When the new Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Aquarium & Reptile Conservation Center opens at Riverbanks Zoo this fall, visitors will not only be able to observe endangered animals living in habitats that almost perfectly mimic their natural environment, but they will also have the opportunity to look behind the scenes into some of the zoo’s state-of-the-art conservation efforts.
According to Tommy Stringfellow, the zoo’s executive director, the road to the new complex started more than three years ago. “Mrs. Boyd mentioned to one of our board members that she would be interested in seeing what was going on at the zoo, particularly with the otters and sea lions,” says Tommy. “We planned a day that would allow her to tour all of our facilities.”
While fascinated by the otters, particularly the process of feeding them, the sea lions enthralled Susan. “As soon as she stepped onto the deck, one of our largest sea lions shuffled straight over to her,” says Tommy. “When he got to within about a foot, he stopped and just checked her out from top to bottom. I stopped breathing. But Susan didn’t flinch. When we walked away she told the keeper that he wasn’t nearly as big as the horses she used to train, so she wasn’t nervous at all.”
Several months later, Susan made another trip to the zoo, this time to see the aquarium. She was disappointed to discover that the zoo’s octopus had died and had not been replaced. “They are amazing creatures, smart and curious,” she says. “It’s hard not to love them. I felt that we needed to have one here.”
Susan’s disappointment was mitigated by a number of conservation projects going on at the zoo, particularly a program involving endangered stony corals. “I had no idea that Riverbanks had the facilities to participate in conservation projects all over the world,” she says. “It occurred to me that we needed to let more people know all the ways that the zoo is safeguarding our plants and animals.”
Though many Columbians may not have heard about the Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Foundation, the private charitable group has been working quietly for years to make Columbia a better place to live. “When Donny died in 2015, it was his wish to leave his estate to the foundation so it could be used to improve the quality of life in Columbia and South Carolina,” says George Bailey, who chairs the foundation’s board. “We took on our first project in 2017 and are looking forward to doing a lot of good in the future.”
Darnall W. “Donny” Boyd was born in Richmond, Virginia, but moved to Columbia when he was just 2 weeks old. He stayed for the rest of his life. Susan describes him as a “determined sort” and the portrayal seems apt: as a student at the University of Virginia, Donny decided that he wanted to see Africa. To pay for the trip, he imported automobiles into Argentina and sold them. After nearly four months in Africa, Donny returned to Columbia, started a development company, and asked Susan for a date. They married a year later in 1953.
Over the years, Donny was successful in business — he and partner Reg Heinitsh developed 9,000 acres in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina. He later created the Wildewood community in northeast Columbia, but his passion was the outdoors, where he hunted, fished, and played polo. Susan was equally passionate, spending much of her time horseback riding, raising her boys, and gardening.
That love of the outdoors formed many of the Boyd Foundation’s early projects. One was the founding of Boyd Camp, a hunting and camping preserve in Rimini. Operated by the South Carolina Waterfowl Association, Boyd Camp provides shooting sports, duck and deer hunting opportunities for children ages 10 through 17 and their parents, as well as camping. The organization also provided the funds to build a dining hall at Camp Woodie, a SCWA camp that teaches boys and girls about wildlife conservation, hunting, fishing, outdoor skills, and the environment.
The Boyd Foundation has also been instrumental in bringing the Living Shoreline concept to Georgetown County. “A living shoreline is an innovative, noninvasive way to mitigate erosion,” says George. “Instead of a bulkhead, it uses live and natural materials that create habitats for sea life. This project will be the largest living shoreline in South Carolina.”
The city of Columbia has also been a beneficiary of the foundation’s generosity, first with the renovation of the Columbia Museum of Art’s Boyd Plaza, the art-filled square that Susan and Donny developed in 1997 to honor their son, Darnall, Jr., who died in a tragic accident. The foundation has also been instrumental in the renovation of the Hampton-Preston Mansion and its surrounding gardens. The final portion of the Hampton-Preston project, the construction of a gatehouse and a greenhouse, will add historically accurate interest to the gardens.
“The next step is getting the word out about all the things we have going on here in Columbia,” says George. “We have friends from New Orleans whose son married a girl from Columbia. We were introduced to some of their guests who asked, ‘Where are your historic homes?’ They wanted to visit our historic homes. That brought home to me the value of these homes as a tourism and recreational resource. Making our historic homes better and more accessible will increase interest in them, giving people one more reason to visit or live in Columbia.”
One of the Boyd Foundation’s projects that Susan is particularly proud of is the newly constructed Boyd Foundation Building at Sandhills School, an independent school that was founded in 1975 to serve bright students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences. One of only 18 accredited Orton-Gillingham teaching method schools in the world, Sandhills is also one of just a handful of Orton-Gillingham teacher training centers for this premier approach to intervention for dyslexia.
“The children are just amazing,” says Susan, who enjoys dropping by the school from time to time. “Now the school can help even more children.”
Not only did the foundation construct a new building with 10 classrooms, a science lab, and a tutoring area, but it brought the existing school buildings into the 21st century as well, fully reconfiguring the space and wiring it for technology. “The classrooms are spacious with natural light and gorgeous murals, and we have a gathering place that overlooks a pond and nature creating the ultimate outdoor classroom space,” says Erika Senneseth, Sandhills’ head of school. “They’ve also created a matching scholarship program, so we can provide life-changing reading intervention to even more children. Now we have the space for them. To say we are grateful is an understatement. Susan Boyd is a guiding light.”
Susan is thrilled with the project and was on hand to cut the ribbon in late 2021. “This incredible resource has been in our backyard for all this time, and no one seems to know about it,” she says. “We need to do a better job of letting people know.”
The Boyd Foundation’s most recent project, the development of the Sanctuary at Boyd Island, has its roots in a garden club trip that Susan took to Philadelphia many years ago. “One thing that stood out to me was how many people were using the Schuylkill River,” she says. “I told Donny, ‘We have three rivers and no one is using them! What can we do about that?’”
The couple made a call to Mike Dawson, head of the River Alliance, an organization tasked with increasing access to Columbia’s trio of rivers through the creation of a greenway that would wind its way along the shoreline. “Mike said he didn’t have anything for us but would call when he did,” says Susan. “In 2010, he called to tell us about an island at the confluence of the Broad and Saluda rivers. It wouldn’t flood, and if a bridge was built to reach it, it could become the highlight of the newly created Riverwalk.”
Several weeks later, Susan, along with Mike and Donny, found herself thigh-deep in the Saluda River, slogging her way toward an arrowhead-shaped acre that marked the beginning of the Congaree River. “That was an adventure,” she says, “but when we got there, we couldn’t believe the beauty.”
While the visit convinced Susan and Donny that the island could indeed be a highlight of Columbia’s riverfront, they told Mike that they would fund the infrastructure necessary to make the island accessible but not until the Riverwalk had become a reality.
It took 10 years for the Riverwalk to extend to an area near the island, but when it did, the foundation made good on its commitment and construction began. Today, Boyd Island is a recreational jewel complete with an ADA-accessible bridge and pathways, sculptural benches and tables, and numbered pole lights that allow emergency vehicles to easily find anyone who runs into trouble. The next phase will include a gazebo and sculptural pieces.
The island’s beauty, however, doesn’t need enhancements. Shady paths lead to rocky overlooks where herons stand silently in the shadows while playful otters dive and float in the shallows. Getting there is half the fun: from the parking lot on Candi Lane, the Saluda Riverwalk twists and turns along the water, crossing boardwalks, and dipping behind the deep woods that run behind Riverbanks Zoo. The mile-long walk ends at the pretty bridge that arches over the river to the island. In time, a short greenway and second bridge will connect to the Broad River section of the Riverwalk, which currently runs from Riverfront Park to the Columbia Canal Diversion Dam. “People can’t believe it’s Columbia,” says George. “It will be even more spectacular in a couple of years.”
The Boyd Foundation hasn’t announced its next project, but it will certainly benefit Columbia. In the meantime, Susan Boyd is looking forward to the completion of the zoo’s new aquarium and reptile complex. “There will be windows looking into the labs so visitors can actually watch the scientists at work,” she says, “and there will definitely be an octopus. I’d like to name her Susan.”