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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Larry Atkinson, Pioneering Oceanographer Who Helped Build ODU’s Program, Dies at 79

By Jim Raper

Larry Philip Atkinson, the Old Dominion University Eminent Scholar Emeritus whose career as an oceanographer spanned more than a half-century and whose research took him around the globe, died Dec. 22. He was 79.

Atkinson was prominent in the science community of Virginia, where his expertise in coastal physical oceanography proved invaluable for initiatives to explain and mitigate sea level rise. But his influence spread much farther. All along the East Coast, in Southern California, and in Japan, Chile and Spain, he conducted research into the nutrient supplies and overall climatology of coastal waters, hydrographic variability in boundary currents and high-frequency measurements of surface currents.

He chaired a U.S. Department of Interior science advisory committee that assessed environmental studies in areas of the outer continental shelf. He served on the National Academy of Sciences Marine Board, did project work for the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme and was chair of the Board of Trustees of the Chesapeake Research Consortium. He was managing editor of the magazine Oceanography and an editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research-Oceans. For his achievements, he received the rare honor of being elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"I consider him one of the most influential people in ODU's history," said John R. Broderick, Old Dominion's president.

Broderick was tasked with directing public relations efforts when he joined ODU in 1993. A note from a friend at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution suggested he should contact Atkinson.

"So I headed over to the oceanography facility and met Larry. I quickly realized he had a great reputation both nationally and internationally for his knowledge of storms, flooding and sea level rise. Years later, when I started the University's sea level rise initiative, Larry was the person I asked to to lead our interdisciplinary effort."

Atkinson was born in Ames, Iowa, but grew up in Bellingham, Washington. He earned bachelor and master's degrees in chemical oceanography from the University of Washington. After working briefly as a research scientist, he received a Ph.D. in oceanography in 1972 from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Before joining ODU in 1985 as professor of oceanography, he held various positions at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in Savannah, Ga.

He was an organizing force in creating the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography (CCPO) at ODU and served as director of the center. He also served as chair of the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (OEAS) and became the Samuel and Fay Slover Professor of Oceanography.

Broderick praised the professor's contributions to the success of his students, adding, "I, too, will miss his valuable and collegial counsel." Provost Austin Agho wrote, "We lost a great colleague. We are blessed to have had the privilege of knowing and working with him." Dean of Sciences Gail Dodge said: "He played a major role in building the excellent reputation of CCPO and OEAS. More recently, he was very instrumental in shaping ODU's new Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience. He had a huge impact on ODU, and I know there are many scientists around the world who will miss him tremendously."

A focus of Atkinson's in recent years was observing oceans by means of automated technology, and he was a founding board member of the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Ocean Observing System (MARACOOS). Gerhard Kuska, executive director of MARACOOS, wrote in a note to OEAS faculty, "(Larry) was a kind soul and a leader in the oceanography world who will be missed by many." Alan Blumberg, an oceanographer on the faculty of Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey and another MARACOOS colleague, wrote, "I greatly admired him. He could bring reason to a difficult science crowd and get everyone moving forward."

John Bane, a professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote that he followed Atkinson's work before they met. One paper Atkinson published in 1971 on nutrient supplies in waters off the North Carolina coast is "now a classic and a foundational work," Bane wrote. "When we finally met in person, it was ... a surprise to find such a young man behind the name and reputation."

Atkinson was in his 20s when he wrote the paper.

Atkinson recruited or figured in the appointments of some of the most successful of ODU's OEAS faculty members, including a former chair, Professor Richard Zimmerman; the current chair, Professor Fred Dobbs; and Professor Eileen Hofmann, ODU Eminent Scholar with international research credentials.

"I was a graduate student participant in a project funded by the Department of Energy and led by Larry that got me started on my career, much due to Larry's support and encouragement," Hofmann said. Atkinson later encouraged her and John Klinck, her husband and now professor of oceanography and CCPO director, to apply for faculty positions at ODU.

Zimmerman said, "The institutions and organizations he influenced are all the stronger for the wisdom and leadership he provided throughout his career."

Dobbs said he and his wife, Elizabeth Smith, a former CCPO research scientist and now ODU's interdisciplinary initiatives administrator, were drawn to ODU by Atkinson's expertise and graciousness. Actually, Dobbs was turned down when he first sought a job at ODU, but a few months later Atkinson, then the chair, called to invite him back.

"Larry told me he had 'fired the search committee' and reviewed the applications himself," Dobbs said. Added Smith, "I am so honored that Larry drew me in to assist him with ODU's efforts to address sea level rise. There is so much more to do, and I can only think that I am not ready for a world without Larry."

Atkinson was an avid traveler and outdoorsman, and in his travels he developed a refined taste for food and wine. He had especially fond memories of his research stint in northwestern Spain, where he feasted on the seafood from the cold Atlantic, padron peppers and albariño wine.

He was still active as a scientist when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018. He responded well to treatment at first, but the cancer crept back last fall. He is survived by Ann, his wife of 54 years, and his sons, Berg (Maggie and children Astrid and Clara) and Sten (Allison).

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