Walter Munk - Part 2: At Home; His house is his hand-built castle


Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part interview with famed Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Walter Munk, which took place a week prior to his 100th birthday on Oct. 19, 2017. The first part of the story is posted at “Walter Munk - Part 1: La Jolla celebrates centennial of “The Einstein of the Oceans”:

High on a verdant La Jolla hilltop, above a steep canyon leading down to a wide expanse of ocean, Walter Munk sits at his desk, at work. At age 100, he still has lots of work to do. Besides preparing talks for his centennial events, he is thinking about waves.

“I’ve been studying the influence of wind on waves, off and on, for 50 years,” he says. “And I want to write one more good paper before I kick the bucket.”

Although he’s often in a wheelchair now, he doesn’t seem ready to kick any bucket. In fact, he and his wife, Mary, are planning another trip down to Cabo Pulmo, to join a second expedition in search of his namesake devil ray (Mobula Munkiana). There’s a lifesize Mobula a sculpture suspended outside his window, Mary wears a small gold Mobula charm around her neck, and they still hope to see a full gathering of the leaping rays some day.

At home, Munk talked about the house’s history. In the late 1940s, a group of 19 forward-thinking Scripps Institution of Oceanography colleagues got together and bought 42 acres of Scripps Estates land for $42,000. They designated the canyon a common area, and subdivided the rest.

“There was a fateful dinner at Roger Revelle’s, and we all drew lots for the properties,” Munk said. “I was No. 19.”

He and his late wife, Judith, the artist/architect he met at SIO and married in 1953, were the first to start building.

“We had no contractor,” Munk said. “Judy was in charge, and I did all the plumbing and electrical work. And Judy wasn’t just an architect; she knew how to mix cement. We had no money, so we went to the Bank of La Jolla, and asked for a $5,000 loan. The bank manager was ready to turn us down because we had no contractor, but when he came out and saw what we were doing, he gave us the loan.”

The verdant hilltop, with its towering trees, took a lot of work. “There was nothing here then, no trees, no bushes,” Munk said. “We planted every one.”

After almost 53 years of marriage, Judith died in 2006. Five years later, Munk married Mary Coakley, his current companion in life. “He’ll do anything to promote Scripps and encourage the next generation,” Mary said fondly. “That’s why there are all these centennial activities.”

When asked what he felt were the high points in his life, Munk spent a few moments reflecting. Then, prompted by Mary, he offered: “Learning to predict waves. That work saved lives, and there’s no substitute for that.”

After a brief pause, he added: “The success we had after Pearl Harbor came from working together. That’s how problems get solved. We must work together now, nationally and internationally. Our future depends on it.”

He said his best 100th birthday present has been the outpouring of messages from people all over the world. “Some of them I haven’t seen for years,” he said. “And they all wrote that at least once I’d given them an answer that was useful at least once in their lives, and told me how it helped. What could be better?”

Our interview was over. He was ready to get back to work.


• La Jolla Shores names street for local science hero Walter Munk:

Walter Munk - Part 1: La Jolla celebrates centennial of “The Einstein of the Oceans”: