Founder Chris Maxey reflects on the passing of Sally Searle, whom he refers to as The Island School’s matriarch. Dear friends of the Maxeys and the organization, Sally and her late husband Bill’s generosity, steady council, and shared vision are intimately woven in our history and have helped create The Island School as it stands today.
On Sunday evening May 2nd, Sally Searle passed away peacefully in her magical home on the ridge in Cotton Bay, Eleuthera. She had been clear with many that this is the way she wanted to die, to be in Eleuthera, fishing on the sea and watching the osprey soar above her home across the vast Atlantic horizon. Yellow Bird, her home in Cotton Bay, was her querencia, and she loved the beauty of nature all around.
Sally is our Island School matriarch. She has been with us since before the beginning, and we know that she will continue to watch over us. When Pam and I had our early dreams about building a school, we met with Sally, Bill and the family. We shared a vision for how an Island School might also be an ocean farm. The community would work together to raise,feed and harvest marine species. In 1996, the Searle Family funded aquaculture research at University of Miami Rosenstiel School where I was working towards my Masters. The effort centered on farming the robust mutton snapper, who we now proudly recognize as our Island School mascot.
When it was time to build the school, we returned to sit with Bill and Sally for their leadership and insight. Sally smiled and stated the obvious, perhaps much more important than raising fish is this opportunity to raise up the next generation of leaders. Bill also shared how important it is to not just give a friend a fish so they might have a nice lunch; it is far more important to teach a friend how to fish so that they can feed their efforts for years to come. We quickly understood that Bill did not simply want to write a check; he wanted to teach us how to fundraise. It was 1998 and Bill and Sally launched our first matching challenge effort to raise the funds to build the School. It was amazing to be able to go to others with the confidence of the Searle Family behind our idea. Bill and Sally were not only there to support our early fundraising efforts, but they also frequently visited campus and always brought empty wine bottles to help us build our cordwood building. They even helped us create a real-world salvage operation, deploying new student SCUBA divers to find their lost WilSal anchor in No Name Harbour.
The Island School thrived, and we needed more space for more great students who were interested in stepping off the track. At every crossroad we turned to Bill and Sally for advice, guidance and support. We met with them on the deck at Yellow Bird; it was exciting to be able to share the news of our success and the growing demand for our program. We needed a second dormitory, and we needed space for our teams to meet. This would be the biggest building to date; I suggested naming the building Searle Hall. Bill and Sally explained that for them this investment was about the good work of the students and not about their personal recognition. After some time, we negotiated naming the building Kinship Hall after the family foundation. Kinship was aptly named; we were fortunate to have two of Bill and Sally’s grandchildren, Jake and Abby with us as students in the Spring 2002 Semester to help celebrate the opening of Kinship Hall. The family legacy continued when grandchildren Bekah, Nathan and Silas also joined us. It was also a great benefit for a number of our faculty leaders who attended the Kinship Conservation Fellows program where young social entrepreneurs share and develop ideas that can help impact communities and conserve natural resources.
Bill and Sally and so many who loved the people of Eleuthera were excited to learn of our commitment to launch the Deep Creek Middle School. Our fundraising efforts needed to get more creative; there was so much opportunity to enhance our outreach in the community and the research efforts in support of marine conservation. The extended Searle Family was always there, and Sally and Bill were at the helm. When Bill died in 2004, we were honored to celebrate his pioneering commitment to not only give but to teach us how to make our bold vision come true. The William L. Searle Wheel became the way we celebrate our most generous families, the symbol of the wheel at the helm navigating through any storm and building leadership.
Sally has always loved the osprey. In 2008 we were fortunate to have the famous wildlife artist, Robert Bateman, here with us visiting his son Chris who at the time was a leader of the Semester. His wife Birgit captured a magical image of an osprey hovering over her nest about to land. This image became a painting and a gift from the family to honor Sally on her 80th birthday. This was a challenging time for any young school and the image of the hovering osprey was symbolic of Sally’s continued commitment to help make sure The Island School was prepared for any storm and would last for generations to come. A print of this painting hangs in Hallig House to honor Sally, with Bill’s wheel right beside it.
There are many stories of Sally as a true matriarch and friend to The Island School. Early on, Sally loved joining the energy of our sea kayak expedition teams as they celebrated their journey. There are literally thousands of Semester graduates who know how special it is to receive the secret Sally/Yellow Bird gift. Sally and Bill hosted many gatherings at Yellow Bird for Parents Weekend and even hosted a Lawrenceville Board retreat.
For me and Pam, Sally was so much more than a friend; she was a true surrogate mother who helped us navigate the challenging times in life. Sally loved to welcome us for a nightcap out on the ocean patio; she was a good listener, always present and engaged and never judging. When I was recovering from my brain surgery, Sally helped me learn how to walk again. We would meet every morning, and she would give me one of her two ski poles/walking sticks and off we would go sharing stories from our early life and all the wonderful memories we have together. The early morning walk with Sally was a special tradition that continued this past Spring while we were locked down due to COVID. What an amazing pandemic silver lining to get this time with Sally. On her 90th birthday, while quarantined, Brocq delivered a giant spiny lobster that we left at the foot of the stairs.
It was so fun to be with Sally this Spring. We celebrated her 91st on board Kokomo with a full crew that included four generations of Searles. It has been amazing to get to know the mermaids, Marion and Bleecker, and new baby Colt. Sally made it clear that she wanted her leadership gift to our Sharing Solutions Campaign to go towards endowment and long-term fiscal security. She always shared from her heart and often with a tear welling up in her eyes, Chris and Pam, I want this Island School to be around for my great grandkids and their great grandkids.
Thank you, Sally! We know that you will always be up there soaring and watching over us just like the beautiful osprey.
You can read Sally’s obituary and more of her life and legacy here.