"Hey, Dr. Spiros Koulouris! You've just retired following a distinguished 40-year career as a brain surgeon. What are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to enroll at Orange Coast College!"
It didn't happen quite that way. But almost.
Dr. Koulouris, who retired in January after spending 20 years on the clinical faculty at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and 18 years as chief of neurosurgery at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Anaheim, is testing the waters of an exciting new field. The Greek expatriate, now a U.S. citizen, is taking marine science courses at OCC.
"I love it," he says. "I'm doing something I thoroughly enjoy. I grew up next to the ocean and have always had a strong interest in the sea. It must be in my genes."
He's soaking up marine science data in OCC's classrooms like a Porifera...er, sea sponge.
Born on the ancient Greek isle of Corfu in the Adriatic, near Albania and Italy, Koulouris never had discretionary time to spend on hobbies while pursuing his demanding career in medicine.
"I didn't have time to sit down and do all the reading that I wanted to do at the time," he says. "When I could, I devoured books, but I couldn't give recreational reading the attention I wanted to."
Koulouris has always been interested in scientific matters, and has been drawn to books about the sea.
"Perhaps it's because I was born on an island. The ocean is my first love."
He officially stepped down from his Kaiser Permanente post last January when he reached mandatory retirement age. He continues to do consulting work several days each month, and is a member of the UC Irvine Medical School voluntary faculty.
But he's just now beginning to adjust to the fact that, at long last, he can control his own schedule.
"I was a bit nervous as I approached retirement," he concedes. "I'd never had hobbies. I wasn't one of those doctors who spent a day or two on the golf course each week. What was I going to do with myself? The things I love most are traveling and reading. I felt that I should try to do those two things in retirement, but how do you structure them into an average day?"
Shortly before he retired, the Laguna Beach resident stumbled across a textbook that his stepson had used in 1997 in an Orange Coast College marine biology class. The book, the number-one marine science textbook in the land, was written by OCC marine science professor, Dr. Tom Garrison. Titled "An Introduction to Marine Science," the book is used by colleges and universities across the nation.
"The book is exquisite, it contains a universe of knowledge," Koulouris said. "I went out and purchased the latest edition and began pouring through it."
In January, with more time on his hands than he'd ever known before, Koulouris emailed OCC's Admissions Office to find out more about the marine science program, and the availability of spring semester classes. He also emailed professor Garrison.
"I told Dr. Garrison that I enjoyed his textbook very much and was interested in marine science. He encouraged me to enroll in spring classes, which began in early February."
Dr. Koulouris signed up for the college's popular lecture class, "Oceanography," and also enrolled in Garrison's "Honors Oceanography Laboratory." He's been attending classes this spring on Monday and Wednesday mornings.
"Spiros is an absolute delight in the classroom," Garrison says. "He gently shares his skills with all of us, recommends reading materials to me, takes careful notes, and even finds typos in my textbook!
"He works seamlessly next to the rest of the honors students in our lab, and has a wonderful sense of humor. It has truly been an honor having him with us -- and as a member of OCC's Honors Program."
"The students at Coast are wonderful," Koulouris enthuses. "They're a tremendous bunch of kids. When you see their faces, they look involved and interested. I enjoy interacting with them."
Orange Coast College's Marine Science Department is the largest community college marine science program in the nation. It's also considered on par with many of the top university departments around the country.
"I'm having the time of my life," Koulouris confesses. "The other day, in my oceanography lab, we dissected a mackerel. It was as much fun for me as the first time I dissected a human brain."
Koulouris is adjusting to the undergraduate system in the United States.
"Grading is a bit different here than when I studied in Europe decades ago," he says with a smile. "In Europe, in those days, we were graded on a scale of one-to-10, or one-to 20. I'm still trying to adjust to A's, B's and C's."
To be frank, however, Koulouris hasn't had to worry about B's and C's.
Born in 1937, Dr. Koulouris was raised in occupied Greece.
"I remember that the Italians bombed first; then the Germans bombed the Italians; then British bombed the Germans; and everybody bombed the Greeks. We had a taste of all sides during World War II."
Koulouris, an inquisitive and thoughtful youth, went to elementary and high school in Corfu. After graduating, he attended medical school in Salonica -- the first-century Thessalonica -- in northern Greece. Today, he's a sophisticated world citizen who speaks four languages: English, Greek, French and Italian.
When he finished med school, Koulouris spent five years in the Greek Air Force.
"The military had paid for my medical school education, so I had an obligation to repay their generosity."
Following his discharge, he spent a year living in Paris, then came to the United States in 1965. He trained in neurosurgery at George Washington University, then joined the university's clinical faculty. He was in charge of training residents.
In 1985, he came west to work at Kaiser Permanente in Anaheim. He founded the facility's Neurosurgery Department and ran it for 18 years, until his recent retirement.
Koulouris has been more than impressed with his Orange Coast College experience. In fact, he's been rather amazed.
"Community colleges are not fully appreciated by the communities they serve," he says. "Most people seem to think, 'community college, ho-hum.' OCC is a fabulous place with superior academics, and is a tremendous resource for this community. It's like having a Harvard-quality education right on your doorstep."
Koulouris calls the caliber of OCC's teaching faculty "unbelievable."
"Finances are tight in this state, and people should support community colleges," he says earnestly. "Dr. Garrison is one of the finest professors I've ever had, and an asset to the scientific community. He's passionate about his subject and is an inspiration to students."
With OCC's spring semester winding down, Koulouris has already begun planning for next fall.
"I'll definitely be back," he promises. "I want to take some advanced marine science classes, and I'd also like to take an OCC geology course or two. I know, with all the state budget cuts, that some classes will be eliminated, but I'm hopeful there'll be a good selection of courses to choose from. I can't wait until the fall schedule is published so that I can begin solidifying things."
Dr. Koulouris is considering pursuing a future in marine ecology. He'd like to become involved in environmental activities along Orange County's coastline.
"I'd like to have an opportunity to be involved with the ocean in some way but I don't yet have a structured goal," he says. "I'm a perpetual student, so I think I'll continue to take classes for a while. The ocean is a precious resource and we must do all we can to preserve it."
He and his wife, UC Irvine neuropsychologist, Betsy Parker, own the home of his youth in Corfu, near the sea. They spend time there.
"We keep the house furnished and we visit regularly," he says. "I'd like to pursue my marine science ecology interests in Corfu, as well. Like California's waters, the Adriatic could also use some tending to."
For Koulouris, carrying out Orange Coast College marine science lab work and mastering exams is not exactly brain surgery. But it keeps him active and agile.
"I'm having a great time," he says with a smile. "It's important that you challenge yourself, even in retirement."
That's just what Dr. Spiros Koulouris is doing.