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Appreciation: Thanksgiving for a Life

Mary Kilbourne: 1936-2019

Mary Kilbourne on a Chesapeake Bay Foundation oyster recovery project in 1999.
     Ask Mary Kilbourne’s friends and former students what they remember about her, you’ll hear about banding birds, seining a pond to find water scorpions, the latest Envirothon or leading Cub Scouts on a trek through the woods — and underlying it all her passion for wildlife, nature and the earth. She was a naturalist and an enthusiastic protector of local rivers and natural spaces, testifying against development of dwindling wooded spaces.
     But before all that, Mary was a biology teacher, and in many ways, it is through her students, friends and anyone lucky enough to learn from her that her legacy lives on. 
     Mary Kilbourne inspired students with a hands-on approach to learning, and many pursued their own careers in science, environmental studies, medicine and education — even as they became lifelong friends. My sisters Sallie, Caroline and I were among her students in the 1970s at Crossland High School in Temple Hills, and Mary became a member of our extended family. Caroline was even inspired to become a science teacher herself and named one of her daughters after Mary.
      Geneticist Murray Brilliant (Crossland ’72) describes Mary as an extraordinary teacher and mentor. To provide field learning opportunities, she created the Linnaeus Biology Club (named for the father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and zoologist who standardized the binomial nomenclature system of naming organisms).
      Eric Erbe (Crossland ’70) credits Mary for her part in shaping his life and career in electron microscopy through those early forays in the biology club. “We would look at the wonders of nature and collect materials for her extensive classroom collections. We worked with her to preserve endangered sundew plants in Suitland Bog, a natural area inside the Washington Beltway. We collected living anemones from the Chesapeake Bay for the classroom aquarium.”
     Former students recall field trips to Cedarville State Park, Piscataway Creek, Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and Shenandoah National Park. They still recount tales of Mary picking up a black snake in the woods (after it bit her!) or scooping up a pail of jellyfish from the Bay for a teachable moment on reptiles or bioluminescence. 
     Mary Wittenburg grew up in Suitland and graduated from the University of Maryland in 1958 before launching her career as a biology teacher with Prince George’s County schools. Around this time she reconnected with her own former Suitland High School biology teacher Charlie Kilbourne through a mutual interest in sailing. In Mary, Charlie recognized a fellow free spirit, and they married in 1963. Their love and respect for each other’s independence was the bedrock that anchored their marriage, even as they often pursued very different activities during their 50-plus years together. 
      Mary retired from Crossland in 1988 after more than 30 years of teaching and quickly followed her passion for the outdoors to Jug Bay and Patuxent River Park, where she worked as a naturalist and boating safety instructor. 
      She was selected by Gov. Parris Glendening to be a member of the Patuxent River Commission and led oyster restoration projects from 1997 to 2005. She was honored as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Baywatcher of the Year in 1995 and Conservationist of the Year in 1999. She received the Jug Bay Award in 2005 from the Friends of Jug Bay, and in 2008 was recognized for her outstanding contributions to Boating Safety Education.
      Peggy Brosnan, a sister Prince George’s County biology teacher who followed in Mary’s footsteps to Patuxent River Park after retirement, says she was a true naturalist in every sense of the word, not simply an educator. Throughout her life, Mary noted her observations about the natural world: when the spring peepers began calling; when the first hummingbird showed up at the feeder. She joined in bird banding and various explorations around the world. She never stopped learning.
      Karyn Molines, Natural Resources Division Chief for Calvert County Parks & Recreation, was the naturalist at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County while Mary was the naturalist at the Prince George’s Jug Bay Natural Area. “We co-taught many programs, introducing teens to the ecology of the Patuxent River,” Karyn recalls. “Her enthusiasm and devotion to the river, the environment, education, her students and co-workers were impressive. Her impact on me, her students and park visitors is something that is impossible to overstate.”
     Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman likewise remembers her “enthusiasm for protecting nature and the river and her complete commitment to that cause,” as well as her joy in taking people on the river in a pontoon boat. 
      Calvert County biology teacher Kathryn Dangin, one of many who looked at Mary Kilbourne as a mentor as well as a friend, says she lived her beliefs, supporting the environment financially, politically and socially. “For 30 years she shared with students the joy she found in the living world. After she retired, she continued to teach by leading trips at Patuxent River Park. Mary taught me how to love the environment and want to preserve it.”
     Mary died of complications from cancer on October 20, 2019, at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. She was cremated; an outdoor memorial service will be scheduled in spring. Mary’s family hopes that people will remember her by donating to causes that support the earth and especially by voting for leaders who will protect it.