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Sep 13
Jim CarnettBy Jim Carnett

(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 37th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)

Tom Garrison

Tom Garrison

Does anyone in this world love his or her vocation more deeply – and with more day-in and day-out passion – than Tom Sherman Garrison?

(BTW: There’s no truth to the rumor that the “Sherman” part of his moniker is derivative of William Tecumseh Sherman, though that prospect is tantalizing. “Dr. T” and “Gen'l. Cump” have demonstrated commensurate enthusiasm for their professions…and both took orders from commanders by the name of Grant. They also served CEOs named Lincoln. Okay, I’m overstating that. Garrison’s CEO DROVE a Lincoln.)

Currently in his 39th year as an OCC marine science professor, Garrison is leaving no hints as to possible retirement plans…in fact, he may never hang it up! Dr. Tom is in love with his students, his campus, his academic discipline and his professional colleagues. Put Tom in a large lecture hall crammed with eager students, flick on the switch to his microphone and watch him soar. He’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, wheeling and sweeping over a golden sea.

Tom Garrison lecturing

Familiar surroundings.

A former U.S. Navy officer who served on destroyers, a nuclear submarine, and within the Navy’s Service Schools Command, Tom taught nuclear physics at the San Diego Naval Station. As impressive as his Naval record is, however, the supreme joy of his life – second only to the trifecta of being a husband, father and grandfather – has been to spend the past four decades as a coach/tutor/professor/educationalist at Orange Coast College.

“Has it really been that long?” he asks in amazement. “Unbelievable!”

Life comes at you fast.

In nearly 40 years of teaching, Tom has had some 60,000 students in his OCC large lecture classes.

In 1997, Garrison was named the college's “Faculty Member of the Year.” It was an honor much deserved. He’s truly one of OCC’s brightest lights! He served for many years as chair of the Marine Science Department, the largest community college marine science program in the nation, and he toiled for more than a decade as co-chair of the college’s Honors Program. He’s been chair of the prestigious Pullias Lecture Series at the University of Southern California.

In recent years, in addition to fulfilling his duties at Orange Coast College, Tom has been a guest lecturer at universities in China, Hong Kong and New Zealand. He’s also been a frequent lecturer at Elderhostel programs at UCLA and OCC, and at events sponsored by Orange Coast College’s Friends of the Library.

Tom GarrisonFor years he authored a regular column in OCC’s student newspaper, titled “Dr. Tom’s Weather.” Ostensibly it was about high-pressure systems and pre-frontal troughs, but Tom frequently played to his audience’s penchants and proclivities and dispensed pearls of wisdom about surfing, final exam preparation, and living a meaningful life. I recently came across a Dr. Tom’s Weather column that appeared in a November 1983 issue of the school newspaper. The following Garrison commentary turned up during a period of lousy local surf:

“As for surf, Lake Newport is in fully glory!” he wrote on his whimsy-saturated keyboard. “Notice also that last week’s winds have caused our surface water to move south and west, and the water that replaced it is nearly 10 degrees colder. Double your wetsuit thickness and hope for bright sun. It’ll be very cold waiting for waves that never come.”

Uber Garrisonian! He’s always looking out for students, and frequently dispenses important information couched in relaxed friendliness or with an engaging tale.

Tom gets a fair number of surfers in his OCC classes each semester.

“They seem to have a special affinity for marine science,” he observes. “I enjoy having them in class.”

Tom GarrisonAnd Tom isn’t the least bit reluctant about giving his student-surfers inside tips. For years, OCC’s Marine Science Department has had an ocean satellite monitoring system. In August of 1993, Hurricane Greg passed below the tip of Baja and headed west in the general direction of the Hawaiian Islands, before swinging north. Garrison tracked its progress for days.

“By looking at a number of photos over a short period of time, you can calculate a storm’s size, direction and speed,” he told me during a 1993 interview. “Then you calculate its distance from Orange County, and you can predict with great accuracy when the large waves will begin arriving.”

When Hurricane Greg was a couple of hundred miles west of Cabo San Lucas – in a direct line with Newport – Garrison began his calculations. He told his 300-student class on a Friday morning to expect big waves in 48 hours, by Sunday a.m. The waves arrived right on time.

“I had surfers coming up to me all day Monday saying, ‘Gee, Dr. Garrison, you were right! We sat on the beach and waited. The waves came in just like you said they would.’”

A Renaissance man and eclectic, Tom is more than just an expert on things that live on, under, over or at the edge of the ocean. Early in his OCC career he wrote classical music reviews for a national magazine. He’s a fan of Mozart and Bach.

The Critic – writing under the byline Thomas Garrison (though Tom will tell you straightaway his name is Tom, NOT Thomas) – wrote a review in 1976 of a recording of the Mozart Quintets:

“What about performance?” Thomas – eh, Tom – asked in his review. “Generally speaking, fine. Occasionally, the first violinist errs in pitch (most notably in the adagio and allegro of K.516), or the first violist is a bit off-tempo, but these are minor flaws in comparison to the crisp well measured overall performance.”

Tom’s phrasing – like Mozart’s – is authoritative. A man who knows his music, and who knows what to listen for, wrote the Mozart Quintets review. That man also happens to play the cello, though he hastens to add, “quite poorly.”

In addition to music, Tom has also been a longtime fan of the Orange Coast College crew…both men and women. Many oarsmen take his classes. His daughter, Jeanne, now a fourth-grade teacher in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, rowed for the Pirates in the 1990s. Son, John, also rowed for Coast.

Tom has written a vast array of articles for marine science and diving publications on such topics as sea snails, abalones, garibaldis, octopuses, rays, sea stars and much more. His expertise is recognized far and wide.

Tom GarrisonGarrison, 64, joined Orange Coast’s faculty in 1969. He teaches large-lecture marine science classes as well as marine science lab courses. He’s author of the textbook, “Oceanography: An Invitation to Marine Science,” which is used at colleges and universities throughout the nation. It’s been the number one best seller of marine science texts in the country for more than a decade. The beautiful 592-page tome illuminates oceanography’s links to astronomy, physics, chemistry, meteorology, geology, biology, ecology, history and economics.

Not just a celebrated scientist, Dr. Tom is also a gifted wordsmith. You already know that if he’s ever sent you a note, memo, letter or email. It’s long been my contention that good speakers, almost without exception, make good writers. It’s all about communicating. No pre-programmed lab automaton he, Tom writes with clarity, effervescence and humor (just as he speaks!). One of the reasons Tom’s textbook has been so successful is because it’s so darned well written!

As one observer noted, Tom’s textbook is written “with a clear and compelling narrative voice that conveys the author’s enthusiasm for his subject as well as objective scientific fact.” Further, the text has “allowed him to reach beyond the walls of Orange Coast College and into the minds and imaginations of thousands of students.”

Tom, by the way, donates all royalties to OCC’s Foundation from the sale of his book to his Orange Coast students. The money is apportioned to Marine Science Department scholarships and other needs.

In addition to his influential textbook, the OCC professor also writes a regular column on oceanography education for the journal, “Oceanography.”

Garrison was told of his Faculty Member of the Year Award on a Friday morning in March of 1997, during his Marine Science 100 lecture class in the Science Hall. More than 250 students were in attendance.

“Larry Carlson of the Faculty Member of the Year Committee, and Mathematics and Science Division dean, Stan Johnson, came to the class during the final five minutes of my lecture,” he recalls. “I saw them standing in the back of the hall and thought, ‘Uh-oh, what have I done, now?’”

Johnson stopped the lecture and made the announcement. The students responded with a standing ovation.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Garrison admits. For perhaps the first time in his life he was speechless. “I couldn’t talk. I finally croaked out, ‘Well, that’s it for today.’”

“What makes Tom truly exceptional is his love of teaching and learning with his students,” says OCC librarian, Carl Morgan. Morgan served for many years with Garrison as co-director of the Honors Program.

“Tom instills in his students a sense of curiosity and confidence to ask questions and seek unpredictable answers. He teaches marine science, but his students learn to appreciate all of life, including the influence of music and art on human fulfillment; and the application of the scientific method as a human endeavor.

Tom Garrison

Young Tom in OCC office

“During Tom’s office hours, I have watched excited students come through his door to discuss the finer qualities of mackerel, Internet resources, Kierkegaard, and the quintessential recording of Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion.’”

“I have never in my life met such an amazing man,” echoed OCC marine science student, Kevin Durand, in 1997. Later that year, after graduating from Coast, Durand transferred to UC Berkeley. “No one person has ever motivated me as much as Dr. Garrison. I am now an honors student with a 4.0 grade point average, and that would never have happened without his assistance.”

Garrison has a reputation for hospitality. When students, staff members or community members drop by his office, he frequently offers tea and crumpets…well, okay, cookies. (It was just too delicious to link the words “Garrison” and “crumpets” in the same sentence!)

“I learned long ago that the best way to attract students into your office to ask questions and discuss problems is to offer free food,” he told me with a chuckle.

Tom Garrison in Ireland“We faculty members don’t sit cloistered in dreary research labs, far away from the rest of the world. We love having our students and others drop by. Food is always an inducement.”

As part of the Faculty Member of the Year honor, Tom was invited to deliver a 30-minute lecture to the campus. He didn’t have to be asked twice, and it proved to be vintage Tom Garrison. Titled “Lessons From an Albatross,” the Orange Coast professor profiled the Great Wondering Albatross, which flies around the world in the southerly latitudes, between the tips of South Africa and South America, and the Antarctic.

Tom used the albatross as a metaphor for commitment, hard work and dedication…traits he understands well.

“The albatross has a 12 to 13-foot wingspan, and is out at sea for years at a time – never landing – staying aloft in the howling storms of the isolated and majestic areas of the west wind drift,” he told the audience, invoking his familiar poetic – rather than scientific – voice. “Everything about the bird is aerodynamic and sleek. Its feet are tucked tightly into its fuselage. It is efficient and goal-oriented, always gearing itself toward moving forward.”

He drew parallels between the bird’s lifestyle, and the lifestyles of professors, students and other members of society.

The albatross is a master of its specialty, 24 hours per day he said. While it can do many things, it does one thing exceptionally well – it flies. It’s not easily distracted. It stays focused on its goal, is efficient and wastes little motion, and lives and works in inspiring places. It is devoted to family. It learns continuously, throughout its 50-year lifespan. And, no one tells it that it can’t do something.

Tom Garrison in high school

Top science student at
Wilson High

“We professors are given the world’s best job,” Garrison said, bringing metaphorical depictions down to the concrete. “We tell students what we love to think about; we have the freedom to grow; we are protected from the vicissitudes of fortune by tenure; and we give students our lives. We work 24 hours a day enthusiastically, willingly and joyously passing knowledge to another generation.”

Perhaps a professor’s most important mission, Garrison emphasized, is to constantly bathe students in encouragement.

“I frequently find myself looking at a student – and I’ve become rather good at this over the years – and evaluating his or her future prospects. Often I say to myself, ‘This person is going to be great.’ Most frequently, you, as the teacher, know that fact before the student does. It’s imperative that we inspire our students and make them aware of their potential.”

In his speech, Garrison referred to teaching as the “immortal profession.” He warned faculty members against taking lightly their time in front of a classroom.

“We teach because somewhere in our background we had that great teacher who inspired us,” he offered. “That teacher, in turn, had a great teacher who motivated him or her. You’re not teaching the student in your classroom today. That student is being taught by the teacher who taught you, and the teacher who taught him and the teacher who taught her. It’s a long chain.”
Garrison family

Tom, an ensign, with his father,
an admiral, and mother and brother.

A native of Oklahoma City, but raised on the West Coast, Garrison is the son of Navy Rear Admiral Ralph S. Garrison, who died in 1993. Admiral Garrison, a Stanford University graduate, commanded several aviation squadrons during his long and distinguished military career. As a naval aviator he flew fighter and dive-bomber aircraft from the decks of such carriers as the U.S.S. Lexington, Saratoga and Ranger.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Tom was an honors student at Wilson High School in Long Beach. He earned his B.S. degree in invertebrate zoology from the University of Utah, his M.A. in marine biology from San Diego State University and his Ph.D. in the philosophy of higher education at the University of Southern California. He worked as a teaching assistant at San Diego State before joining OCC’s faculty in 1969.

While serving with the U.S. Navy in Southeast Asia, Tom seriously weighed his future options.

“I’d always wanted to be a teacher, and college professoring became my goal,” he told me in a recent interview. “At first I thought about the whole full-blast University of California faculty route, but then realized that teaching opportunities would be greater at a community college, so I tailored my further education in that direction.”

As he put the final touches on his master’s degree at San Diego State, he and his wife, Marsha, began looking for a suitable position in which to showcase his skill-set.

“I was almost ready to accept a job at Seattle Community College when a response came back from a letter I’d sent much earlier to OCC,” he says. “Thelma Harwood (secretary to the Coast District chancellor) had somehow intercepted my initial letter after it had lain dormant for weeks on the desk of Science Department chair, Lewis Follansbee.

“I guess she kept prodding him because he finally offered me an interview.”

Tom says you had to know Lew in order to appreciate his rather “peculiar” interview style.

“Lew Follansbee stories could be the subject of several hours of discussion, but I’ll summarize by saying that I evidently got the job – there were many applicants – by recounting how, as a child, I had dammed the gutter in front of our house and harnessed the flowing water to turn a bicycle light generator to power my water electrolysis set-up to make hydrogen to blow stuff up.”

The story struck some deep metaphysical chord within Follansbee’s psyche.

“It trumped my Naval officer’s commission, San Diego State credentials, university teaching experience, and general enthusiasm for instruction!”

Sweet Lew!

Tom Garrison

In the 1980s Garrison led several popular OCC summer trips for students and staff to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“Twenty-five OCC students and faculty ventured to the Smithsonian Institution for a week last August,” he wrote in a tongue-in-cheek “suggested” press release that he delivered to Pat Hadden and myself in the Community Relations Office in the fall of 1981.

“Jaws aslack and eyes agog, they were flogged through a-museum-a-day by their indefatigable leader-instructor and his minions of docents, drones and Smithsonian officials. Wonders beyond belief! Spectacle unending! Fatigue rampant! Allergies a-dribble! A vast success.”

And arms-akimbo…as Dr. Tom stretched ever more precariously for outrageous compound modifiers!

Despite all the accrued acclaim, Tom is genuinely humble when you corner him about his prodigious teaching talent.

“I think I really only figured out the art of teaching about three years ago,” he told me modestly several years back.

Nice try. Garrison’s teaching skills began to be noticed early in his OCC career. In 1973, he was awarded the prestigious Salgo-Noren Foundation Award for excellence in college teaching. That same year, at the tender age of 30, the National Marine Technology Society named him “Outstanding U.S. Marine Educator” in the nation. He has only continued to become a more accomplished teacher as the years have rolled by.

Intertidal field trip

Tom's first OCC field trip
in 1970.

“When I came to Coast in 1974,” says his colleague and good friend, Dennis Kelly, “I was in awe of Tom’s teaching ability. Those Salgo and National Marine Technology Society awards were a big deal. I sat at his feet and he taught me how to teach.”

In 1992 – and again in 1993 and 1997 – he was a recipient of the University of Texas NISOD Award in recognition of outstanding contributions to teaching and learning. He is regarded as a teacher of teachers, and has been active in teaching staff development in California high schools and colleges.

Garrison worked as a writer and science advisor for the 30-part Emmy Award-winning PBS television series, “Oceanus,” produced in the late 1970s. He was a writer and editor when that series was updated for PBS in 2004, and re-titled “Endless Voyage.”

“That’s Tom’s series,” Dennis Kelly says. “It’s an impressive piece of work. He put it together.”

Tom also serves as a USC adjunct professor and spends Thursdays on the Trojan campus. He teaches a course – first taught by Dr. Earl V. Pullias decades ago – that examines the history and philosophy of American higher education. It’s the first course in a sequence of graduate courses for prospective college administrators.

“I’m very proud of that assignment,” he says.

In his 38-plus years at Coast, Tom has been much impressed by his colleagues. His two favorite Pirates are former college president and dean, David A. Grant, and former vice president of instruction, Jim Fitzgerald.

“They set standards for this place that made it truly great,” he says. “These two administrators were always out-and-about. They loved to visit classrooms and labs, drop in for office hours, chat about recent developments in our areas of expertise, show up for – and even coach – sporting events, and even feed us once in a while.

“They listened. They knew the faculty, their strengths and weaknesses, and their occasional need for encouragement or a private word of remonstrance. They were part of the daily life of the institution – one regularly saw them out on the campus. I loved that then, and still do.”

Over the years, aside from interaction with his students, Tom’s greatest professional joy has been his relationship with his campus colleagues.

Tom Garrison & Family

Tom celebrates his birthday
with the family

“We have a long-standing Friday lunch appointment at which the week’s triumphs and tragedies are dissected over a glass of IPA (India pale ale). Our teaching assistants have found out about these meetings, and we have the pleasure of bringing along the next generation of professors who will replace us when the time comes.”

Longtime residents of Newport Beach, Tom and Marsha are exceptionally proud parents and grandparents. They have two of the most-beloved grandchildren on the planet. And Tom and Marsha have a special relationship.

“She’s the most patient wife you’ll ever meet,” he says with deepest affection.

Life is good…and Tom Garrison occasionally must pinch himself.

“It’s quite amazing,” he reflects with a shake of his head. “I actually get paid to work at Orange Coast College!”

Yeah, others of us on this campus feel exactly as you do, Tom! How’d we all get so lucky?


Orange Slices archive button


Dear Jim:

Jan TolsonI thoroughly enjoyed the article about Nancy Kidder (“From ‘Maria’ to ‘Czarina’…Nancy Kidder Left an Enduring Mark at OCC,” Orange Slices, Sept. 6). I had no idea she retired, but have respected her and all she has done for OCC.

I met her at GWC in 1981 when I filled in for a semester as a counselor, and from the beginning was very impressed with her professionalism and her vision. Later, I was thrilled to learn she would be joining our staff at OCC.

She has done so much for the college with her intellect, her ability to initiate new technology and methods in A&R and has been so kind as an administrator along the way. She has certainly earned her retirement!


Jan Tolson
OCC Professor of Counseling Services (1988-2003)

Dear Jim:

Mike HunterWow! Talk about wonderful memories! Thank you for sharing those exciting times in your article “My Love Affair with Coast Began 45 Years Ago This Fall” (Orange Slices, Aug. 30). All the memories that you brought back are ones of joy and affection.

OCC was certainly the favorite time of my life. I got to not only play football
and baseball but was fortunate to follow Tom Williamson as ASB president and develop a personal relationship with Dr. Basil Peterson. What a terrific man he was...his leadership skills were limitless.

While I "only" attended the school because I was on my way to the U.S. Naval Academy, everything soon changed because of OCC football prominence. Because of that I was asked to attend USC on a football scholarship; so much for the Academy. For this, like you, I will always be grateful to the little college "in the orange groves" and to coach Tucker, who made football fun, even the practices. He is a gifted man, not only as a football coach, but also as a man who would turn boys into men. He taught us a work ethic and certain integrity needed in today's society. Thank you Coach!

I truly enjoyed your reminder of days gone by...good days, too!

Mike Hunter
OCC Student (1962-64)

(Editor’s Note: Mike was an All-American halfback for the Pirates during the 1962 and 1963 seasons, and set the national record for most punts returned for touchdowns in a single season – four. He’ll be inducted into OCC’s Athletic Hall of Fame next month.)