In its more than six-decade history the University of Delaware’s marine sciences college in Lewes has grown from a laboratory in a rundown building to co-ownership of a wind turbine that powers the campus and also serves as a wind power research platform.
Using World Series and Academy Award Best Picture winners, Sussex County’s population and Delaware Bay’s sea-level as timeline markers, Charles Epifanio’s “History of Marine Science at the University of Delaware: A wild, wet and windy story,” is a comprehensive and creative presentation that makes audiences laugh and leaves them informed.
After 20 years of success as a small, local marine laboratory, in 1969, the college made the jump to a large, nationally competitive marine program seemed inevitable, Epifanio said.
Arthur Trabant, University of Delaware’s new president sought to locate all of the university’s marine research and education facilities on land in Lewes donated by Delaware-based Hercules Corp.
Trabant instructed a faculty committee to formulate a plan for a marine science program.
Epifanio said the university had to decide whether to strive for excellence as a small regional lab, or to create a bigger program and compete with other large programs.
“The answer from the committee was, ‘Go big or stay home.’ The university took that advice; July 1, 1970, a new College of Marine Studies was formed at UD,” he said.
It became the school’s 10th college and was headed by William S. Gaither, 37, its first dean. On the baseball field the Baltimore Orioles took the World Series beating the Cincinnati Reds 4-1. The Academy Award for Best Picture went to ‘Patton,’ starring George C. Scott as the World War II U.S. Army General.
George S. Patton, a controversial, hard-driving general, slapped a hospitalized soldier he thought to be a malingerer.
“For those of us who worked under Gaither, I can’t tell you how appropriate it is, Epifanio said, showing a picture of a smiling Gaither beside a movie poster of a saluting Patton, implying a similarity.
“But I’ll tell you, he was quite a man to work for.”
Delaware Bay sea level reached 2.4 inches above the .06 inch 1950 benchmark, and Sussex County’s population had moved from 73,000 in 1962 to 81,000 in 1970, with much of the growth on the eastern side of the county. Trained as an engineer, Gaither was a builder but he was also a builder by temperament, Epifanio said.
“Every consequential building on our campus to this day was built during the Gaither era. He drove some of us to utter distraction, but I have to say he was an amazing man with an amazing ability to get things done,” Epifanio said.
The college’s Pollution Ecology, Cannon and Smith laboratories, Marine Operations Building, Virden Conference Center and defunct UD Research Park, were all developed under Gatiher’s leadership.
The peak year under Gaither was 1975 when the Cannon Lab was dedicated and Kent S. Price was appointed associate dean and on-site director. A new ocean-going research vessel was commissioned, RV Cape Henlopen.
Also in 1975, the Cincinnati Reds squeezed past the Boston Red Sox 4-3, and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ starring Jack Nicholson won Best Picture.
“For those of us who sailed aboard the R/V Cape Henlopen, I don’t need to say more,” Epifanio said, linking the film’s craziness to happenings aboard the research vessel.
The bay’s sea level rose 3 inches, and the county’s population approached 90,000. Again, much of the growth was in eastern Sussex.
In 1980, Smith Lab was named in honor of Otis Smith, a successful businessman and menhaden fishing fleet owner and three-term Lewes mayor. The lab was originally operated for mariculture – cultivation of marine organisms in their natural habitats, usually for commercial purposes. The lab was later modified for general use.
The Phillies triumphed in the World Series winning 4-2 against the Kansas City Royals; and in Hollywood, ‘Ordinary People’ takes Best Picture. Also in 1980, sea level continues to rise and was now 3.6 inches above the 1950 benchmark.
Sussex County’s population reached nearly 100,000, and the eastward growth trend continued.
“In 1984, after 14 years at the helm, Bill Gaither was offered the presidency of Drexel University. Bill had always wanted to be a president, so he took it. He was replaced by Carolyn A. Thoroughgood who would go on to serve 21 years as dean of the program here,” Epifanio said.
At the ballpark, the San Diego Padres didn’t come close to winning the World Series and the Detroit Tigers took it 4-1. The Academy Award for Best Picture went to ‘Amadeus,’ with F. Murray Abraham in the leading role. The county’s eastern growth continued and its population reached 104,000.
By the midpoint of Thoroughgood’s tenure as dean, Sussex County’s population approached 135,000– more than twice its 61,000 count in 1950.
County growth created a difficulty for the college. More people resulted in fewer places for graduate students to live.
“We were very fortunate in 1986 to come into the housing complex that originally served the navy base where nobody knew what they did, ah, ha, ha,” Epifanio said, joking about the supposedly secret operation. During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy had a submarine listening post in a portion of what had been Fort Miles in what is now Cape Henlopen State Park.
The housing complex was named after Franklin Daiber, the dean who played Tonto. The duplex housing units could accommodate 100 students when they were properly packed in, Epifanio quipped.
“The benchmark of the program during Caroline’s regime was the growth of the quantity and quality of the faculty. The College of Marine science had 26 faculty members in 1984 when she came on board; when she left in 2004 we had 37 faculty members– six of them chaired professors, three Allison professors and one member of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s a good achievement, we think,” he said.
Next: On to national prominence– 2005-2013. In the final segment, Epifanio tells of leadership changes, adding a new college, commissioning of a new research vessel, the college changes its name, and an epilogue.
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Charles Epifanio: Marine scientist, college historian
Charles Epifanio is the last remaining faculty member from 1971, the year the university created the College of Marine Studies. Epifanio, 68, earned a doctorate in zoology from Duke University.
During his career at the University of Delaware he has served as a researcher, professor, associate director, interim director and associate dean. In 2011, he was inducted into the Delaware Maritime Hall of Fame.
An expert in the growth and development of fish and crustaceans, his research has focused on biological and physical dynamics that effect yearly variations within populations.
Epifanio is researching models to increase the number of blue crab by adding of a new group of juveniles to a population and factors that affect population growth.
He also studies invasive species of crabs– particularly from Asia, such as Chinese mitten crabs– and the effects they have on local crab populations.
Epifanio said although he’s seen many changes in the university’s marine program, what has changed most is the surrounding community– population growth, land use and demographics– and problems that have arisen from those changes.
“It’s been impressive to watch the (marine) program grow and evolve to keep in lockstep with these problems and policies,” he said.