When Fred and Nancy Phillips started looking for something to do in their golden years, they never thought it would involve baby turtles, seals and other sea life.
The couple retired to Lewes two years ago from Reading, Pa., and have kept busy as volunteers for Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation, a nonprofit stranding response and rehabilitation organization dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals and sea turtles.
Last summer, the two were among the first volunteers to arrive at the scene of Delaware's first documented green sea turtle nest. Their work that day and over the following weeks culminated in early December when they helped escort eight baby turtles to an aquarium in North Carolina.
"It was really a neat experience for us," Nancy said. "We never thought when we responded to the email it would lead to this experience."
Fred was given the job of digging a new nest for the turtle eggs, after officials determined the original nest was too close to the Herring Point shoreline in Cape Henlopen State Park. The eggs never stood a chance to survive there because the cool water and salinity would have destroyed them.
"Other volunteers didn't want any part in digging the hole," Fred said. They feared the sides would collapse and crush the eggs, he said.
Following a brief description on the parameters of a sea turtle nest, Fred went to work on the vase-like hole that eventually held 194 eggs for a couple of months. Then officials decided to relocate the clutch of eggs to a temperature-controlled room at the University of Delaware in Lewes, the Phillipses again gave their time.
The couple took shifts at all hours of the night monitoring the nest. A month later, the first three hatchlings made their way to the top of the sand nest.
"We named them Huey, Dewey and Louie," Fred said.
The number of hatchlings increased to eight, and the Phillips accompanied them on their trip to a North Carolina aquarium from where they'll eventually be set free.
"I wanted to say goodbye to the eight little guys we left there," Fred said.
Now it's seal season, and Fred and Nancy are ready for the next challenge.
Last year, they guarded a beach while a seal rested on the sand and, if need be, they'll do it again this year.
"They're so cute when they come ashore with their big eyes, but we have to keep people away so they can rest," Fred said.
Life before Lewes
The Phillipses weren't always so involved with sea animals.
Raised in Philadelphia, Nancy graduated from Kutztown University where she was an education major. She always wanted to be a teacher.
"I fell in love with my first-grade teacher, Mrs. White, and never waivered," she said.
Fred grew up in Limerick, Pa., where his family owned and operated a knitting mill. He served in the Army for three years during the Vietnam War, one year in Vietnam's central highlands.
"It was good to be home," he said.
Returning to Pennsylvania, he went to work for the knitting mill, and that's where he met Nancy.
"I worked a factory job in the summer to make some extra money," she said. "I pulled strings out of sections of fabric."
And she won Fred's heart.
The couple married, had two sons and during that time Fred left the family textile business to try his hand in the steel industry. Nancy stayed home for a few years and raised the boys.
Fred worked for Carpenter Technology Corp. for almost 36 years, moving his family around the East Coast before settling in Reading.
"This day and age most people don't stay in the same job for that amount of time," Nancy said.
Fred worked sales and later was in charge of the steel plant facility. The company is famous for producing high-grade steel capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and force. Originating in 1889, the company produced raw steel used by the Wright brothers and Charles Lindburgh to build their planes. Carpenter Technology steel also went into space shuttles and fighter jets among many defense contracts it fulfilled.
"There were lots of people who worked there for a long, long time," Fred said. "Some people started when they were 18 years old and they had 45 years. It was amazing."
Permanent summer vacation
For years, the Phillipses vacationed in Ocean City, N.J. It was a destination great for young families, but when it started to get crowded, they looked for other options.
Going back to work as a reading specialist in Lancaster County, Nancy said, many of her colleagues spoke highly of vacationing at the Delaware beaches.
"We were ready for a new place," she said. "We rented a place in Bethany Beach and loved it."
That was four years ago, and afterwards the couple knew they wanted to retire in the Delaware beach area.
"We like the beach and we fell in love with Lewes," Nancy said.
They settled in a home in Hart's Landing with a view of a horse farm and plenty of mature gardens to keep them busy in the warm months. Fred is active with the homeowner's association and Nancy keeps up with her teaching skills by visiting classrooms with MERR and helping at Lewes Library preschool story hour.
Then there are the grandkids that keep them both busy.
They regularly see a 2-year-old granddaughter in Cherry Hill, N.J., and visited two grandsons, 5 and 18 months, in Mississippi over the holidays.
In their extra time, and you can find them at the beach both in the summer time and nice days in winter.
Just don't count on them being home a whole lot. Retirement has been anything but slow for these two. But they wouldn't have it any other way.
"What a life. We're busier than ever doing volunteer work," Fred said. "We don't have a lot of idle time."