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Charles LeBuff offered second job at refuge; lived in Lighthouse quarters

By Staff | Feb 10, 2016

Charles LeBuff. MEGHAN MCCOY

The love of lighthouses brought one individual to Sanibel in 1952 as a junior in high school after spotting the Sanibel Lighthouse from Bonita Beach.

“The name, Sanibel, always sounded romantic,” Charlie LeBuff said. “In December 1952, we took his (a friend from Estero) mother’s car. Neither one of us had a driver’s license, and we drove over to Sanibel to explore. I was just a kid. It was fun and it was a wild area.”

Since his mother worked at the Shell Factory, which was in Bonita Springs at that time, LeBuff figured they could collect live shells and make extra money by selling the shells to the Shell Factory.

The Sanibel trip that day cost the friends $4 for their round trip aboard the ferry.

Once arriving on the island, LeBuff remembered seeing Bailey’s Store, the Lighthouse, a few houses along Periwinkle, The Community House and another house located next door.

“There was nothing,” he recalled.

LeBuff, who was born in Massachusetts, lived in Bonita Springs for a while before his parents decided to purchase a house in Naples. In 1956, he accepted a job with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services with the Red Tide Laboratory in Naples within the research station. The station also employed Tommy Woods, a part-time pilot who was also the manager of Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge.

Two years later, in 1958, Wood offered LeBuff the “number two job” at the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1945. The refuge was renamed in 1967 to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

“We moved here in 1958,” he said of he and his wife, who had married on New Year’s Eve the year before. “We moved into quarters two at the Lighthouse.”

LeBuff was the refuge biologist, which included many other duties, such as law enforcement. He said there were only two or three employees that worked at the refuge at that time.

The living quarters although crude due to the couple moving in five years before the causeway was built, was spacious with a living room, kitchen and three bedrooms. For the first four or five years, LeBuff used one of the rooms as a hobby room for his collection of live turtles before it was transformed back to a regular room when his family began to grow.

“At first we didn’t have telephones. There were no private telephones on Sanibel. We mostly drank rain water. We did have a shallow well. Later the Coast Guard put down a deep well and we used some of that water. It was pretty rough and the mosquitos were terrible,” LeBuff said.

The couple remained living at the Lighthouse for 22 years until 1979. LeBuff stayed at “Ding” Darling for 32 years before he retired 26 years ago next month.

He recalls meeting Ding Darling while he was painting the base of the flagpole at the Lighthouse back when the road leading up to the Lighthouse traveled along the Gulf side.

“This car pulled in and pulled into a spot by the office steps. I just kept on working. This older gentleman got out of the car with his cane and stretched and pretty soon came over to me,” LeBuff said. “I kept working. He said ‘Hello, you must be the new man, I’m Ding Darling.’ My conversation was basically I heard a lot about him and it went on to how much I loved a cartoon he did in 1949.”

After that initial conversation, Darling continued on to Wood’s office. Shortly after, Wood appeared in the kitchen wing window asking LeBuff to join them for a cup of coffee.

“So I went up and had a couple cups of coffee and spent hours talking about ducks and turtles. Some days later Tommy and I flew the sea plane up to Charlotte Harbour and we got several bags of oysters. We had a cup of coffee at Cabbage Key and got a big bucket of stone crab claws,” LeBuff said.

The following day Wood asked LeBuff to drive to Captiva with him. They brought the oysters, stone crabs and a bottle of whiskey to ‘Tween Waters where Ding Darling was staying.

“We had a great time. That was in ’59 and he died in ’62,” LeBuff said, adding that those were the only two times he had conversations with Darling.

One of the conversations turned into LeBuff forming the Sea Turtle Project in May 1959.

“I’m one of the few people walking around this island today that knew and had conversations with Ding Darling,” LeBuff said.

The Sea Turtle Project began because he said in the early days people were taking turtles off the beach. LeBuff’s job became trying to protect the turtle.

“I was out there trying to keep poachers away from turtles,” he said.

The project ran as a one-man operation until 1968 when he formed a group. The group kept the project going until 1991 when LeBuff decided to retire from the refuge.

“I turned it over to SCCF. They have been doing an outstanding job ever since,” he said.

In 1998, LeBuff decided to write about his experience living at the Lighthouse quarters, as well as working at “Ding.” His book, “Sanybel Light,” is available at MacIntosh Books and at “Ding.”

“Since ’98 it sold 14,000 copies before it went out of print just on these two islands,” he said. “It had a very good record.”

LeBuff decided to write another chapter for “Sanybel Light,” which is available only as an eBook.

In addition to working at the refuge, LeBuff also served on the first Sanibel City Council where he had “something to do with what Sanibel is today.”

He was on the founding board of SCCF, served on the board of the Florida Lighthouse Association and on the American Alligator Council in the 1960s.

After Hurricane Charley, LeBuff fell “out of love” with Sanibel and decided to move into Fort Myers. He said his 50 year love affair with Sanibel ended because they could not live in their home due to roof damage and the inability to get a roofer for repair.

“It wasn’t the same place,” LeBuff said of the island.

To find out more about his books, visit www.sanybel.com.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.