Headline for Featured Item #1 Harte Research Institute Co-Founder Set to Retire After Nearly Four Decades of Research in the Gulf of Mexico - Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
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Harte Research Institute Co-Founder Set to Retire After Nearly Four Decades of Research in the Gulf of Mexico

July 19, 2013

Tunnell Retires

CORPUS CHRISI, Texas- When Dr. John W. “Wes” Tunnell came to work at the Island University as an Assistant Professor of Biology in 1974 gas was 55 cents a gallon, President Gerald Ford had just pardoned Richard Nixon, and the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world.  Little did he know his passion for teaching and his love of the Gulf of Mexico, would leave a legacy for generations of students.  Tunnell is retiring at the end of August, after nearly 40 years of service.  

“I have had a great career with wonderful opportunities, being at the University at a very important time in its transition from a small private school to a local college to a well-respected regional university,” said Tunnell.

Tunnell, who is often seen out on the sandy beaches in a big hat, flip flops, and colorful shirts, helped develop two Bachelor of Science degree programs along with four master degree and two doctoral programs at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.  He can take credit for helping with the development of three University buildings – the Carlos Truan Natural Resources Center, the Harte Research Institute, and the Laguna Madre Field Station.  He is also credited with the creation of an international coral reef ecology research and teaching program.  Tunnell was also instrumental in establishing seven graduate student scholarships in the Center for Coastal Studies and eight memorial conference rooms in the Natural Resources Building.
“Dr. Tunnell’s legacy as an educator is at the heart of the mission of the Island University,” said Dr. Flavius Killebrew, President/CEO of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “He’s an example of a life spent putting the enrichment of students first.” 

In addition to his teaching accomplishments, Tunnell is known for is finding prehistoric mammoth teeth on the Seven and One-Half Fathom Reef and for the discovery of an ancient coral reef off the coast of South Texas.  Tunnell also acted as a media consultant for several national news outlets, including CNN, ABC and MSNBC, about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“There are a relative few marine scientists having the experience, connections and broad knowledge of the Gulf of Mexico that act as glue holding the entire scientific enterprise together. Wes Tunnell is one of those.” said Dr. Larry McKinney, Executive Director of the Harte Research Institute. “There is not a corner of the Gulf where Wes's influence has not been felt and advanced our knowledge of America's most valuable marine asset.”

For 32 years, he taught Coral Reef Ecology, taking students on two-week learning trips to Veracruz and the Mexican Caribbean.

“When I see students from 20 and 30 years ago, that class is one of the first things they   want to talk about,” said Tunnell. “They say it was the best educational experience of their academic careers.”

 Coral Reef Ecology class was just one of 18 classes Tunnell taught by making a classroom out of the deck of a boat and conducting his lectures while wearing scuba gear.

“I spent an average of 30 days a year in a sleeping bag on the ground on camping field trips,” said Tunnell. “I always saw teaching as more than just a classroom activity.”

During fall 2012, Tunnell was able to combine many of his favorite things—field work with students, the Gulf of Mexico and HRI research—when scientists studied the oceanography of the South Texas coast in cruises onboard the Research Vessel Falkor, a ship provided by the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

“Because of the scope and depth of our research in the Gulf of Mexico, we are now the beneficiaries of the first cruise legs of this new research ship,” said Tunnell. “The vessel would cost tens of thousands of dollars a day, and we get it to use it for free!”

Over the years, the Taft, Texas, native has received numerous honors.  He was named 2006-2007 Outstanding Research Scholar by the Academy Speaks at Texas A&M -Corpus Christi and in 2007 was awarded membership as a National Fellow in the Explorers Club, which promotes scientific exploration and field research.  His “hands on” pursuit of higher knowledge led to him being honored as the University’s first Fulbright Scholar in 1985-86 and the University’s first Regent’s Professor in 1997. 

When he wasn’t out in the field or in the classroom, Tunnell found time to write five books and about 100 scientific publications. He is editor of both "GulfBase," an award-winning database developed by HRI researchers, and two of HRI's book series through Texas A&M University Press. His two most recent books are titled "Coral Reefs of the Southern Gulf of Mexico," and “Encyclopedia of Texas Seashells," featuring over 2,000 photos of 900 species of shells.   Tunnell also played a vital role in creating “Ocean in Google Earth,” as a Google Ocean advisory committee member.

But it may be a project that began with a $46 million gift to the University, from avid environmentalist and philanthropist Ed Harte, that Dr. Tunnell will be remembered for most.  In 2001, Tunnell was asked to help develop the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, help design its new building, and help create the university’s first science PhD program.

“We moved in during the fall of 2005,” Tunnell said. “Mr. Harte said to me, ‘Now make a difference.”

Tunnell has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of students.  Today the Harte Research Institute is the premier marine research facility on the Gulf of Mexico, and Dr. Wes Tunnell is its Associate Director and the Endowed Chair for Biodiversity and Conservation Science.

“Dr. Tunnell has been the heart and soul of HRI from the very beginning,” said Dr. Larry McKinney, HRI Executive Director.

As Tunnell begins the next phase of his life, he says he intends to spend more time with his wife, Kathy, whom he met in the 8th grade and calls his soul mate. 

“We have been married 47 years and have been all over the world together, but we still have several places on our bucket list we want to see,” said Tunnell.

He also says he will spend more time with his three children and five grandchildren, write more “just for fun,” and complete projects around his home.   He hopes his love for the Gulf of Mexico will continue through the students who have learned from him.

“I am happy and satisfied with my career, and I am ready for retirement,” said Tunnell.

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