Roy Vail was born the morning of December 13, 1937, in a home on Pearl Street in Columbus, Indiana, to the late Marianna Vail and the late Richard Carlos Vail. While he was an infant, the family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, and when he was in the sixth grade they moved to Richmond, Indiana, where he graduated from Richmond Senior High School in 1956. While in high school he developed an interest in cactus plants. He spent one summer working at the Desert Botanical Garden in Papago Park, between Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona. He wrote many hobbyist articles on cacti. He entered Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and graduated in 1960 with a major in Biology and a minor in Education. While in Earlham College, he took part in a six-month foreign study in Mexico, led by the chairman of the Earlham College Biology Department. Roy wrote many articles about his own exploring for cacti in Mexico, one of which extended the range of a species several hundred miles.
He then went to graduate school at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he met his first wife, Barbara Ellen Tack. They were married and moved to Norman, Oklahoma, where he was a graduate student in the University of Oklahoma Botany Department for one year. He then started in a biology teaching position at Las Cruces High School, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he taught from 1962 to 1990. His leadership changed the structure of the Science program in Las Cruces High School. For several years he led student groups to study intertidal marine biology in the Puerto Penasco, Mexico area of the northern Gulf of California. Some of his marine biology photos were in a book published by the University of Arizona. He also took Science Club members to Carlsbad Caverns, The Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, and to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
In 1967 he completed a Master of Arts in Teaching at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. In 1984 he was awarded the Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year award for the state of New Mexico by the National Association of Biology Teachers. By then his interest had changed to staghorn ferns. In 1984 he self-published his first book, Platycerium Hobbyist’s Handbook, about staghorn ferns. It became the standard hobbyist’s reference on them for over 25 years. He has given staghorn fern lectures in Florida, California, Texas, New Orleans, and in Spanish at San Marcos National University in Lima, Peru.
After retirement and divorce he moved to near Wickes, Arkansas, and later to Mena where, in Ouachita Little Theatre, he met Mary Borsodi. They were married April 4, 1992. They made donations which helped develop, The Oaks Assisted Living Center, The Mena Polk County Senior Center, plus they bought and donated the land to The City of Mena for the parking lot next to Ouachita Little Theatre. Mary Borsodi Vail passed away October 4, 2012.
He became interested in Mena history. In 1994 he published his second book, Mena and the Queen Wilhelmina a Brief History, which he updated until after the 2009 tornado.
In 1995, Roy Vail revived the Polk County Possum Club (PCPC), which was originally started in 1913. For several years he hosted an October PCPC Banquet, which included a variety show and dinner. For many years he was the only living President of the Polk County Possum Club.
Roy Vail was an active member of Ouachita Little Theatre. He directed and was in many plays. He did a series of variety shows called “Saturday Night at The Lyric.” He was an OLT Lifetime Member. In 2019 he became only the fifth person to receive the Leda Award, which is named for Leda Benson, the founder of OLT.
For fourteen years Roy Vail did “The Traditional Jazz Show” on the Rich Mountain Community College FM radio station. He turned in more produced hours of television video to the RMCC TV station than all the other citizens of Mena combined.
In 1996 he began an effort to save the tropical dry forest habitat of the only staghorn fern found in the Americas. It is also the largest fern in the Americas. The city of Tarapoto, San Martin, Peru presented him the “Honor al Merito, Visitante Distinguido” award, May 13, 1997. On July 8, 2001, “El Quinillal,” a 50 square mile preserve, was dedicated due to the efforts he began. It is the only preserve in the world created to save the habitat of a fern. Inspired by El Quinillal, a group formed in the fairly nearby small town of Pucacaca, San Martin, Peru. After a period of work, dedication, and threats, they became the first organization in history to be given a forest to protect by the federal government of Peru. Roy Vail sponsored a catwalk up in the canopy of their forest. In 2014, they had an artist make a slightly larger-than-life gold colored statue of Roy Vail, with one human leg and the other leg that of a deer. This meant they considered him to be a Chullachiqui (Chew-ya-CHA-key), a spirit who lives in their forest to protect it.
The First Presbyterian Church of Mena three times sent Roy Vail to rural Honduras to work with Solar Under the Sun. He originated and sponsored nearly all of the fifty-five-panel solar system on the roof of their church. He sang in their choir over twenty-five years.
Roy Vail is survived by four children, Dr. Neal Kent Vail of San Antonia Texas, Leah Vail Compton of Gainesville, Florida; Ross Todd Vail of Friendswood, Texas; Troy Evan Vail of La Habra, California; three grandchildren, and his sister, Carol Vail Garner of Rudy, Arkansas.
Visitation will be 12:00 and Memorial Service, Thursday, 1:00 at First Presbyterian in Mena. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to First Presbyterian.
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