Richard and I were both born and raised in Lycoming County, Penn. My husband and I came to the Fort Myers area in December of 1982 to help our brother-in-law do inventory at his music store. We drove over to Sanibel to look around and saw a campground. The year after that, we started coming for Christmas and staying at Periwinkle Park. We were both teachers and only had a short time between Christmas and New Years to enjoy Sanibel. When we retired in 1999, we began staying for longer and longer periods of time. We're up to five months so far!
What's your family like?
Richard and I are parents of a son who lives with his wife in North Carolina. We are petless at the moment. I do love plants and bring mine along for the winter season. They love it down here! We also have a wonderful extended family here on the island — the shell sorters, the Shell Museum and all our friends at the Park.
When did you first become interested in shells?
My parents took me every summer to Ocean City, N.J. for a week. I loved walking the beach and looking for shells. When I was in 6th grade, I got my first Tucker Abbott (he was the first director of the shell museum) shell book and began a serious study of mollusks. I've been collecting ever since — marine, land, freshwater and fossil shells.
Why did you decide to become a volunteer at the Shell Museum?
I met another volunteer, Joyce Matthys, who made the mollusk video shown to visitors at the museum. She needed someone to help teach the shell curriculum to the sixth grade students at Sanibel School. I helped Joyce for a year and then took over the program working with Sanibel teacher, Peggy Drennan. I teach the students for the third quarter of the school year, beginning the middle of January and ending after the Sanibel Shell Show and Fair. They need to learn a lot about the mollusks that make the shells found on local beaches because during the shell show, the sixth-graders will work at the live mollusk display teaching visitors all about these amazing creatures. Look for me and my husband at the saltwater tanks the first weekend in March at the Sanibel Shell Show!
What's your favorite kind of shell?
I do not have a favorite shell. I love them all.
What's the one shell you've always wanted to find, but haven't yet?
That's a tough question. I guess, I would love to dig up an Ecphora from a shell pit or mine in Florida. This is an extinct species of mollusk that lived in the ocean here at least 5 million years ago. It is a thrill to collect a shell that hasn't seen the light of day for millions of years until you dig it out of a pit.
What's the best part about being a volunteer at the Shell Museum?
I love the staff and volunteers at the shell museum. I learn something new everytime I go there, a lot of which I pass along to students in the shell classes I teach. I also work upstairs in the collections department organizing and curating the fossil collection. This is my VERY favorite thing to do at the museum. The Museum’s mission is preservation, research, education and enjoyment, and the reason I like to work in the collections department is that I believe it’s the heart of the Museum. It’s where we get our exhibits, it’s where people come to see and study the collection and it’s like a library — we’re constantly getting new titles. It’s a dynamic collection and it’s always growing.
In what other ways are you involved in the community?
At the Sanibel Community House, I work with a group of shell sorters who sort and sell donated shells to benefit the community center. I was trail guide at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation for several years and worked in the Ethnobotany Garden. There don't seem to be enough days to fit in all of the volunteering I want to do.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
When I am in Pennsylvania during the spring and fall, I work at a nature preserve and take teachers of the handicapped and their students out on the trail to experience the wonders of nature by using all of their senses. These kids always surprise their teachers and me with untapped abilities they demonstrate on the trail, like being the first to see a rabbit or pointing to a flower. They make the most wonderfully expressive faces when I introduce them to the smell of skunk cabbage! My husband and I do education programs about history — local hometown, Northeastern Woodland Indian, Colonial Period, French and Indian War and Civil War. We are members of Thompsons Battery C, Pennsylvania Independent Light Artillery. I do many programs and classes about the identification and uses of plants during those time periods because my hobby is ethnobotany. We are also amateur radio operators and volunteer as Pennsylvania state Radiation Officers for Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and the Lycoming County Radiological Response team. We do a lot of things together because we like to be together. I also like to play the piano and harpsichord and dulcimer and I am a former board member and actively volunteer for the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. He is, I believe, the embodiment of peace and enlightenment in our time. To learn. To grow. To be.
What's something people might be surprised to learn about you?
I am a trained cannoneer and "played cannon" for our local symphony's rendition of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. It was a full-scale reproduction of a rifled Parrott cannon like those used during the Civil War. I have also kayaked the whole 444 miles of Susquehanna River from its source in Cooperstown, N.Y. down to the Chesapeake Bay, plus many of its tributaries. These trips were life-altering events. To paraphrase a song I once heard, you never know a river until you've paddled along its shores.