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Epilogue | James M. Vanderplas

James Vanderplas lived like time was too precious to waste

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — James Vanderplas was so committed to efficiency, he slept in three-hour shifts; the first from 4 to 7 p.m., another from 3 to 6 a.m. Every day, for decades.

He could fix a car, play guitar and keyboards, build a solar water heater or navigate across the ocean. He played country music and bluegrass to help put himself through college, then earned a doctorate in psychology — all within 51/2 years.

"I have never known a guy who had the discipline to use all of his time wisely like he did," Steve Vanderplas, 49, said of his stepfather.

Mr. Vanderplas died on Feb. 26, of cancer. He was 85 and had lived in Indian Rocks Beach since 1970.

He taught psychology at Washington University in St. Louis for 18 years, attending law school in the evenings for seven of those years. In retirement in Indian Rocks Beach, he volunteered twice a week at Gulf Coast Legal Services for 27 years and sang for nursing homes and condominium associations.

He tested his theory about sleep after conducting a study for the Air Force on fatigue of pilots on long missions. Mr. Vanderplas published a paper on the subject, one of 49 published papers he either wrote or co-authored. Many of the papers center on visual perception, in which Mr. Vanderplas may have taken a personal interest, having suffered an eye injury while serving with the Illinois National Guard.

To keep his projects straight, he referred to and updated a dozen index cards in his shirt pocket. One card listed names of famous musicians who, like Mr. Vanderplas, could not read music. On another, he kept track of the names of deceased friends and family members and the dates they had died, as if to remind himself that a lifespan is finite.

Former colleagues remember Mr. Vanderplas for his broad interests and his odd sense of humor.

"Sometimes it took you five minutes to understand the joke," said John Stern, a retired psychology professor at Washington University.

A printer's son, Mr. Vanderplas got his high school diploma from a trade school. "He was kind of proud of that," said Steve Vanderplas, 49. "There are just not a lot of guys who go to a technical high school and then get a doctorate in psychology and go to law school."

Mr. Vanderplas retained a handyman's sensibility throughout his life, often building home appliances. Among his contributions: a curved pipe lined with aluminum foil, designed to focus the sun's rays and heat the water in the pipe.

Steve Vanderplas was a teenager when his mother, Jean, married Mr. Vanderplas.

"He added discipline and focus to a kid who really needed discipline and focus," said Capt. Vanderplas, who is now in charge of recruiting for the Coast Guard.

When another officer was having trouble with navigation, the younger Vanderplas once loaned him a book on the subject written by his stepfather, who was frustrated that there were not enough available books on the subject. "It sold, like, 12 copies but it was a really good book," Steve Vanderplas said.

After his academic career had ended, Mr. Vanderplas devoted much of his time to Gulf Coast Legal Services, where he liked to counsel fraud victims.

"He was elderly himself, and he was sensitive to the needs of the elderly," said Garry Moore, who directs Gulf Coast Legal Services. Over 27 years as a volunteer, Mr. Vanderplas counseled 5,000 clients, Moore estimated. The Florida Supreme Court noticed, giving Mr. Vanderplas its annual Tobias Simon Pro Bono Award in 2005.

In the last weeks of his life, he still consulted the index cards in his shirt pocket. One of them contained some of his favorite Bible verses. Another contained musical fingering charts. He wanted to learn to play the trumpet.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


James M. Vanderplas

Born: May 17, 1923.

Died: Feb. 26, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Jean; stepsons Steven and Brian Vanderplas; eight grandchildren.

Service: 11 a.m. April 4; Seminole Christian Fellowship, 10202 131st St. N, Largo.

James Vanderplas lived like time was too precious to waste 03/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 7:27pm]
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