Honoring AOML’s Founder and First Director – Harris B. Stewart Jr.

As a part of NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML)’s 50th anniversary celebration, we would like to honor and remember AOML’s dedicated founder and first director, Dr. Harris B. Stewart Jr.

Dr. Stewart, or “Stew” as many called him, had a remarkable career in marine science that spanned more than 40 years and a multitude of caring friends and colleagues. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 120 scientific articles during his years as a marine scientist. He also authored 12 books with topics ranging from oceanography, to poetry, to humor.

Black & White Image from AOML's Archives of AOML’s dedicated founder and first director, Dr. Harris B. Stewart Jr.
Harris B. Stewart Jr.
Photo Credit: AOML Archive

Born in Auburn, New York in 1922, Harris Stewart enrolled at Princeton University in 1941. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year, Stewart interrupted his academic studies to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. During his four years with the Air Corps, serving as a transport pilot flying above the broad expanses of the Coral Sea and the islands of the southwest Pacific Ocean, he developed a deep respect and love for the sea. After the war, he returned to Princeton to earn a degree in geology.

Stewart’s love of the sea led him to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the early 1950s where he earned a doctoral degree in oceanography. He became a certified SCUBA diver, participated in marine geology expeditions in the Gulf of Alaska and south Pacific, and worked as a diving geologist for a group that performed underwater geological mapping off the coast of California. In 1957, he was called to Washington D.C. to become the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey’s Chief Oceanographer. His seafaring days continued with oceanographic research expeditions to the Caribbean Sea, South China Sea, and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

Black and White image of AOML's first director Dr. Harris B. Stewart Jr. wearing full skin-diving regalia, holds geologist tools, and underwater sled. Photo Credit: Harris B. Stewart, AOML Archive
Outfitted for dive, Dr. Harris B. Stewart Jr. wears full skin-diving regalia, holds geologist tools, and underwater sled.
Photo Credit: Harris B. Stewart Jr., AOML Archive

In 1965, the U.S. Department of Commerce created a new agency, the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA, NOAA’s predecessor), which was formed primarily by merging the functions of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Weather Bureau. Soon after, Dr. Stewart accepted the honor of becoming Director of ESSA’s new Institute of Oceanography.

Colored image from AOML's Archive of AOML's first director Dr. Harris B. Stewart Jr. sitting on a boat while at sea.
Harris B. Stewart Jr. on a launch in the 1960s.
Photo Credit: Harris B. Stewart Jr., AOML Archive

When ESSA announced its intention to build a multi-million dollar oceanographic research laboratory along the eastern seaboard, Dr. Stewart was appointed Chairman of its Site Evaluation Committee. He chose Miami from over 100 potential sites, largely because of the pre-existing hurricane research activity in the region.

However, the building of the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory turned out to be a difficult task. In October of 1970, ESSA was abolished and its functions were transferred to a new federal agency called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Then, a last minute cut from President Johnson’s Fiscal Year 1970 federal budget eliminated funding that was needed to begin construction of the new NOAA facility. Dr. Stewart successfully appealed to Miami’s community leaders for help getting the necessary funds reinstated, and on February 9, 1973, AOML officially opened its doors. If not for the dedication of these individuals and their belief in Dr. Stewart, construction of the lab would have never begun or been completed.

Colored image from AOML's Archive of AOML's first director Dr. Harris B. Stewart Jr. holding a golden ground-breaking shovel while speaking with a TV reporter.
AOML Director Dr. Harris B. Stewart Jr. holding the golden ground-breaking shovel during a TV interview at the AOML site on October 10, 1970.
Photo Credit: George A. Berberian, AOML Archive

Dr. Stewart eventually relocated to Miami to become AOML’s first Director, bringing with him over 100 marine scientists and researchers. He served as Director until 1978, at which time he retired from federal service.

According to Jack Kofoed, Stewart’s former Deputy Director:

“The depth of loyalty and respect of his friends was unbelievable, and it was true all the way back to his school days. Stew achieved the near impossible goal of being both a brilliant scientist and charismatic manager.”

Twenty years later, Dr. Stewart was reunited with many of his old friends and colleagues when he visited Miami to participate in AOML’s Silver Anniversary celebration. He was AOML’s honored guest, much praised for the vision, leadership, and political savvy that took the concept of AOML from the realm of mere creative potential to that of full-blown reality–a dream manifested.

Here’s how some of Harris Stewart’s friends and former colleagues remember him:

“Harris Stewart was a very personable man, took the time to talk to anyone, including a fledgling oceanographer, and made an impact on everyone who met him. Looking back over 30 years of NOAA personalities I’ve known, I can, without equivocation, observe that Harris Stewart was, indeed, the right person, at the right time and in the right place to create the AOML at which we presently have the honor to be employed.”

Steve Cook, former AOML oceanographer

“The thing I remember most about Stew was his kindness. When I first came to work here in October 1970, he brought me into his office and told me how glad he was that I was here. Made me feel like family. He was at once both kind and charismatic, a rare combination with a gift for leadership. This was a man you would follow into hell. We are all the poorer now that he is gone.”

Dennis Mayer, former AOML oceanographer

“Even though he could barely see anymore, he would tell me “you look as beautiful as ever!” and I knew he meant it, because he always looked at people with his heart, not with his eyes.”

Gladys Medina, former Executive Secretary for the Office of the Director

“One of the things I appreciated the most about Dr. Stewart was the way he encouraged senior AOML researchers to mentor the younger scientists and teach them how to conduct scientific research and get their results published. He also taught an entire generation of AOML scientists that a solid academic background combined with hard work, determination and an uncompromising trust in the scientific method would ultimately result in meaningful scientific contributions to our respective fields. Thank you for showing us the way Dr. Stewart!”

 Evan Forde, current AOML oceanographer

Dr. Stewart’s vision and passion for understanding the science of the sea, as well as his ability to see and share the reality of life at sea, has inspired many young scientists and helped build the foundation of NOAA’s oceanography of today.

*The text for this article is derived from the March 1998 and May 2000 issues of AOML’s Keynotes newsletter.