The Passing of a VIMS Icon
(October 20, 2008) The faculty, staff, and students of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science were saddened by the death last week of Dr. William Jennings Hargis Jr., whose 50 years of commitment to VIMS included service as the Institute’s Director, Dean of the School of Marine Science, researcher, policy advisor, mentor, and friend.
Hargis, an Emeritus Professor of Marine Science at VIMS, served as Director of the Institute for 19 years, from 1962 to 1981. He also directed VIMS' predecessor, the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory (from 1959-61), and was instrumental in transforming that small facility into its modern guise as one of the nation's largest research and education facilities focusing on coastal ocean and estuarine science.
In a 2003 interview, Hargis rated the founding of VIMS as his “most significant accomplishment.” During his tenure as Director, Hargis helped the Institute expand from a single building to a 40-acre campus with 11 laboratory and teaching buildings, a field laboratory on the Eastern Shore, and an international reputation.
Hargis's resume is truly impressive. He wrote more than 130 research publications, 22 essays and testimony statements to the U.S. Congress, and more than 40 reports, essays, and educational pieces on marine science, the environment, and resource management. He also edited, translated, or reviewed more than 500 scientific documents.
Awards and honors bestowed on Hargis include the Neptune Award from the American Oceanic Organization (1971), the National Wildlife Federation Special Conservation Award (1976), the Mathias Medal for contributions in Marine Science for Policy and Education (1997), the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science (2003), Virginia’s Life Achievement in Science Award (2003), VIMS’ Lifetime Achievement Award (2004), and many others. In 2004, the General Assembly passed legislation naming the VIMS library in Dr. Hargis' honor.
Hargis in turn bestowed an annual award himself, establishing a fellowship to recognize a first-year graduate student based on superior academic performance and exceptional promise in marine research. More than 15 VIMS students have now benefitted from Dr. Hargis’ generosity.
Born in 1923 in the southwestern corner of the Commonwealth, Hargis was a native Virginia “mountaineer” whose ancestors traveled with Daniel Boone. He fell in love with Chesapeake Bay during childhood summers at his maternal grandparents’ house on Tangier Island. “In those days everyone traveled by water,” said Hargis in 2003. “I’d take the Red Star bus to Annapolis, then the ferry to the Eastern Shore.”
The end of the ferry era presaged the birth of VIMS and the start of Dr. Hargis’ career. The 1952 construction of the Coleman Bridge to replace the York River ferry displaced the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory from Yorktown to Gloucester Point. Dr. Hargis began his research career at the re-located lab in 1955, and soon began building bridges of his own.
Dr. Hargis became director of the lab in 1959, a time when public awareness of pollution and growing difficulties in maritime industries provided unprecedented challenges in marine science. The onset of oyster diseases that decimated Virginia’s harvest was a particularly pressing issue. Dr. Hargis responded by expanding VIMS’ research mission to include studies of fish and shellfish disease.
“Bill did more than anyone to bring us into the modern era,” says Dr. Mo Lynch, a former Hargis graduate assistant and fellow emeritus professor.
One of Dr. Hargis’ most notable innovations was to formally separate advisory service from research activities and to make the former a crucial part of VIMS’ mission. Mandated in the Codes of Virginia, advisory service provides VIMS the opportunity and obligation to offer unbiased scientific advice on decisions affecting Virginia’s marine resources and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Dr. Hargis’s leadership placed the institute in an advisory role to the Virginia Fisheries Commission, the State Water Control Board, the Virginia Department of Health, the General Assembly, and industry. International recognition for VIMS soon followed when institute scientists advised the U.S. State Department in fisheries negotiations with the Soviet Union, Poland, and international treaty organizations.
“Bill’s personal interactions with legislators brought VIMS to the state and national scene,” says Lynch.
In 1971, President Nixon appointed Dr. Hargis vice chair of the new National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. President Ford later appointed him chair. He was appointed by the governor to serve on the Virginia Economic Development Task Force, Coastal Plains Commission, Mid-Atlantic Biological Task Force, and many other advisory bodies. Dr. Hargis was a consultant to the National Council on Marine Resources and Engineering Development, Office of the Vice President; and consultant to the Oceanographer of the Navy.
Lynch notes that one of Dr. Hargis' most notable accomplishments on the national scene was his role in the early 1970s as a champion of coastal and estuarine studies, when most other insitutes and scientists were making a push toward open-ocean, "blue-water" oceanography. "Bill's focus on coastal-zone issues helped guide the direction of the National Sea Grant program and led to his appointment as first Chair of the Coastal States Organization," says Lynch.
Dr. Hargis stressed the importance of education, personally recruiting many students to the institute and reaching large public audiences through bulletins, talks, and television appearances. He established Master’s and Doctoral programs in marine science, greatly increasing enrollment and initiating VIMS’ current relationship with the College of William and Mary.
“When Bill returned from legislative meetings he would brief the students,” says Lynch. “That gave them the big picture of how things work. I think that’s why so many of those students went on to prominent positions in academia and government.”
Dr. Hargis also believed in educating himself. He took time from his position as director to study scientific Russian at William and Mary. He received his Masters degree at the University of Richmond in 1951 and a Ph.D. from Florida State University in 1954.
Sometimes overshadowed by his reputation in national and international marine policy circles, Hargis also enjoyed a long career as an internationally renowned marine parasitologist. A study of parasitic worms in fishes from around the world led Dr. Hargis and his students to Australia, New Zealand, the Antarctic, and Africa. Within this context he served as Chairman of the US-USSR Cooperative Studies of the World Ocean, one of the first programs to open scientific doors in the Iron Curtain.
After retiring as Director in 1981, Hargis resumed research, this time focusing on the role of fish cataracts and lesions as indicators of estuarine pollution, and the role of oyster reefs in Chesapeake Bay ecology.
A Lasting Legacy
In recognizing Dr. Hargis with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, then VIMS Director Don Wright wrote “Dr. Hargis has contributed significantly to the Commonwealth of Virginia in marine science, marine education, and stewardship of natural resources. He has done so wearing many different hats—as a research scientist, educator, administrator, and national leader.”
Current Dean and Director John Wells says Dr. Hargis’ legacy “will continue for years to come because of the decisions he made to advance marine science, and most importantly the people he supported at every level during his long and productive career.”
“He helped shaped the course of marine science locally, nationally and internationally,” says Wells. “He rose to the call of service in his field and sacrificed much to make a difference in his chosen profession.”
To continue Dr. Hargis’ love of education and the environment, his family requests memorial contributions be made to the Hargis Library Endowment or Hargis Student Scholarship Fund at VIMS.