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Frank Gill and Sally Conyne

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Frank Gill and Sally Conyne were destined to cross paths, even though they grew up a hundred miles apart.

Frank’s grandfather, a British birdwatcher, showed him how to spot a song sparrow through binoculars when he was a schoolboy, sparking a love that shaped the rest of his life. As a child, he spent weekends birding with the Audubon Society and even accepted his first job there.

Sally grew up visiting the Academy—her “dream place”—yearly during trips to Philadelphia. When she was a child, her father introduced her and her siblings to birding. Later she became the keeper of her grandfather’s 19th-century egg collection, a treasure she holds dear to this day.

Frank Gill and Sally ConyneThough Sally became an English teacher, she continued birding and attended regular Delaware Valley Ornithological Club meetings at the Academy. Her sustained passion for birds finally brought her and Frank, the ornithologist, together, thousands of miles away from home on a boat to Antarctica.

Frank started at the Academy in 1969, his research in time broadening the focus of the bird department from taxonomy to behavioral science and genetics. In 1979 he established Visual Resources for Ornithology (VIREO), the world’s most comprehensive collection of bird images, to bring raw photographic data into a centralized, professionally curated collection useful for amateurs and professional scientists.

He also served as managing editor of Birds of North America, a comprehensive reference for the life histories of North American bird species now housed online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He expanded the staff, computerized the Ornithology Collection, and rehoused the entire collection in space-saving compacters.

Gill and Conyne with expedition groupFrank traveled the world for his own research, studying feeding dynamics of birds in Africa and Costa Rica. Committed to sharing the world with Academy supporters, he joined other scientists, bird enthusiasts, and patrons on expeditions, including Antarctica in 1994. That’s when he noticed the amateur birder with a thirst for discovery.

“On the boat to Antarctica, Sally was on the bridge more than anyone else identifying special birds,” Frank says. “We joked that she should be working with us at the Academy.”

Sally later accepted the Academy’s offer to apply her teaching skills to a natural science summer program for kids. The highlights of her time with the Academy included working with our scientists to survey biodiversity in Guyana and to set up education and ecotourism programs in the indigenous Makushi communities.

Frank left the Academy in 1996 to join senior staff at the National Audubon Society, a natural fit given his boyhood bond with Audubon chapters. He remained closely tied to the Academy through colleagues and members of the Board.

Both Frank and Sally have prioritized the Academy in their personal giving as Leadership Circle members. They have pledged a significant bequest to the Academy’s Ornithology Campaign, which will maintain the Academy as one of the world’s leading ornithology centers in terms of its collection, research, and student training programs. Through their own giving, they are inspiring their friends to support the future of ornithology.

“Being part of [Drexel] University and its dynamic student community is exciting,” Frank says. “Now we are in a whole new era—a positive revolution—much due to technology. We have to use old and new collections in powerful and creative ways.”

Frank and Sally want science to be a guiding force in our country. Supporting Academy research goes hand in hand with a commitment to spreading critical knowledge about the future of the earth, they say.

“Good communications with the public will guide sound long planning,” Sally says. “We hope our modest gift will make a difference.”

“The Academy was generous with me and supported the things I believed in,” says Frank. “Our planned gift is a way of saying thank you, and we know that you will put it to good use.”

Learn more about planned giving at the Academy.

Post by Mary Alice Hartsock

This spotlight originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Academy Frontiers.

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