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Russell Chapman can appreciate sea life as well as stage life

Russell L. Chapman is executive director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD. He received his B.A. in biology from Dartmouth College and his M.S. and Ph.D. in botany from UC Davis. For 32 years, he was a faculty member and administrator at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He was the founding dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at LSU.

Chapman is a phycologist (“algae man”) and has published widely on the ultrastructure and molecular evolution of algae. He has advised scores of graduate students during his career. He served as president for the Phycological Society of America, and as an executive council member (and treasurer) for the International Phycological Society. He serves on the editorial boards of national and international journals.

Chapman coordinates research and education efforts among the CMBC faculty for the Scripps and broader UCSD communities. He assists with scientific and institutional policy, fundraising and program planning, and development. He serves on the board of the Orchestra Nova San Diego and is a member of the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club.

What brought you to La Jolla?

After 32 years at Louisiana State University (that included one national football championship under coach Nick Saban), I planned to retire and start something new and different in Washington, D.C., a city my wife and I really enjoy, and where I spent a lot of time dealing with federal agencies and NGOs. Lacking a GPS, I ended up in La Jolla. But it was the executive director position at the Center for Marine Biology and Conservation that drew me here — the job description and requirements seemed to exactly mirror my C.V. (curriculum vitae).

What makes this town special to you?

First, there is the intellectual caliber of what goes on at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and at UCSD – both educationally and researchwise. Second, the cultural offerings in the La Jolla/San Diego area are superb, and Orchestra Nova is perhaps the most exciting and enjoyable for me.

If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in the area?

I would add public transportation comparable to the Metro in Washington, D.C., so that life in San Diego without a car would be more feasible, and probably, life in general would be enhanced by reducing the number of cars on the road.

What inspires you?

Outstanding performing artists (including great composers) as well as those who have dedicated themselves to worthy causes like saving our rivers or our ocean or our planet all are a source of inspiration.

If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?

Clearly my wife, Melanie, would be one of the eight (unless she found my choices utterly unbearable), so we need six more. I am not very political, but I would certainly enjoy the chance to dine with President and Mrs. Obama. Down to four. Melanie and I had the rare good fortune to see Dames Maggie Smith and Judy Dench in David Hare’s “Breath of Life” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London in 2002, and I think having them and Meryl Streep join us would be pretty fascinating. The final guest would be author Alexander McCall Smith, whose books we have read and one of whose lectures we have heard on CD.

What you are reading?

I am reading “Letters From an Actor” by William Redfield. It deals with the Gielgud/Burton production of “Hamlet.” I had the great fortune to see that production in Boston in 1964 and have never forgotten it.

And I am reading “Too Much Tuscan Sun” by Dario Castagno with Robert Rodi. This book is charming on two accounts. First, my wife and I both love Tuscany and have had the great fortune to take two vacations there. Second, I often serve as a tour guide at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and lead large groups of young schoolchildren, smaller groups of foreign visitors, or individual guests like foreign politicians and famous businessmen from Japan. Thus, some of Castagno’s observations on the variety of personalities he encounters among the tourists he takes on tours in Chianti ring true.

I am also reading “Year’s Best SF 14,” and although I have not read too much in this sci-fi anthology, I can say the best story is “Oblivion: A Journey” by Dr. Vandana Singh, who is one of my two wonderful daughters-in-law, which is why I know her short story is the best even if I haven’t read the others yet.

And finally, I am reading the plays of Catherine Filloux, “Silence of God and Other Plays.” Her mother, Odette Filloux, is in my wife’s book group and is one of the most impressive book reviewers I have ever met.

What is your most-prized possession?

If “possession” refers to an inanimate object that I own, the answer would be our home in St. Gabriel, La. It is a large contemporary home on the site of a former plantation that was a Spanish land grant in the late 1700s. We have a 200-year-old oak tree in the front yard and a bayou separating our yard from the street. We have a barn and two pastures, and our neighbor has horses, cattle and goats. But we are just 14 miles from the symphony hall in Baton Rouge.

If “possession” can be interpreted more broadly, then, of course, my most prized are my family and friends. Also, possessing reasonably good health for a man of my age is a blessing.

What do you do for fun?

When a pinched nerve is not agonizing my leg, I like to boogie board with Melanie. With or without the painful leg, I enjoy going to the S.D. Symphony, S.D. Opera, Lyric Opera of S.D., La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, Cygnet Theatre, St. James by-the-Sea Music Series and, most of all, Orchestra Nova at the acoustically and aesthetically magnificent Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall. I also play the piano, have co-authored a one-act play, and written the book for a two-act opera (and hope to have more of that kind of fun when I retire for the second time).

Please describe your greatest accomplishment.

My original goal in life was to become a university professor, get married, have at least two children, and have a nice home wherein the holidays were celebrated nicely. Melanie and I have enjoyed 40 years together, have two wonderful sons, and have always enjoyed nice homes (even in our impoverished grad school days).

What is your motto or philosophy of life?

I think back in college it was, “If it is socially necessary, I will do it.” That was tongue-in-cheek, but it was good for starting a conversation. With time and a tiny advance in maturity, I would say my personal trinity of the trite would be: This too will pass. That which does not kill us, makes us stronger. And, today is the first day of the rest of your life.