Dr. Martha Estelle McDonald Griffin, 86, died Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022 at Westwood Extended Care in Augusta.
She was born on Feb. 19, 1936, in Augusta, GA to Mary Estelle McDonald and Walter R. McDonald, Georgia’s longest standing Public Service Commissioner. She grew up in Decatur and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from University of Georgia with a degree in English. There, she was crowned Miss University of Georgia. She lived in Waynesboro 1958-1972 and taught at Waynesboro High School and Edmund Burke Academy.
She later returned to Decatur and taught at Chamblee High School and Community in School’s Street Academy while simultaneously earning her Master’s Degree in Science Education from Georgia State University. During her first year at Chamblee she was named “Outstanding Earth Science Teacher for the Southeast United States.”
At the age of 41 she embarked on her lifelong dream of becoming a geologist and enrolled at University of South Carolina where she received a second master’s degree in geology and taught college courses. She performed extensive research in coastal geology and erosion on Georgia and South Carolina’s barrier islands in coordination with USC and the Georgia Geologic Survey where she would later serve as a Senior Geologist. Among her favorites were Cumberland, Wassaw, Ossabaw, Daufuskie, and St. Catherines, as well as Capers Island, where she spent a summer on Price Inlet without electricity or water. She authored “Geologic Guide to Cumberland Island National Seashore” for the United States Department of Interior, and the guidebook continues to be reprinted.
For more than two years she monitored erosion on nine of the 13 major barrier islands from Tybee to Cumberland by helicopter, Jon boat, airplane and on foot. Her story and her studies were featured in the Augusta Chronicle, The Savannah News, the Florida Times-Union and the Atlanta Weekly, which recounted the then 48-year-old grandmother hip-deep in frigid waters off beaches teaming with wild bull, feral boars, sharks and biting insects.
She presented her published findings to a legislative committee in 1983, demonstrating how the state’s beach renourishment efforts were actually accelerating erosion. The AJC called her study “some of the most significant coastal geological research undertaken in Georgia.”
An academic and lifelong learner, she returned to USC and at the age of 50 earned her doctorate in Geology. She taught geology at Columbia College for more than two decades, taking regular trips with her students to the islands she loved so well. She rehabbed a small fish camp on the shores of Lake Murray and lived in Lexington, SC enjoying time on the water with her children and grandchildren.
She will be remembered for her fierce intelligence, delight in babies and children, thirst for knowledge, zest for adventure, love of the sea, the sand and the natural world, and her intrinsic abilities as a writer, artist and storyteller.
In addition to her parents, she is predeceased by her son, Frank Cates Griffin Jr. and brother, Walter R. McDonald Jr.
She is survived by her daughters, Julia Boyd Griffin of Hiawassee; Martha Estelle Griffin of Decatur; Mary Cates Griffin of Madison and Elizabeth Griffin Highsmith (John) of Waynesboro; grandchildren: Vanessa Fawley (Zack), Griffin Lambert, Michelle Farr (Stephen), Sarah Stone (Dayton), Will Horton, Anna Horton, Scott (Elizabeth) Rogers, Alex Rogers and Paul Billips.
Great grandchildren: Natalie Fawley, Violet Fawley, Lucy Fawley, Isaac Farr, Layla Farr, Ava Farr, Avery Stone, Violet Stone, Scott Rogers III and Audrey Ann Rogers.
A service will be held at Rowland-Ford Funeral Home in North Augusta, SC at 11:30 a.m.on Saturday Dec. 17. The family will receive friends beginning at 11:00. Inurnment will follow at Westover Cemetery in Augusta.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Protect Cumberland Island, PO Box 5428, Athens, Georgia 30604.