“I think it was the people around me that nudged me in different directions. That’s how I ended up here today,” said Dr. Jim Richardson, who is retiring this June after more than three decades of service to the Odum School of Ecology and the University of Georgia.
Richardson’s start at UGA was unconventional, to say the least. With a bachelor's degree in biology from Juniata College in Pennsylvania and “no clue what to do,” he made the decision to reach out to the author of his ecology textbook, Eugene Odum.
“I picked up the phone and called the number I’d tracked down. Gene answered,” Richardson said. “I told him I didn’t have very good grades, but I was interested in sea turtles and conservation work. His answer was ‘Come on down!’”
Sea turtle project
Thanks to some help from Odum—the “Father of Modern Ecology,” Richardson began a half-century career in ecology, during which he was instrumental in establishing a sea turtle conservation network, especially with his work starting in 1964 on the Little Cumberland Island Loggerhead Sea Turtle Project.
“I wasn’t the only one doing this, but the Little Cumberland Island Sea Turtle Project is one of the oldest,” Richardson said. “There was one guy doing the same thing in South Africa that never failed to point out the fact that since his sea turtles nested in the southern hemisphere, his project was older because his turtles nested in December, as opposed to mine that nested the following June. So, he had about six months on me.”
It was his work on Little Cumberland Island that helped convince the U.S. Congress to pass legislation protecting sea turtles from death by incidental capture in trawl nets.
In addition to developing some of the first long term population and nesting models for sea turtles, Richardson was also pivotal in raising international awareness for sea turtle conservation.
“Perhaps laws are not the final answer,” Richardson is quoted as saying in a 1985 newspaper article. “What we need to develop instead is an international spirit of cooperative conservatism.”
Richardson succeeded in fostering this “international spirit” with his work on the Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation. With his help, a small group of interested participants grew into an international gathering currently in excess of 1,000 participants representing about 40 nations.
Richardson’s decades of work have not gone unnoticed. In 1998, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands recognized him with the title of Officer of the Order of the Golden Ark. He was recognized as an Outstanding Teacher by the Odum School of Ecology in 2008, and in 2014 received the International Sea Turtle Society’s Lifetime Achievement award.
Richardson gives most of the credit to his late wife, Thelma.
“I owe it all to her,” he said. “It was with her support and the support of our family at the Odum School of Ecology that I was able to accomplish a lot of what I did.”
While the professional highlights of Richardson’s career are numerous, he also has some personal highlights.
“I’m proud of the number of students that I’ve been able to touch,” Richardson said. “A lot of the time I’m unaware of it. In fact, I recently received a letter from a student of mine from 2000. She just told me how my ecology class encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree and doctorate degree, and she’s now a professor. I think I even have some students who became professors who retired before me.”
Richardson considers one of the crowning jewels of his career his international network of friends he made.
“It’s about time I’m retiring so I can go visit them all,” he said.