By J. Anthony Paredes
Professor Emeritus, Florida State University; National Park Service (ret)
James C. Sabella
Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina-Wilmington
At the 1975 meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, Marcus Hepburn gave a brilliant presentation on the impact of the introduction of wire traps to the blue crab fishery of a Florida Panhandle coastal community. As he was deftly fielding questions afterwards, a former professor of Paredes leaned over and asked, “Is he your student?” To which, Paredes proudly replied “yes,” and his former professor responded “I assume that’s from his dissertation.” At the time Marcus had barely finished his Master’s degree! He never finished his doctoral dissertation. He had almost completed the first draft when personal circumstances— including the death of his 13 year old daughter— ground him to a halt in the mid 1980s.
He rebounded, however, with a career first in the Florida Department of Community Affairs, then with Catholic Charities of Florida and a renewed dedication to his Roman Catholic faith, eventually becoming a Deacon. Nonetheless, in 2005 he resolved to finish at last his dissertation. Hepburn was readmitted to the doctoral program at the University of Florida in 2007 and on May 6, 2010, he retook his doctoral exams and passed them “with flying colors,” as his sister said at his funeral, just as he had done thirty years earlier. Tragically, he died on June 6 from a brain injury suffered nine days earlier in a freakish accident while cleaning out his garage. Those of us who knew Marcus only as an anthropologist were surprised to learn from the many accolades at his funeral about Marcus’s “other life” as devoted church member and public servant.
Marcus Hepburn was one of the great pioneers of modern fisheries anthropology in the southeastern United States. He laid the groundwork and paved the way for many others in Florida and North Carolina with his work in the 1970s. During 1974-75, as a master’s student at Florida State University, he did most of the fieldwork for “Human Factors in the Economic Development of a Northwest Florida Gulf Coast Fishing Community,” which we directed and was the first Sea Grant funded anthropology project in the Southeast. In 1977 Hepburn led a Florida Department of Natural Resources/ Sea Grant oyster transplantation study at Cedar Key, Florida, which was featured in the summer 1983 issue of Practicing Anthropology (page 13). Whatever status Paredes was to enjoy later as a “fisheries anthropologist” (including ten years on the Scientific and Statistical Committee of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council) rested first and foremost on Hepburn’s work.
In 1977 Marcus followed Sabella to UNC Wilmington for fieldwork on Harkers Island, NC, for the North Carolina Sea Grant Project “Social Organization of a North Carolina Island Fishing Community.” Hepburn’s work there was twice featured in the UNC Sea Grant publication Coast Watch (May 1979; June 1980). In 1980 Hepburn returned briefly to Florida where he completed doctoral coursework and exams at the University of Florida. He also did a brief stint as an interviewer for the privately contracted National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) project, “A Socio-Economic Study of the Mackerel Purse Seine Fishery.” In that project he delighted in finding fisher folk descendants of Harkers Island living on the central Florida Gulf Coast.
In 1981, he was back in North Carolina. This time at the East Carolina University Institute of Marine Resources where he worked on various applied projects with Peter Fricke (now chief social scientist with NMFS) and John Maiolo, then working with the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, and Marcus was on hand for hiring Jeffrey Johnson (now coeditor of Human Organization ).
During 1984 Marcus was a Sea Grant Congressional Fellow in Washington, D.C., assigned to the National Ocean Policy Study of the Senate Commerce Committee. In 1985 he returned to Florida and worked for several months with the Institute of Science of Public Affairs, Florida State University. He also was writing his dissertation comparing Cedar Key, Harkers Island, and the Panhandle community where he began his maritime career. It was Harkers Island that held a special place in Hepburn’s heart. And he by its people. Sadly, an “island homecoming” that was in the works to honor Marcus was not to be.
Barbara Garrity-Blake, a present-day North Carolina coastal anthropologist (and three-term gubernatorial appointee to the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission), wrote in an on-line condolence to Marcus’s wife, Toni DeSilva Hepburn, “I am so sorry for the passing of Marcus. I listened to many hours of oral histories that he recorded on Harkers Island…his comfortable dialogue with islanders as fish trucks rumble by, dogs bark, babies cry, and in some interviews, your daughter plays and vies for daddy’s attention…What a loss to us all, but what a blessing he was in this world.” In another on-line condolence, the director of the Core Sound Water Fowl Museum and Heritage Center, Karen Willis Amspacher, a Harkers Islander, wrote of Marcus’s “most precious work on Harkers Island…and even though I was not here at the time (I was in college) I have read every word of his writing about my homeland…I am deeply saddened by your loss and hope that you know that his name continues to be held in high honor here on the coast of North Carolina after all these years. His work will continue to ‘live’ for many generations. I hope you will come and visit with us soon. There are many people here on the Island who still remember him with great affection”
Marcus was a first-rate ethnographer, in great part because of his personal attributes. Start with his humility and deference toward others. He was able to forge excellent working relationships with people because he was genuinely interested in them, and would spend hours
listening and learning about their way of life. The pictures of Marcus with Louis Hancock and Mary and Dallas Rose in the Coast Watch articles are quite revealing. Far from being staged, the photos express the deep relationships that Marcus developed with these and other residents of Harkers Island. To this day the sons and daughters of Marcus’ principal informants (many are long since deceased) ask me, Sabella, about him whenever I have the opportunity to visit the island. They remember him with fondness, and how he participated in their work and the life of the community.
People trusted their perceptions of Marcus. He was comfortable, like an old shoe, and able to navigate local rivalries without having to choose sides. He was honest, sincere, trusting and never vindictive or mean. Despite a considerable intellect, Marcus was always self-deprecating and kind.
Sabella prizes his memories of working with Marcus in North Carolina over many years, especially on the Harkers Island project. Our collaboration over the two- year period was exceptionally rewarding from both a personal and professional standpoint. The quality of Marcus’ work is obvious from even a brief perusal of his field notes. They are an ethnographic model of professional excellence in community studies for their comprehensiveness and wealth of detail. His analytical and conceptual abilities were on a par with his ethnographic expertise. Marcus was always searching for theoretical and interpretive constructs that would generate insights into his data.
On that note, we would be remiss not to mention Hepburn’s other contributions to anthropology in general. He twice attended the Summer Institute of Linguistics, and, as one result, brought to the attention of Paredes (once an Ojibwe specialist) the uncanny link between Lakota peoples and the famed “windigo/witiko” complex of northern Algonquians in the very name of the great Oglala leader “Crazy Horse”–tashunka uitco in Lakota. Marcus worked out an algebraic resolution of Kariera Four-class and the Aranda Eight Class section systems in a University of Florida course with Charles Wagley. Using what he had learned from Florida oyster workers, Marcus helped a fellow FSU graduate student figure out how the people at his pre-Columbian archaeological site opened their oysters: they “billed” them (i.e., broke off the thin end of the shell and pried them open), and even identified—by appropriate wear marks—the tools they used, large welk cores. Finally, Marcus and Paredes spent many hours in splendid conversation and collaborative writing for their sometimes “controversial” work on cerebral lateralization (Current Anthropology 17: 121-127; 323-326; 510-511; 739-742).
Even after Marcus Hepburn left formal employment within anthropology and went to work for the Florida Department of Community Affairs, he never lost his anthropological perspective as he worked on resource impact, land-use policy, affordable housing, conflict resolution, homelessness, farm workers, and much more. At one point, Marcus was even put on loan to another agency to document Florida’s maritime heritage, an experience which Marcus described in an article for High Plains Applied Anthropologist (9-10: 196-201).
Marcus went to work for Catholic Charities of Florida in 2005. There he rapidly built a reputation as one of the leaders in disaster preparedness and recovery. He was beginning his third term as chair of Florida Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters. The Florida Catholic Conference executive director said of Hepburn, “…he understood the culture of the church and the culture of government…he used…his knowledge of how systems work to make things happen” (Tallahassee Democrat, June 9, 2010).
Hepburn was about to begin work on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. At Marcus’ funeral in Tallahassee, Florida, marine biologist and nationally prominent writer Jack Rudloe (e.g., The Living Dock, Alfred Knopf 1977), himself a resident of the Florida Panhandle coast, remarked privately to Paredes that it was such a shame that Marcus would not be able to do that oil spill work, because, as Jack said, “he was the one who really understood the people down there [on the coast].”
We will sorely miss Marcus Hepburn. His loss is especially sad being so close to completing his dissertation after so many years. It would have been a masterpiece of maritime anthropology. We hope something can still be done with his drafts. Whatever the outcome, Marcus Hepburn was for all of us a wonderful role model of a citizen- anthropologist.
Authors Note: A few portions of this article are scheduled to appear in slightly different form in the September 2010 issue of the American Anthropological Association publication Anthropology News.