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Renowned Maine-based scientist known as ‘beloved maverick’ dies at age 85

Courtesy of Robert Mitchell
Courtesy of Robert Mitchell
Dr. Charles Yentsch, co-founder of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor, died on Wednesday, September 19, 2012, at age 85.

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Dr. Charles Yentsch, whose influence on oceanography stretches from the Bigelow Laboratory in Boothbay Harbor across the oceans and all the way to outer space, died Wednesday at age 85.

Yentsch’s long career as a scientist culminated with growing the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, which he co-founded with his wife, Clarice, from a fledgling startup in 1974 to the world-renowned oceanographic research facility it is today. Yentsch is credited, among other things, with developing a way to detect levels of microscopic plants in the oceans from outer space, a method which is known as ocean color remote sensing. Prior to that, there was no way to make such calculations.

Because phytoplankton are crucial to life on Earth — scientists estimate that they produce about half of our oxygen — ocean color remote sensing is deployed on several satellites and used all over the world.

“Those satellites can cover the entire global oceans in two days,” said William “Barney” Balch, Bigelow’s senior research scientist. “With a ship, you couldn’t measure all of that surface ocean data in two centuries.”

After a two-year stint in the Navy during World War II followed by his formal education, Yentsch worked for many years at various research laboratories before he and Clarice took a fateful trip to Maine to look for a wood stove in early 1974.

Spencer Apollonio, now of Boothbay Harbor, was commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and a long-time friend of the Yentches. He said he’ll never forget the day they walked into his office and solved a major problem for the state: what to do with land in Boothbay Harbor that for years had been a federal fisheries research center and state fisheries lab. Apollonio and others had negotiated with the federal government to allow the state to use the property under the stipulation that the property be fully utilized. But there were no tenants lined up.

“Charlie called me up and said, ‘We’re coming up to Maine to look for a wood stove,’” said Apollonio. “When he walked into my commissioner’s office in Augusta, the first thing he said was, ‘What are you going to do with that property in Boothbay Harbor?’ In one stroke that solved the state’s problem of how to utilize the property.”

Bigelow leased that property from 1974 until earlier this year, when Bigelow moved into a new laboratory it built in east Boothbay. Construction on additional phases of the new campus continue.

Apollonio and others said for Yentsch to move his organization from the relative security of being owned by the University of Massachusetts to a soft money-dependent private venture represented significant financial and professional risks. But his friends said moves like that one were indicative of Yentsch’s seat-of-his-pants, pioneering attitude.

“You’ve got to respect and admire the guy, not only because of what he did but because he was willing and capable and anxious to do it,” said Apollonio. “I heard someone ask him once if it was difficult to establish a new lab and Charlie replied that it’s nowhere near as difficult as keeping one going. How the lab has evolved over time … that’s a remarkable accomplishment.”

Janet Campbell, a retired University of New Hampshire professor of oceanography, has known the Yentsches since 1982, when they fed her lobsters at their waterfront home in an effort to woo the former NASA scientist to work at Bigelow. She said her first impression of Yentsch was that he seemed a little “distracted” in one-on-one encounters, like he had scientific complexities constantly swirling in his head. Over the years, though, Charlie and Clarice Yentsch — who in her own right is a renowned scientist — became some of Campbell’s closest friends.

“They were always the perfect example of how a couple could stay in love for all those years,” said Campbell of her friend.

Though Charlie never lost his sometimes distracted air — Campbell learned that he usually did, in fact, have complex thoughts swirling — he was warm and supportive to everyone around him, the kind of person others clamored to have as their leader.

“He was so loved by the people at the lab. You could go in and talk to him about any issue and you would always come away feeling like he was going to solve your problem,” said Campbell. “The day it was announced he was stepping down and retiring, it was for many people quite a scary day.”

Barney Balch, Biglow’s senior researcher, has known Yentsch since Bigelow’s first days, when Balch was a high school student pursuing a career in oceanography.

“He touched a lot of people in the scientific community both scientifically and personally, by no means just me,” said Balch. “He impacted the field and a lot of people profoundly.”

Yentsch, who was described in his obituary as a “beloved maverick,” wished that there be no public service for him after his death. Instead, the obituary suggests the following:

“If you are so inclined, the next time you set sail, see sunlight reflecting off the ocean, dance the swing, listen to Dixieland, or sing spirituals — raise a toast to Charlie.”

Any gift may be sent to the Yentsch Scholarship Fund, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, 60 Bigelow Drive, East Boothbay, ME 04544; or Hospice-by-the-Sea, 1200 East Las Olas Blvd., Suite 202, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301.

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