In the early days of Texas Country Reporter, our directive from the guys in the carpeted corner office at the TV station where I worked was to travel “roughly a hundred-mile radius from the television studio” in Dallas to gather our stories.
All these years later, I can admit I fudged a bit on that hundred-mile radius thing and often went wherever in Texas I could find a good story. One of those trips took me all the way to South Padre Island, a distance of 566 miles. But I knew it would be worth it.
The person I wanted so desperately to meet there was a woman named Ila Fox Loetscher. Ila was originally from Iowa, and at 24 years old, she became the first licensed female pilot in that state. She was friends with Amelia Earhart and was a charter member of the Ninety-Nines, an organization founded in 1929 to promote female pilots.
But I hadn’t driven eight-plus hours to talk to Ila Loetscher about flying airplanes. I wanted her to tell me all about sea turtles.
After Ila’s husband died in 1955, she moved to South Padre Island and quickly became interested in the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle. She even told me about a trip she made into Mexico to gather the turtle eggs there and bring them back to Texas, where she and some friends could watch over them until they hatched. She later founded a nonprofit called Sea Turtle Inc. and ultimately became known all over the world as the Turtle Lady.
I visited Ila more times than I can remember, until she died in 2000, and would sometimes help her plant turtle eggs in the South Padre sands. Fortunately, her organization continued to thrive after we lost Ila, and in 2013, I had a chance to go back to visit with those who were carrying on the effort to save the turtles. But this time, I got to do something I had only dreamed about since my first visit with the Turtle Lady—release a Kemp’s ridley back to the sea.