People in Your La Jolla Neighborhood: Meet shoreline observer, retired Navy Lt. Commander Richard Smith

Retired Navy Lt. Commander Richard Smith in his home on Camino de la Costa
Retired Navy Lt. Commander Richard Smith in his home on Camino de la Costa
(María José Durán)

Editor’s Note: Welcome to La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series, which shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to or call us at (858) 875-5950.

Retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Richard Smith has observed the changes along La Jolla’s shoreline for the past 60 years. In his frequent coast walks, he notices when a rock detaches or a cliff collapses and he documents it with pictures.

Where are you from?

“I was born in Saint Louis, Missouri. My mother had tuberculosis before there were drugs to treat it, back then you just went to a better climate. So when I was 6, we moved to Phoenix, Arizona and lived there for four years. But my mother couldn’t handle the air conditioning, so we moved to Coronado where we had been spending our summers. About that time, my parents got divorced. My mother was from New Jersey, and she moved back there. We children spent the school years with our mother and the summers with our father. And the first time that happened, while we were back East for school, my father, who was a banker, was transferred to the La Jolla branch, so that next summer (1952) we came out to La Jolla.

I continued to spend summers here until I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1962. I was stationed out of San Diego, my younger siblings were still at home and my parents put up with me when I got off the ship. So I essentially lived in La Jolla, except a lot of that time I was deployed overseas. And then from 1971 to 1978, I was stationed in Hawaii. But then I came back for my final tour of duty before I retired in San Diego. We bought this house (on Camino de la Costa), and I’ve been here ever since.”

What have you been doing since retiring?

“When I retired in 1982, it was a hard time, coming out of the Carter years. You can’t live off your retirement, but I’d put aside enough money we could get by on and I didn’t want to take a job from somebody who really needed it. So I got active in community affairs for quite a while, spent a lot of time doing that. At one point I was vice-president of the La Jolla Town Council, and I was in the Bird Watchers, a community group that preceded the Bird Rock Community Council.”

What got you interested in volunteering?

“A sense of obligation ... somebody had to do this, and I wasn’t doing anything else. I certainly had a lot more time to devote to my community than others, so I did it.”

What projects were going on at that time?

“A lot of coastal development permits, development issues.”

Are you a surfer?

“I tried surfing back when I was 13 or 14. The surfboard was an 8- or 9-foot board, and you took off from your knees. I didn’t have the balance to master kneeling (laughs), so I body surfed and skin dived. I was in the ocean every day, but never surfing.”

What has changed in La Jolla?

“The biggest change is that when we moved here, almost everybody who worked in La Jolla lived in La Jolla. My father was a bank branch manager, and his tellers lived here. But you didn’t need the level of income that you need nowadays (to live in La Jolla). I can remember in my early 20s, it was easy to find a place to rent in La Jolla for $100 a month, which with inflation would transfer to $1,000. But still, you don’t find that now in La Jolla.

It was a different world. It was hard to see the Whaling Bar go ... but the environment that supported it doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of the local businessmen would go there to have a few drinks before they went home in La Jolla, and a lot of business was done there, too.”

How did you become interested in shoreline erosion?

“I was always interested in the sand and how it moved. Sometimes the north of WindanSea would have a lot, sometimes the south would. And the texture of the sand! Any La Jollan would tell you that The Shores’ sand is the worst sand in the world. It’s sticky, you can’t get it off ... but I noticed that once you get away from The Shores, which has very fine grains, it gets coarse, and The Cove used to be the coarsest.

In 1982 to 1983 and 1984 to 1985, we had a lot of really heavy surf storms that took out the sand at The Shores, at Torrey Pines, and what they call Blacks Beach now, that was down to cobbles, and I had never seen it like that. I wondered if it would ever come back. Well, it hasn’t come back to what it was in the 1950s and ’60s in the summer.

But the cliffs have changed radically. There is some erosion from the top down. Some of the problems are man-made or City-made by poorly designed or poorly maintained storm drain outlets.”

Do you have memories of your early years in La Jolla?

“I was a substitute lifeguard at La Valencia Hotel pool during high school for a couple of years. There was a lady who was the lifeguard, but they needed someone for the weekends. And then their insurance company probably told them they were better off with no lifeguard and a sign that read, ‘Swim at your own risk’ (laughs), because there is no lifeguard there now, and there hasn’t been for many years.”

What are some of your routines?

“I used to jog to stay in shape, but in my late 60s, my ankles and knees started saying, ‘You need to do something else,’ so I started swimming. I’d go in down by Bird Rock and I’d swim around, and there are few places to come in, so once you start you have to go all the way until you finish. I did that until the water got down to 60 degrees. Then my back started giving me problems, and I got too old to do that. Now I just swim around WindanSea.”

How did you meet your wife?

“She’s lived in La Jolla since she was 6. We knew each other (back then), because her parents knew mine. She was at my house when I got the news that I had been accepted to the Naval Academy. But I was 18 at the time, and 18-year-olds don’t notice 12-year-old girls.

(Years later), I was on leave back from Vietnam, and this friend of mine and I were walking on WindanSea, and she and her cousin where sitting up on the rocks at the Surf Shack, and he went over to say hello, introduced me, and that’s how we met. We started dating in 1967 and we got married in 1969.

We have two kids, one is in Hong Kong now, he’s a surfer, and the other one works in television.”