Born in a family full of educators in upstate New York, Mike Dawson jokes he was predisposed to teach whether he wanted to or not.
Many days playing along a river in nearby Elmira pulled him toward the subject he cared about most, the environment.
Five decades later, he is an environmental educator and one of Summerville’s Men to Watch for 2014.
“The launching point of everything I’m involved in was just a love and passion for the outdoors,” said Dawson, director of the Audobon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. “I grew up in a generation where you could let your kids go out and play. We spent time in the woods building forts and playing around outdoors.”
Dawson, now 53 and a married father of two adult children, has been with Beidler Forest for 33 years and continues to serve in projects aimed at bettering the environment and beautifying the area.
Dawson was the brainchild behind the B.I.R.D.S project that began in the spring of 2013. He is a board member for Summerville’s DREAM organization. He is also the current chairman of the Dorchester County Conservation Commission and was recently named Azalea Magazine’s Environmentalist of the Year. Formerly, he served on town council and was on the Summerville tree committee.
At the heart of his involvement is a love for Summerville.
“I consider myself to be a Yankee by birth but Southern by the grace of God,” he said. “The reason I’m still here after 33 years – when I first took the job I said I’d be moving out in two or three years - is I didn’t bank on falling in love with the town, the swamp, the work I was doing, the Charleston region and this part of the world. It’s been a great place to live and raise kids, and I’m proud to live here.”
In addition to the B.I.R.D.S project, a public art initiative between Audobon, DREAM and Scuplture in the South, Dawson is in the middle of a “major, major, mega project” at Beidler Forest ... the rebuilding of the nearly two-mile boardwalk that enhances one of the most historic and picturesque places in the Lowcountry.
Having Dawson around has been of great benefit to the area but his travels almost took him elsewhere. While working with a Delaware nature center he was asked to help lead a month-long Florida trip for a private school. As part of that field trip, the group visited Audobon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in the heart of the Western Everglades.
He left his resume in the Sunshine State. Instead he was destined for the birthplace of sweet tea.
“The manager (in Florida) knew about the job opening at Beidler and sent my resume up there,” Dawson said. “I didn’t even know this place existed. But I lucked into getting an interview and getting the job.”
It’s a joy that only death will peel him away from, he says half seriously.
“Part of what I love about it is one morning I go to work in my uniform and do a guided walk for a school group then I’ll change into work clothes and go do some sanctuary maintenance, biological monitoring or research. Then the next day you’re doing fundraising and putting on a tie or meeting a donor...
“People would die to have my job and I’m going to have to die before someone gets it. I don’t know what else I would do.”