“Florida is the ‘ocean state,’” John Ogden wrote in a St. Petersburg Times guest column in 1989. “It has the largest coastline, the largest submerged shallow shelf and the only coral reef system in the contiguous United States. It has the fastest growing coastal population in the developed world.”
Ogden was new, then, to his role as director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography. In that role, which he occupied for 24 years, Ogden worked to protect the ocean and to gather people from private and public institutions to study and understand it and all the life it sustained.
Ogden worked with former Florida senator and University of South Florida president Betty Castor on a statewide ocean committee. She saw, in his role at the Institute of Oceanography, how he worked.
“He was an unusual guy because he never lost his cool, he never lost his temper, and when you’re working around a lot of academics and a lot of people in institutions, there is a common competition,” she said. “And his job was to bring them all together at FIO, which he did. He really understood the importance of the oceans and the water and getting data.”
Ogden, who lived in St. Petersburg, died June 25 at 82 after complications from a hip replacement.
From the Great Swamp to the ocean blue
Ogden grew up in New Jersey, where the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was often an escape from a difficult childhood. He got his degree in biology from Princeton, then his Ph.D. from Stanford. He met Nancy, a research assistant and biologist, there at a biochemistry party.
They dated for two years, and when Ogden got a fellowship with the Smithsonian in Panama, he didn’t want to go alone, Nancy Ogden said, “so he asked me to marry him.”
The two spent two years on San Blas Islands studying parrotfish. Next, they headed for St. Croix, where Ogden eventually became director of the West Indies Laboratory at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The couple continued working together, including spending a week underwater in a hydro lab. They also started their family in St. Croix, where their children, Eric and Lisa, were born and raised.
During his early career, Ogden helped start a Caribbeanwide study on seagrass. He and his wife were dive partners and wrote papers together on parrotfish. Ogden was once criticized, Nancy Ogden said, for not having a major study of his own, “but that was really his strong point, bringing people together to do big studies.”
In 1988, the couple came to St. Petersburg, and his work connecting people continued.
“To come here to Florida, at the time he arrived, there weren’t a lot of champions for collecting data,” Castor said.
Ogden worked behind the scenes, building relationships with people in public and private institutions.
“To have FSU and FIU and USF working together was no easy trick,” Castor said.
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Ogden worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Institute to add the Keys Marine Lab to the institute, and he took part in the creation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
“John made his name being a very pleasant, forceful person in environmental issues dealing with coral reefs and tropical biological systems,” said Albert Hine, a professor emeritus in the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.
Ogden had the skills to keep a loose web of people connected and working toward a common cause.
“He is responsible, I think more than anyone, for building the reputation for cooperation among these folks that were interested in marine data,” Castor said.
A great protector
In his career, Ogden worked to conserve our tropical ecosystem with numerous organizations, including the World Bank, UNESCO and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“He was a great protector for coral reefs,” Nancy Ogden said. “We probably saw the last of the best coral reefs in our lifetime.”
And like he did in his career, after retirement, Ogden continued working to make things better, this time through volunteering with men who were reentering society after being incarcerated.
“He always felt like he owed something to society,” Nancy Ogden said.
Ogden’s death was sudden and unexpected following complications after an elective hip surgery. He wanted to take a cruise around Iceland to see the birds and volcanoes. Nancy Ogden plans, eventually, to take that journey and continue their adventures.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.