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Siesta Key Thursday, Mar. 8, 2012 5 years ago

Observed: Leatherman destined to become Dr. Beach

by: Rachel Brown Hackney Managing Editor

Although it’s always a pleasure to meet people in Sarasota who are familiar with the mountains of my native state, it’s especially enjoyable when I find someone who knows places in the eastern part of North Carolina.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I discovered someone who relishes the Outer Banks as much as I do. That person was none other than Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach. He may be a native of what we Eastern North Carolinians refer to as “The Great State of Mecklenburg” — meaning Charlotte and its environs — but Leatherman’s first exposure to scientific research at a beach was in the eastern half of the state.

Not only did Leatherman do his undergraduate work at North Carolina State University in Raleigh — my father’s alma mater — but he also landed a job his junior year that took him to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

People familiar with North Carolina’s coast know that N.C. 12 is the fragile road that links the island communities of Rodanthe, Avon and Hatteras Village, among others, before it stops at the state ferry landing, where summertime finds tourist vehicles gathered in long lines, awaiting their turn to head on to Ocracoke Island.

The N.C. Department of Transportation probably has no headache greater in the 560-mile length of the state than N.C. 12. Hurricane after hurricane has washed out portions of the road, which, in more than a few places, is an incredibly narrow strip between the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Sounds on the west.

DOT had contracted with a professor at NCSU to undertake a survey of N.C. 12, Leatherman said, but the professor ended up leaving the university. After another professor took over the project, he asked whether any of his students would be interested in the use of a university Jeep and, expenses paid, to spend weekends on the Outer Banks finding the answers DOT wanted.

Leatherman took up the challenge, which found him leaving campus every Friday and having to return every Sunday night — except for the occasional holiday weekend, which allowed him to spend an extra night on the coast.

In those days, he pointed out, it took him four to five hours to make the drive one way. That also was long before the Outer Banks became dotted with hotels and motels. The only decent place to stay, he said was a well-known hotel on Roanoke Island with which I was familiar.

He also remarked on the strange accent he heard among the residents whose families had been on the coast for generations — another characteristic with which I was well acquainted.

“I loved going over there,” Leatherman said of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. “I learned a lot about beaches,” Leatherman said, adding he already had been pondering a career focused on coastal issues before he signed on for the N.C. 12 job.

One of his most memorable experiences, he said, occurred on a summer day when the wind had exposed a strip of land well east of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Instead of the usual 100-foot walk toward the ocean, Leatherman was able to walk out about 1,000 feet.

“I felt like Moses,” he said, as he stood on that point, watching waves lapping from both sides.

His only regret from all those days working on the project, he said, was that “I never had time to fish, (because) I saw a lot of fish there in the fall.”

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