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Guest commentary: Exploring the true spirit of Seiche

Seiche is the La Jolla former home of the late Walter and Judith Munk.
(File)

When a foundation bearing my father’s name, the Walter Munk Foundation for the Oceans, advocates for positions that run counter to what he and my mother wished for Seiche — the house I grew up in — I feel a responsibility to speak up.

I want to focus on two issues: 1) the controversy surrounding the [planned] sale of Seiche and the competing narrative that has formed around it, and 2) the recent spotlight on the achievements of my mother, Judith Munk.

In the July 22 edition of the La Jolla Light (“UC San Diego to sell La Jolla former home of oceanographer Walter Munk”), Mary Coakley [Munk], founder and president of WMFO, is quoted: “We did all we could to carry out Walter’s dying wishes for Seiche and his personal historic property that he intended to be valued and retained by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.”

When Mary says “we,” presumably she means WFMO, which sponsored the submission for historic designation [of Seiche]. How does this quest conform to the mission statement “to continue Walter Munk’s legacy of daring exploration and discovery through scientific research, education and ocean exploration”?

In his July 29 letter to the editor (“Preserve Walter Munk’s house for science,” La Jolla Light), Peter Wadhams describes a “sense of outrage and betrayal to learn that not only is Scripps ignoring the meaning of that marvelous gift but is treading it into the dirt by putting the house up for sale.”

Some context may be helpful here. In the gift of Seiche, Dad carefully spelled out what he wanted. He personally selected a core committee to deliberate on what would best serve SIO. This was always Dad’s overarching goal.

Dad entrusted Jim Cairns, his close friend and confidant, to represent his interests. While serving on the committee, Jim took on this role selflessly and with a deep commitment. Importantly, they were in regular contact up until the very end of Dad’s life, and their conversations revolved around the future of Seiche. If Dad had had a change of heart, surely he would have discussed this with Jim, who was his spokesman and executor of his estate. He did not.

However one feels about the future of Seiche, it should be understood that this competing narrative (which presumes an end-of-life change of heart), goes against both Mom’s and Dad’s stated wishes. In fact, so strongly did they oppose a historic designation for Seiche that soon after my mother died, Dad wrote a letter saying so and had it notarized.

We all hoped that SIO could have kept Seiche. But as Dad specified, it was the committee’s call to make. Dad devoted his life to SIO and did not want to tie the hands of the institution he loved. That is why he provided contingency plans that included an option to sell.

According to Jim, the recent vote conferring historic status to Seiche was a key component in the committee’s decision to sell. How does WMFO condemn the decision to sell when its actions contributed to the decision to sell? The attacks and finger-pointing at SIO are undignified and should stop.

2) Regarding the renewed interest in my mother’s legacy (“‘A colorful, adventurous spirit’: Historical reviews bring artist and architect Judith Munk new attention,” Aug. 5, La Jolla Light): Mom deserves to be celebrated for her considerable accomplishments as an artist, midcentury architect and a force within the SIO community. My hope is that any narrative that seeks to honor Mom’s life would touch on her reasons for opposing historic designation for Seiche as part of a more comprehensive study. This was a key ingredient in her design for Seiche. Mom viewed Seiche as a dynamic and constantly evolving, shape-shifting entity that was always responsive and welcoming to new and exciting challenges. This is the spirit of Seiche.

Kendall Munk is a daughter of Walter and Judith Munk.