News Column

Gay Ingram, Coconut Grove Ocean Conservationist, Dies

Oct. 31, 2012

Elinor J. Brecher

Gay Armonde Idema came to Miami from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., as a young girl in the 1950s, and took to the water like the sea mammals she would later train at Miami's Seaquarium: an albino dolphin called Carolina Snowball, and Hugo, the attraction's first killer whale.

She was an accomplished sailor and set state records as a swimmer at Coral Gables High School. As an underwater stuntwoman for movies and television, she "kissed" Donald Sutherland through a dive mask in the movie Lady Ice, and doubled for Eva Renzi in the TV series Primus -- both stood nearly 6 feet tall.

"Gay was the first woman I know of to ride on the back of a captive whale," said her husband, Robert "Bobby" Ingram, a well-known Coconut Grove folk singer.

After a lifetime of travel and adventure, Gay Idema Ingram succumbed to cancer at her home in Coconut Grove on Thursday. She shared her last moments with her husband, daughter Bryn, and Possum, the Yorkie mix whose chin rested on her hand as she lay dying, and lifelong friend Tamara Clausen.

Born on May 25, 1942, Ingram was 70.

Hours later in an email to friends, Bobby Ingram said: "Coconut Grove feels so empty this morning without her bright smile."

Soon after her 1967 wedding to Ingram, Gay had a change of heart about the ethics of keeping whales and dolphins in tanks at entertainment venues. She quit her job and joined fellow ex-trainer Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project, seeking the animals' freedom. "Gay related spiritually to the animals," O'Barry said. "She felt connected to all things. She was a naturalist in that way."

She went diving with her Labrador retriever and rescued beached dolphins in the Keys.

Committed to ocean conservation, she spent 20 years as an assistant to Professor Frank Millero, director of the Rosenstiel School's Marine Physical Chemistry Lab at the University of Miami, her alma mater.

"She was like a mother to all of my students," Millero said. "She was very organized, and a beautiful person. She was an environmentalist all of her life."

He said the flag at the Rosenstiel School was lowered to half staff in her honor.

For a time in the '60s, when the Grove was the Greenwich Village of the South, she, Bobby, and friends managed the Gaslight, which drew artists destined for fame or already there, including Odetta, Steve Martin, Tom Paxton, Jimmy Buffett, Joni Mitchell and Simon and Garfunkel.

Graham Nash, David Crosby, and Fred Neil, the late singer-songwriter, hung out at the Ingram bungalow, site of memorable backyard feasts.

During a benefit concert in New York on Oct. 23, Nash dedicated a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hit to his ailing friend.

"I had no idea Graham was going to do that," Crosby's wife, Jan Dee Crosby, said in an email to Bobby Ingram. "When David got your message [about Gay's condition] he texted Graham at the table ... then they were asked to go to the stage. That's when Graham surprised everyone in the building by dedicating Our House to Gay Ingram."

Neighbor Glenn Terry called her "an adventuress," who always wanted to explore new places: "She wanted to pack a lot into her life."

But the Ingrams also coped with tragedy. Son Liam died in a road accident in Alaska seven years ago, at 43. They buried his ashes at sea.

Bobby Ingram plans to do the same for his wife, saving some to be scattered at Machu Picchu.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Ingram is survived by sisters Joan Robinson of Palmetto Bay and Judith Drew of Palm Coast.

A celebration of her life is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday at Plymouth Congregational Church, 3400 Devon Rd., Coconut Grove.

Source: (c)2012 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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