By Ken Stone and Chris Stone
Surfers enjoyed 4-foot waves in 67-degree water Saturday near Scripps Pier with a light east-southeast wind and 8- and 12-second swells from west-northwest and southwest, respectively.
And for having a heads up on fine morning conditions, they had Walter Munk to thank.
Eight months after his death at 101, the “Einstein of the oceans” was remembered by everyone from lifeguards to federal officials before a ceremonial paddle-out at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of his many achievements.
“I think Walter would be really stoked” about the event, said Serge Dedina, the Imperial Beach mayor and “Mother Ocean” advocate who once wrote a surfing column.
Dedina emceed an informal salute on the grass south of the pier, where he noted Munk’s legacy of “connecting us all with this blue planet that we love so much, where we thrive.”
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The Austrian-born scientist first came to La Jolla in 1939, and did crucial surf and current forecasts that made it possible to land Allied troops safely in North Africa and Normandy beaches during World War II.
“My mother was in London being bombed at the time,” said Dedina, who got to know Munk in recent years. “My father’s family was being carted off to concentration camps and being eviscerated by the Nazis. So I always personally thanked Walter for helping to liberate Europe, to make sure our troops were safe and to play a footnote in … world peace.”
San Diego lifeguard Lt. John Sandmeyer recalled Munk as a finely dressed gentleman who walked the La Jolla Shores boardwalk daily.
“People would say: Oh, I think he’s an instructor out at UCSD,” he said to laughter.
- Listen: Remarks by Serge Dedina, John Sandmeyer, Tim Gallaudet, Byron Washom, Stephanie Hoffman and others
One winter day, Sandmeyer remarked to Munk about geese “out on the lawn” beyond the shores tower.
“He looked over and says, ‘Well, those aren’t geese. …. Those are the ruddy ducks” who’d been visiting the shores every few years, including the estuary “in the old days.”
Sandmeyer told fellow lifeguards that the friendly old man was a bird expert from UCSD. (More audience laughter.)
“One day I made sure he understood the effects of the rip currents” (again laughter) while working on a tsunami readiness project.
He said Munk examined a map of warning signs and paid a visit to the La Jolla Shores lifeguard tower, where he drew a chart of a tsunami wave and why it was different from a regular wave, noting its periods and orbital motion.
“I was thinking: This guy seems to know a lot about breaking waves for a bird specialist,” he said.
Sandmeyer soon learned Munk — “just a very happy and precious individual who we could talk to every day” — was a groundbreaking scientist.
Stephanie Hoffman, Munk’s physical therapist, recalled the first time she saw him as he labored up the steep steps to her La Jolla clinic.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m here to be tortured,” he replied, leading her to think: “OK, this is going to be fun.”
Hoffman recalled stories of his travels to the South Pacific, with a Samoan chief being paid with beers (perhaps) and his having known Nobelist Marie Curie.
“I will always hear Walter’s defiant voice telling me to always ask the questions,” she said on what would have been his 102nd birthday.
She’ll recall his humor and curiosity as well.
He’d often ask one of her patients: “‘What are YOU being tortured for?’ And my patient would go on and on with all their variety of things, and he would say to them: ‘Oh, if I could be so lucky.'”
Munk thus had a way of making people feel a little better than they were actually doing, she said.
Before joining three dozen others out on the water, she described his routine.
“He was always up way before all of us. Even us early surfers,” beginning work immediately on a computer, “and then be on a conference call with the pope or the Dalai Lama. … And then back to his life problem, and then maybe a little nap. And then back to the life problem, and then back to a meeting at Scripps, and then he would end his day with some really good wine and cheese, and maybe back to his problem again.”
Munk was always searching, always asking questions, she said, encouraging others to “engage in their purpose.”
A Friday symposium on Munk’s science barely scratched the surface, he said.
But Saturday, Gallaudet mostly wanted to speak about Munk’s stature as a human being.
“I’ll tell you one thing I like the most,” he said. “It’s actually getting in the water. He was a field guy. He loved to get his hands wet and dirty. So that’s what we’re going to do today. We’re going to get salty and we’ll do what Walter would have done.”
Munk’s third wife, Mary Coakley Munk, said the paddle-out was not the end but a beginning of carrying forward his legacy “and his optimism for what we can do if we work together.” She’d use the Walter Munk Foundation for the Oceans to teach children “what a gift the ocean is.”
She noted plans for a 2,400-square-foot mosaic map of the ocean intended for Kellogg Park. (It would feature 114 life-sized species, including a 31-foot image of JJ the baby gray whale rescued by SeaWorld and returned to the sea.)
“Walter was larger than life, probably the only person I’ve ever known … who loved everybody and everybody loved him,” she said in an interview. “He was really about the children. And we hope very much to continue to work with places like Ocean Discovery Institute and places that have already worked hard to establish programs.”
She said she was very lucky to have almost 10 years with Munk.
“He promised me 10 good years when he was 92, and he almost made it,” she said. “It’s really important to carry his legacy forward.”
Byron Washom, UCSD’s first director of strategic energy initiatives, called Munk as much a “genius from the heart as he was from the brain” who reached out to everyone but especially the young.
“And those young people then became graduate students, like Tim and others,” he said, declaring Munk’s legacy will live not for years or decades, “but for centuries.”
Even at 101, he continued mentoring at UC San Diego.
Washom said Munk would be asked: Why haven’t you retired?
“And his answer was simple: ‘My work is not yet finished.'”
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