“When you try to touch one thing by itself, you find it hitched to everything in the universe.”
This quote by the Scottish-American naturalist John Muir is often referred to by Rudy Mancke, the University of South Carolina’s naturalist-in-residence and the former host of South Carolina ETV’s long-running series NatureScene. Though the two men were born more than 100 years and an ocean apart, the parallels between their life paths connect them across the ages through a deep love and appreciation for natural spaces.
Like John Muir, Rudy has spent a lifetime exploring and embracing nature, recognizing that everything is connected to everything else. And, also like Muir, Rudy has devoted much of his career to traveling the world as an advocate for the importance of natural places.
Rudy’s professional path emerged in a natural way as he immersed himself in nature and books, learning as much as possible. With his childhood love of the natural world shaping the man he would become, Rudy has taken on the roles of biology and geology teacher, Army medic, museum curator, television and radio host, and USC’s first naturalist-in-residence. Looking back, Rudy says that he never imagined where life would take him.
“I didn’t plan this path. Back in the days when I was coming along, I never thought about finding a job. And I never ever went to college wanting to prepare for a job. The only reason I went to college was that I knew I couldn’t learn about everything I wanted to learn about on my own.”
Now, at age 75, almost every surface of Rudy’s office on the campus of the University of South Carolina is covered with books and natural artifacts, including seedpods, snakeskins, rocks, animal skeletons, and seashells, collected over a lifetime of natural exploration and discovery.
“I recognize the healing properties of being in nature, especially when the man-made world begins to feel overwhelming,” says Rudy. “When everything else is discombobulated, just take a little short walk — I’ve done this all my life — and that’s what I did on television programs for about 25 years. A national series visiting all 50 states, as well as Canada, Costa Rica, Russia, and Ukraine, and all they are is just walks in the woods. And just that is good. But if you know the names of things and the relationships between them, it helps you realize you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.”
Rudy grew up in Spartanburg as the oldest of four children, developing his love for the natural world at a very young age. “I had woods close to me, and so I would spend a lot of time there,” he says. “My mom’s mother was pretty good with medicinal and edible plants, so those stories came to me. And my parents saw me open dead animals — I wasn’t squeamish about blood and gore. I learned a lot of anatomy that way. I liked the whole sphere, and I was insatiable. My parents and teachers encouraged me.”
In addition to spending time exploring the woods, young Rudy also spent a great deal of time at the library. “I’ve now got in my collection some of the books that were checked out by Rudy Mancke during junior high school,” he says. “The librarians were clearing the shelves of old books and putting out new books. One of those books was called Along Nature’s Trails by a woman named Lillian Cox Athey. And, lo and behold, the librarian offered it to me, saying, ‘You checked this book out so many times as a child. Wouldn’t you like to have it?’”
“I’ve always loved books, so county libraries and school libraries made a big difference in my life. I even went on to marry a librarian,” he says with a laugh. “I do everything I can to support libraries because they changed my life forever for the better.”
After high school, Rudy went on to earn a degree from Wofford College and to pursue graduate work at the University of South Carolina. “I had really good professors at Wofford. All four of us kids — three boys and a girl — went to college. Neither of our parents had ever gone, and they didn’t have enough money to send us, but we each worked our way through. At Wofford I was in pre-med, but I decided I didn’t want to go to medical school. Instead, I went to graduate school at the University of South Carolina to study snakes, which was my first interest.”
Just as Rudy was getting started on this branch of his personal path, however, life delivered an unexpected detour in the form of the Vietnam War. “During the second year in my master’s degree program, I was drafted by the United States Army, which was not a very comfortable feeling. I had just gotten married and — kaboom — I had orders for Vietnam,” says Rudy.
“First, I went for training at Fort Gordon in Georgia. Then I went to Fort Sam Houston in Texas because they wanted me to be an X-ray technician cross-trained as a medic. While I was in Texas, I caught my first western diamondback rattlesnake, my first Texas indigo snake, my first western cottonmouth, and I caught my first armadillo. I discovered that as an X-ray technician, I could X-ray DOR (dead on the road) specimens. Because the animals were already dead, I couldn’t hurt them, but I could learn so much: what they had to eat, what sex they were, whether they had young inside, that kind of thing.”
Just as Rudy was preparing to leave for Vietnam, he experienced yet another detour. “When I was sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey in final preparation for going overseas, I was standing in this long line, and I was exhausted and not very happy. When I got up to the clerk, the guy looked at me and said, ‘I know you. You taught me comparative vertebrate anatomy at the University of South Carolina last year.’ And I said, ‘Wow. It’s a small world, isn’t it? And here we are in the Army.’ And he looked at my orders and he said, ‘These orders are for Vietnam. Wouldn’t you rather go to West Germany?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And just like that he changed my orders,” says Rudy. “I didn’t believe it until I was on the plane and saw the snow as we were landing in Frankfurt at the Air Force base.”
Upon returning home after his military service, Rudy taught high school biology and geology in Spartanburg; meanwhile in Columbia, the South Carolina State Museum was under formation.
“They wanted to hire a naturalist first, and only one person in the state had used that term for themselves: me. So I was hired as the first curator for the State Museum, which gave me a chance to look at and catalogue every natural collection in the state. I learned a ton. And when I came to Columbia to work at the museum in January 1975, our offices were right next to South Carolina Educational Television at the corner of Woodrow and Millwood.”
From his position as the natural history curator at the S.C. State Museum for 10 years, Rudy transitioned naturally to the best-known stretch of his career path as co-host of the award-winning SCETV series NatureScene from 1978 to 2003.
“Cameras never bothered me, and I love what I do. I can explain things pretty well. And so Beryl Dakers, who is still with ETV, was hosting a couple of new shows, and she wanted to do one on nature. And we went all over the world with that thing.”
NatureScene ran from 1978 to 2003 as one of the most successful series produced by SCETV, with Rudy taking viewers on field trips through nature across the country, first with co-creator Beryl Dakers and later with co-host Jim Welch and director of photography Allen Sharpe.
“I take no credit for it. Things just dropped into place, but I’ve taken full advantage of those opportunities,” says Rudy. “When you’re out taking a walk, you don’t know what you’re going to see until you see it. Really what I do more than anything else is make connections. I like to talk about producers, consumers, decomposers, and how that connects everything. I think that was the message of the television show. I was out there identifying plants and animals and geology but also saying, ‘Gee, this is pretty incredible. All of these connections. We’re a part of it. Maybe we ought to take better care of it.’”
In recent years, numerous research studies have indicated that walking in the woods and gazing at trees, flowers, and wildlife is healthy for both the mind and the body, but Rudy has long witnessed these benefits firsthand.
“I’ve led walks for every age group, kids with emotional disabilities and other disabilities, older people — ‘K through Gray’ is the way I say it. Going for a walk in the woods is therapeutic. I realized that early in my life. I’m a scientist. You study the world of nature — that’s the science — but you also marvel at it. A little butterfly on somebody’s finger or a dragonfly on my nose or just touching a snake for the first time. You don’t need to know much. That’s not what matters. What matters is that you’re out in that system.”
As Rudy considers the legacy of a life path that is still going strong, he says, “The biggest thrill in life for me is to see my children and grandchildren heading off in the same direction I went in, wanting to take a walk in the woods with their grandfather and wanting books that will help them identify common butterflies and things. The other thing that really grabs me is the number of people who I don’t even know who watched the television show or listened to a radio spot and reach out to me and say the nicest things. It’s a spectacular feeling that I’ve been allowed to have in my life,” marvels Rudy. “I wish I could do this for a hundred years.”
Rudy’s Recommendations for Walks in the Midlands
Congaree National Park
Peachtree Rock Heritage Preserve
Sesquicentennial State Park
Harbison State Forest
Cayce Riverwalk by Old State Road
Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park