Wednesday, August 03, 2005 | On Saturday evening, a small town-and-gown assemblage celebrated the 95th birthday of Ellen Revelle, the widow of the University of California, San Diego’s ebullient founder, Roger Revelle.

Ellen had been out that day for yet another beach walk and swim, and flitted from table to table among the flickering shadows of her garden to welcome guests. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren talked of how her only infirmities seemed to follow her vigorous daily sessions of tai chi and yoga.

The evening brought a flurry of warm remembrances about Revelle and her towering husband, the prime mover in persuading the University of California regents to build the San Diego campus.

The regents’ fight over that issue (and Revelle’s hard-sell) had been bruising enough that they passed him over in selecting UCSD’s first chancellor in 1964. He never got the top job. Among Revelle colleagues present on Saturday was the much-honored oceanographer Walter Munk, who said of his friend Revelle: “He imported a whole spectrum of bright scholars to this little town. What a man!”

Revelle died in 1991 at the age of 82; his ashes went on a final expedition aboard the oceanographic research vessel New Horizon.

It was the hottest June day yet recorded there. She was 21, her bridegroom 22. He was a lanky 6-foot-4 and wore size 15 shoes. She was a slim member of the Clark newspaper family. As they rose, side by side, to be married, chuckles ran through the audience. She stood a full foot shorter than the groom.

But San Diego history bears the imprint of this couple. It is hard to name enough others who have had equal impact.

When San Diego Rotarians named Revelle “Mr. San Diego” in 1988, he startled his audience by turning his acceptance into a stinging challenge to rise above the city’s civic mediocrity and work toward its potential. He had long hoped San Diego might come to merit rank as a Boston of the West Coast, but continuing conservatism and complacency discouraged him. Revelle had it right. It was a time for civic activism, but very little came.

Among environmentalists he was a revisionist, controversial because he placed man at the head of the environmental food chain; man’s needs came first in “a sensible use of the environment for the benefit of human beings.”

He pioneered the study of global warming, but reached conclusions that often outraged conservationists.

While Americans railed against nuclear power, he called it “much more benign” than other available sources of energy: “What we ought to do is imitate the French and Japanese. They have no phobias about it.”

And now, 15 years later, the national thrust turns back to begin to accept nuclear power as a source inviting the lesser disaster.

For an oceanographer, Revelle was uniquely relaxed about ocean pollution. He took the stand in San Diego Superior Court to testify in support of proposed ocean outlets for San Diego sewage.

“The ocean is the world’s greatest hole in the ground,” he said, “and it’s been receiving the waste from the land for the last 3 billion years.”

He even went before San Diego City Council to rage against an Environmental Protection Agency ruling requiring San Diego to spend billions on secondary treatment.

“Fish need a lot to eat,” he testified. “That sewage provides nourishment for a lot of sea life.” Eventually a federal judge sided with Roger against the EPA, and the action was dismissed.

He considered overpopulation the crisis most likely to endanger earth’s survival.

For me, and no doubt for others, Revelle’s towering shadow seemed to mingle among others as his widow charmed guests at her birthday party. We need him now. He would be angry enough with City Hall to give civic elders a public spanking in Horton Plaza. He would be asking me, “Who’s in charge down there?” And I wouldn’t be able to tell him.

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