Walker McLelland and Lloyd Davidson had a chance encounter in Honduras
McCallie travels. All over the world. Just ask day student Walker McLelland, class of 2024.
A week or so before this year's fall semester began in mid-August, Walker and his parents were on a diving trip to Honduras when they decided to check out the Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve, a scarlet macaw sanctuary located in a remote western corner of the country near Mayan ruins.
While touring the facility that's home to more than 300 of the country's national bird, the McLellands were asked by their guide where they were from. When they replied, "Chattanooga," his face lit up.
"I went to a boarding school down there called McCallie," said Lloyd Davidson, a Knoxville native in the class of 1963.
Shot back Walker, "Hey, I go to McCallie."
Recalled the 77-year-old Mr. Davidson with a chuckle a couple of weeks ago: "At that point, I figured I'd better treat them well or I'd never see another McCallie person again."
It's been a while since Mr. Davidson has seen anything but Central America, where he's lived pretty much non-stop for 38 years, and especially since he decided a couple of decades ago to make it his life's mission to conserve the magnificent scarlet macaw, the almost three-foot-long bird with the magnificent red, blue and yellow coat that has become quite coveted by poachers involved in the illegal wildlife trade. The birds often bring $2,000 or more each on the black market.
In 2002, concerned that the drug smugglers of Central America were threatening both his life and the commercial fishing business he'd built, as well as a bird park he'd opened there that had earned him the nickname "The Birdman of Roatán," Mr. Davidson boarded a twin-engine plane from which he'd removed the seats and filled with 90 macaws, soon landing it in Guatemala, just across the border from Copán Ruinas, a Unesco World Heritage Site dedicated to preserving a lost Mayan city in the Sacred Valley of the Guacamayas.
A couple of years before that, Mr. Davidson had bought a small coffee plantation on a pristine plot of Honduran land hugging a creek in the hills near the Honduras-Guatemala border. "It kind of looks like East Tennessee with palm trees," he quipped. "This is like home. I even dammed a swimming hole in the creek, because that’s what we rednecks do.”
Now known as Macaw Mountain, it is the first macaw rescue, release and rehabilitation center in the country. As Mr. Davidson told Garden and Gun Magazine a few years ago: “It’s been so surreal. Saving the national bird of Honduras? Really?”
His whole life has been pretty surreal, and it began to turn that way when he got to McCallie and was talked into going to Camp Caruso in Tobago in the summer of 1959 by Billy Sutton, the captain of the Blue Tornado swim team.
“That summer screwed me for life,” Mr. Davidson explained in Garden and Gun. “I can trace every abnormal thing I’ve ever done to that experience.”
That Camp Caruso experience, which also included McCallie students Edgar Faust, Ben King, Dale Beatty, Sam Dewey, John Burkhardt and Thomas Frist, led Mr. Davidson to spend two years there as a camper, then work there another five or six as a counselor.
"It changed my life," he said. "It got me hooked on the ocean. It got me hooked on the tropics. And I never would have made that transition without McCallie."
Oh, was he ever hooked on the ocean. He once took a year off from Davidson College (no connection to his family name) so he could sail around the world after answering an advertisement in the back of National Geographic. Fulfilling his military service at the height of the Vietnam War, he joined the Coast Guard, where he became a diving officer on a polar icebreaker. For 12 years he ran a commercial fishing business off North Carolina's Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras. He caught a 2,080-pound great white shark, took it to the North Carolina State Fair and charged admission to see it until it began to stink.
Finally, the whole move to Roatán in 1986 was to start a fish export business of supplying snapper and grouper to East Coast restaurants. Then the drug lords began to make their presence felt a few years after a longtime friend of Mr. Davidson's convinced him to take in these birds she'd originally adopted. In the Reader's Digest version of Mr. Davidson's wild and crazy life, he would soon find himself on a plane bound for a Honduras coffee plantation with 90 macaws in need of a new home.
"It was probably illegal," said Mr. Davidson. "My first thought was that this coffee business better take off quick."
But by then, Mr. Davidson had fallen hard for the macaws and their fragile plight. He opened Macaw Mountain to visitors just months after flying the birds there. With his own hands he added wooden aviaries, bridges and trails. He also kept welcoming mistreated and neglected macaws and parrots from all over Honduras.
"People come to the Tropics and they think the first thing you need to buy is a parrot," said Mr. Davidson. "They can be charming and fun. They can also be a pain in the butt. And they can live for 50 years or more. Macaws can live for 100 years if they're well taken care of. So it's a lot longer commitment than people realize."
It was all becoming an overwhelming commitment, especially with Mr. Davidson approaching 65 years of age with no children under tow to embrace the bird business. "Never had any kids," he explained. "Just a whole lot of employees."
Then one day in 2010 a Dr. James Gilardi, executive director of the World Parrot Trust, appeared at Macaw Mountain unannounced with an idea Mr. Davidson was initially anything but comfortable with.
“I’d never even heard of the World Parrot Trust," Mr. Davidson said. "Then he asks me if I'd ever thought about releasing these birds back into the wild?’”
Mr. Davidson had previously considered it, then decided against it, worried for the bird's safety in the wild, especially since most were domesticated.
“There’s a lot of kids around here with slingshots, and they’re pretty good with ‘em,” he told Dr. Gilardi. But he was also intrigued enough to agree to try an educational component to help with their release into the wild. He partnered with a local organization to bring the macaws to students, hoping they would then see them as creatures not to be harmed.
“Once you’ve held a bird and gone through that experience, you’re a lot less likely to get a slingshot and take one of them down,” Mr. Davidson noted.
The results have been impressive, to say the least. Today, close to 100 scarlet macaws are living in the wild in the Copán valley. A secure island off the coast is home to more than two dozen more scarlet macaws who are beginning to raise young.
Mr. Davidson even has his own macaw family, thanks to mother macaw Mango and hubby Woody giving birth to as many as 10 macaws to this point. No word if he intends to name one of the offspring Macaw Lee!
“Five years ago, had you asked me if this kind of project would work, I would have told you that you’d lost your mind,” Dr. Gilardi told Garden and Gun. “But the fact is, while we pointy-headed scientists turn circles trying to figure out what to do, this commercial fisherman, this Southern good ol’ boy, comes down here and gets the work done.”
When it comes to McCallie, Mr. Davidson will tell you, "I've been a bad alum, I haven't been back much."
What he doesn't mention is that he just may have been the most distinguished member of his class. He was president of Cum Laude, president of TEPS, president of YMCA, Keo-Kio, a three-year member of the Senate, a four-year swimmer who was the team's captain his senior year, student council, Missionary Committee, Bibb Memorial Bible Award, John H. Kent Latin medal, National Merit Commended, Don C. Pegler Award and lastly, most impressively, the Campbell Memorial Award winner.
"McCallie gave me a very strong foundation," he said. "The principles taught me at McCallie have been huge throughout my life."
Both Walker McLelland and his father Matt would agree with that, even if they think Mr. Davidson deserves far more attention and praise than he's enjoyed over the years.
"Mr. Davidson's really respected as somebody special in Honduras," said Walker. "He's a great example that are many different ways for a McCallie man to make a difference in the world."
Added Matt McLelland, "He’s not an MD or a big-time lawyer or mega-entrepreneur – just a simple guy doing great work in the middle of nowhere – and that’s cool."
Especially since without McCallie, Mr. Davidson might never have had the chance to live his abnormal, surreal life in paradise.
Anyone interested in reaching out to Mr. Davidson can do so at the following email address: email@example.com.