ST. MICHAELS — “She was refreshing, genuine, and had a beautiful smile that would melt an iceberg.”
This is how Jerry Cox described his wife Kelley Phillips Cox at the Celebration of Life held in her memory on Thursday, July 15, in the Van Lennep Auditorium at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.
There was standing room only as friends, family, and colleagues, along with local and state dignitaries, gathered to pay tribute to the Talbot County-born environmental activist who died on May 3 at Vanderbilt University Hospital after receiving a heart-liver transplant.
Cox explained that his wife was born on April 23, 1962, with a three-chambered heart. This congenital defect slowed her at times, but did not stop her as she pursued her dream of a healthy, productive Chesapeake Bay.
“Kelley’s goal was to become a marine biologist, and she had a desire to make it her life’s work,” Cox said. “She became passionate about the Chesapeake Bay. She wanted waterman to be able to make a good living, and she wanted people to be able to enjoy the Bay for generations to come.”
In addition to a degree in biology from Salisbury University, Kelley was a certified skin diver, a licensed Coast Guard captain, an EMT, a graduate of the police academy, and a park ranger authorized to carry a .38, all accomplishments that helped her pursue her dream.
“She would tackle things that would make some men run and hide — all with a defective heart,” Cox said.
At age 33, Kelley finally had a surgery called the Fontan procedure to reroute blood to her lungs without passing through the ventricle. After a long recovery, Kelley and her husband opened Dockside Express, an ecotourism business on Tilghman Island.
They were forced to temporarily move to St. Michaels after Hurricane Isabel, where they added fish tanks and aquariums to engage young people. “This was the beginning of Phillips Wharf Environmental Center,” Cox explained.
Kelley officially launched Phillips Wharf, a nonprofit organization that focused on conservation, education, and the economy of the Chesapeake Bay, in 2005. She shared a message of conservation with hundreds of school children through her educational programs and the legendary Fishmobile.
“I would like to know how many school kids participated in programs at the Center or the legendary Fishmobile,” Cox said. “She loved the kids and she loved her work. I know for sure, in Ocean City in one day we had 1,200 kids go through the Fishmobile.”
The ripple effect of Kelley’s influence inspired everyone, including more than two dozen members of the audience who came to the microphone and shared their own tales of “being carried along in the wake of this dynamic woman.”
The crowd laughed out loud at the stories of Kelley’s persuasive personality and endless escapades, and some shed a tear or two at the more poignant memories. The storytellers ranged from family members to former interns to the secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“On behalf of DNR, we are so honored that we were part of her life story, and we are grateful for her many contributions and the service that she gave, not only to this community, but really the entire state of Maryland,” said Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Ricco. “She co-chaired our Oyster Advisory Commission for a very long time and we really relied on her expertise, her personal knowledge, and all of the skills that she had.”
Haddaway-Riccio also read from a letter from Gov. Larry Hogan, who she said had met Kelley many times and who shares the sadness of the unexpected loss of one so young, dedicated, and accomplished. She presented the letter and a Memorial Citation to the family on behalf of the governor.
Senator Addie Eckardt echoed Haddaway-Riccio’s sentiments. “Kelley has been an inspiration to all of us,” said Sen. Addie Eckardt. “She had the unique capacity to not only be a dreamer, but to identify those people and the combination of personalities that she needed to make things happen. All of you have been a part of that beautiful tapestry that she wove to be able to accomplish all that she loved.”
Though Kelley influenced thousands of school children, she was also a thought leader in the aquaculture industry. “She was convinced that we needed to expand the oyster industry in a new way,” Eckardt said. “She had all of these wonderful innovative ideas that were going to happen there at the center.
“I am convinced that Kelley will live on a very long time because from those seeds will grow all of those initiatives,” Eckardt continued, “And I believe that they are just the tip of the iceberg because from those seeds will grow wonderful projects that will impact all of us and our children for many decades to come.”
Former intern Kayla Fairfield, who became the general manager at Phillips Wharf after graduation, said she admired Kelley’s strength as a “woman in science” and never regretted her decision to move to Tilghman Island.
“She had interns from all across the country, and she really inspired each one of us to do something that would carry on the passion that she really had for the Bay,” Fairfield said. “I saw the constant drive and passion in Kelley that really inspired all of us to be more and work more and do more. She showed us that you can be strong and a determined leader, and I carry that forward today.”
As the service ended, Cox invited those in attendance to pick up a cut flower, walk outside to the edge of “the tidal waters she loved so much,” and cast the flower into the water with a prayer for someone they’d lost.
Dozens of pink carnations floated on the glassy blue of the Miles River as the sun began to set. No doubt, many of the blossoms carried prayers for Kelley and her family as they floated away, pulled by the tide toward the Chesapeake Bay.