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Star Witness To A San Diego Century Ellen Revelle

Remembered for her roles as professor’s wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, First Lady of Scripps Institution, gadfly, editor, philanthropist and friend (1910-2009)


In the summer of 1998, I spent many joyous afternoons at the beach in La Jolla. Surfers glinted like dragonflies on the long, foamy swells; a hint of jasmine hung in the salt-laced air. But I was not lolling in the sand, slathered with sunblock to survive. I was there, near the foot of Marine Street, to interview Ellen Revelle, then a sprightly 88, for a taped oral history for the University of California.

Being a reporter comes with a license to be nosy. Especially when the subject is a soft-spoken, somewhat secretive, keenly observant woman, who was married for 60 years to Roger Revelle, the towering, voluble, feared-and-revered founding father of the University of California, San Diego. While he waged battles and won headlines, she qui­et­ly absorbed scenes and anecdotes from three generations of academics, Nobel laureates, rogues, royals, Navy admirals, Marine generals, U.S. presidents and their wives.

Her curiosity and her vitality never waned. Our interviews had to be worked around morning swims in La Jolla Cove (“but not every morning anymore; sometimes it’s just too cold!”), Wednesday Club meetings in downtown San Diego, a writing class at UCSD, board meetings of La Jolla Playhouse, gatherings of Oceanids (the UCSD women’s organization she cofounded), tai chi lessons and distant travels.

For almost a century, Ellen Virginia Clark Revelle served as a rare, vibrant link between San Diego’s past and its future. Her parents had settled on an apple-and-cattle ranch in Julian but came to the coast each summer. She was born on July 31, 1910, in the La Jolla guest house of her great-aunt, the newspaperwoman and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps.

Young Ellen’s memories began with the high lace collars and prim posture of her great-aunt and namesake, the farsighted benefactress of schools, libraries, museums, churches of all stripes, the San Diego Zoological Society, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Scripps Memorial Hospital & Metabolic Clinic and the Children’s Pool breakwater, which has sheltered generations of toddlers and, more recently, baby seals.

Ellen’s childhood was a whirl of adventure and privilege. She recalled being driven at the age of 9 or 10 through the San Diego Zoo in a blue Pierce Arrow limousine with her mother, Grace Scripps Clark, and two aunts, the elegant spinster Ellen Browning Scripps and her irascible half-sister, Virginia: “I did enjoy sitting on the jump seat facing them and feeling very important that we were the only car that could go inside the zoo.”

In 1927, Ellen postponed European travels to join the first class of 52 women at Scripps College in Claremont, founded by her great-aunt as a sister school to Pomona College. She majored in psychology, was cast as the comic in school plays (despite dreams of being the heroine) and crossed swords, whether he knew it or not, with the president, Dr. Ernest Jacqua, who “used to embarrass me profoundly when I was waiting on a table in the dining hall, by saying: ‘This is Miss Scripps’ niece and the richest girl in college. She does this just for fun.’

Seventy years later, Ellen still sputtered at the memory: “This was not true. I was earning everything except the tuition—I mean, all my expenses.” At a Valentine’s Day dance in her freshman year, she met Roger Revelle, a geology student at neighboring Pomona. They were married on a sweltering June evening in 1931, 10 days after her graduation, and drove north to Berkeley, where Roger had a job as a teaching assistant. Admittedly a novice at housekeeping skills, she remembered timing hard-boiled eggs by the campanile clock chimes on campus.

That fall, the newlyweds moved to the small marine biological station north of La Jolla—renamed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography—and set up their first home in a board-and-batten cottage on the cliff above Scripps Pier.

In the 1930s, there were vast empty stretches between the biological station and The Village. La Jolla Shores Drive was not paved, and gas was pricy, so they hitched rides on the mail truck to buy groceries. (“It was the Depression, and we all were learning various ways of cooking kidney beans and serving them up on our best wedding china.”) A mood of summer camp prevailed. There were beach picnics and games like Sardines, which is “sort of like hide-and-seek, but when you find someone you crawl in and hide with them—all squished into a closet or wherever and trying hard not to laugh.”

At 5 feet, 2 inches, with startling blue eyes, Ellen managed to stand up to her legendary 6-foot-4 husband—although her public image remained gracious and demure. Even when she “gave him a little kick” at parties to distract him from a diatribe. She moved households and children across the country and even to Norway, in 1936, after he accepted a year’s position with the Geophysical Institute in Bergen.

Roger, though charming, was notorious for being late: late for dates when they were in college; late in finishing his Ph.D. thesis; late for faculty meetings when he was director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Once, he phoned from the East Coast to say he had missed his flight and would not make it to his own birthday party. Ever game, Ellen carried on—placing a portrait of Roger on the piano, where it was the object of friends’ hearty toasts.

Women were not allowed to set foot on Scripps’ ships in those days. In 1940, Ellen and another oceanographer’s wife drove to Guaymas, in Mexico, to deliver a load of jerry-rigged lab gear. Their suitcases ended up in a car driven by a graduate student, who was turned back at the border. But the women had a sewing kit and plenty of moxie.

“We made bathing suits out of bandana handkerchiefs,” Ellen said. “While they left something to be desired when wet, they were kind of cute when dry.”

The men spent their days at sea but returned to the harbor at night. “They would row ashore and stay with us at a little motel on Bacochibampo Bay, and we felt sort of illicit. It was fun.”

Throughout her long and energetic life, Ellen played many roles: professor’s wife, mother (three daughters and a son), grandmother, great-grandmother, First Lady of Scripps Institution, passionate gadfly for ­causes from Democratic politics to land-conservation reforms, editor, prankster, classical music fan—especially chamber music—lover of theater and opera, philanthropist and loyal friend.

She was a fierce fighter for fair play and the abolishment of discrimination—a fervor she linked to Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1939 decision to resign from the Daughters of the American Revolution to protest their refusal to allow the renowned African-American contralto Marian Anderson to perform at the DAR-owned Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Though initially uncomfortable with speaking in public, Ellen joined Roger in pushing the La Jolla Real Estate Brokers Association to abandon its restriction against selling property to “any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race.” At the age of 98, Ellen took to the phones for the election of Barack Obama. Yet when friends described her as unflappable, she expressed surprise. “I flap,” she said.

From the opening of our taped visits, I learned to be precise of speech—and swift to get it out:
Judith: “The date is July 29, 1998. Because we are in this place, in the home that your mother began in 1922...”

Ellen: “Began and finished.”

Judith: “...began and finished in 1922, by the sea in La Jolla...”

By 1941, Ellen and Roger were living in this sprawling, Mediterranean-style home, with its high-walled gardens and Pacific sundown views. They were there, listening to the radio, on Sunday, December 7, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

She remembered Roger saying, “I guess I ought to report to duty” and going upstairs to put on his full Navy Reserve officer’s uniform and sword ... “the only time I ever saw him with the sword.” Ellen did not laugh at him then or when he went through the war giving the Boy Scout salute—“it’s the only one I ever learned,” he explained.

As San Diego and its harbor geared for war, and camouflage netting was strung over Pacific Highway, Ellen practiced air raid shelter games with the children. There were reports of Japanese submarines prowling off the La Jolla coast.

“We used to look out on foggy mornings and see ships—our ships, fortunately—doing practice beach landings down on La Jolla Shores.”

This comfortable home remained Ellen’s base while Roger led Scripps’ first expeditions to the South Pacific in the 1950s, and it was ground zero for the visionary planning of the University of California, San Diego. Future professors were wined and dined here; an early recruit was Nobel laureate chemist Harold Urey, who was facing an unwelcome retirement, at age 65, from the University of Chicago.

Houseguests included author John Steinbeck, who famously—with Ellen’s encouragement—took a dip in the pool in his long johns. He had returned with Roger from Project Mohole off Baja California, writing about that pioneering deep-sea-drilling project for Life magazine.

Also Jonas Salk, whom Ellen never entirely forgave for enjoying Revelle hospitality (including Ellen’s service as chauffeur and guide) while convincing the city council to hand over prime, ocean-view acres to build the Salk Institute—land Roger felt he had been promised as part of the UCSD campus.

After years of skirmishes and setbacks, ev­ery­thing seemed ready for the launching of what was originally called UCLJ (for La Jolla). But in February 1961, Ellen had a visit from the wife of UC president Clark Kerr, who perched on a sofa and blurted: “I don’t know if you know why Clark’s in town today.” She broke the news that Roger would not, as was generally assumed, be named the first chancellor of the university that had become his obsession. The powerful regent and UCLA alum Ed Pauley, with whom Roger had tan­gled bitterly and publicly, had exacted revenge.

“I don’t know if I turned red or white, but I felt my face going sort of prickly,” said Ellen. When Roger came through the garden gate, he looked as if he had taken a body blow. She led him inside and said: “I know.”

The Revelles wanted to be elsewhere by the time the first UCSD freshmen arrived in the fall of 1964. From an array of ­choices, Roger took on leadership of the new Center for Population Studies at Harvard, based on his groundbreaking work in Pakistan and In­dia as an adviser for President John F. Kennedy. Ellen thrived on the New England pace and plunged into entertaining students at their home in Cambridge: Benazir Bhutto, later the president of Pakistan, who was assassinated in 2007; and future vice president Al Gore, who would take up Roger’s mantle, carrying issues of global warming to the world stage and winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. (When Gore brought his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth to UCSD in May 2007, Ellen boldly introduced him as “the man who should be president.” Four thousand students, faculty and community leaders stomped and cheered.)

Roger and Ellen visited La Jolla in the fall of 1965 for triumphant double honors: the dedication of UCSD’s First College as Revelle College and the christening of the research vessel Ellen Browning Scripps. By the mid-1970s, they were dividing their time between Harvard and San Diego, to which they returned permanently in 1978.

Newspapering had been the original source of family wealth: Ellen Browning Scripps invested her savings with her brother, James E. Scripps (Ellen Revelle’s maternal grandfather), when he founded the Detroit Evening News in 1873, and later the Cleveland Press. She retired and moved to San Diego in 1897 at the urging of her younger half-brother, E.W. Scripps, who established the Scripps Howard chain. In 1986, the Revelle family bought the San Diego Daily Transcript, the century-old business daily, and Ellen Revelle was named publisher.

“If I have a brilliant idea, they double my nonexistent sal­ary,” she said with a twinkle. “If I do something stupid, they cut it.”

Ellen was early to embrace a computer; her son, Bill, provided technical support. Once, when he was in Washington, she phoned to say that a file had disappeared and she needed it for a speech the next day.

“As I started to give instructions, the hotel fire alarm went off,” Bill recalls. “I suggested that I should evacuate, but she said: ‘I really need that file.’

“’Mom, the hotel is on fire; can I call you back later?’”

“’Well, later I will be watching Masterpiece Theatre...’”

Fortunately, the alarm had been set off by burning toast in another room. And the computer file was found.
In July 1991, at age 82, Roger’s heart failed. Two years later, Ellen married their old college friend, Rollin Eckis, retired executive of Atlantic Richfield oil company (“and a Republican!” she laughed). He died of Alzheimer’s disease complications in 1999.

Ellen remained active and open to new ideas. In 1995, she rode through the Panama Canal and into San Diego harbor on board Scripps’ sleek new research vessel, the Roger Revelle, discovering that she had absorbed “by osmosis” more than she realized about oceanography. “If I were 60 years younger, I’d take this up,” she told the scientists.

She never lost her sharp editorial eye or sense of humor. In a letter to the authors of a booklet about her Barber Tract neighborhood, she wrote: “May I suggest that if a future issue comes out, more care might be given to researching the factual material? James E. Scripps died in May 1906. Since the freezing of sperm had not yet been invented, I could hardly have been his daughter, since I was not born until 1910.”

This past March, Ellen served as honorary cochair of a three-day celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of Roger’s birth. Dinners and symposia were held at the new, wave-roofed, teak-and-glass Scripps Seaside Forum, on a grassy cliff, 20 feet above the beach at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. On receiving the inaugural Revelle Prize, Roger’s protégé, Al Gore, knelt by Ellen’s wheelchair to say: “I love you. Everybody here loves you.”

Ellen Revelle died two months shy of her 99th birthday, following a massive stroke while playing dominos with her house­keeper. A memorial celebration packed Sherwood Auditorium at the Museum of Contemporary Art, just steps from where she was born.

As friends and family arrived, a village know-it-all took me aside: “I’m told that she died playing pinochle.”

I could hear Ellen’s sly, patrician retort: “Actually, it was dominoes.”

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