Discovering the Chesapeake: Profiles in Science
The Man Who Said Too Much
Bill Hargis and the Rise of a Marine Lab
Bill Hargis went to World War II with the Army Air Corps and came home to lead the Virginia Institute of Marine Science where he organized a major hydraulic modeling study of the James River. Photograph: Courtesy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science
This is the fourth article in a series about the pioneers of Chesapeake Bay science.
HE CAME HOME TO VIRGINIA FROM THE WAR in the Pacific and made himself an expert on the parasites of fishes. The G.I. bill got him through college by 1950 and his brains got him through graduate school, first in Richmond and then in Florida. That's when he began describing new species of trematodes, small and flat and wormlike creatures that like to infect mollusks.
After the dramas of wartime, William J. Hargis, Jr. decided to focus his life on quiet, detailed, some would say esoteric, research: collecting fish, isolating parasites, preparing slides, and staring endlessly into microscopes so he could patiently, patiently give each parasite its proper name.
All his work got him a name and his name got him a job, a good job that brought him back home again in 1955 when the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory in Gloucester Point decided to hire a parasitologist. Four years later, his work and his charisma got him a better job: director of this small Bayside laboratory that would soon become the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). By 1959, Bill Hargis was launched on his life's work: building a broad-based marine research lab in his home state.
It would not prove a quiet career. He would, time and again, launch himself into noisy public debates about pollution threats to the Chesapeake Bay, especially threats from oil and chemical industries. He had a duty, he believed, a responsibility as lab director to speak up for what science had to say about pollution. "He had tremendous pressure to tone down results and say everything was okay," said one of his faculty members, "and he stuck to the science." It was a duty he never dodged. "Science came first," said another, "and let the chips fall where they may."
When all the chips fell, however, he found himself unpopular with some politicians who believed in payback. A state police detective would be sent to VIMS — he looked like the old TV detective Columbo in a trench coat, said one researcher — and he would spend nine months investigating Hargis and his lab, asking questions, taking notes, and patiently, patiently looking for mistakes.
When a lab director is doing two things at once — building fast and speaking out — it is, perhaps, easy to make mistakes. And Hargis was doing both. "I was ambitious," he said years later. "I wanted to make this place the Woods Hole of the Mid-Atlantic. That was the name of the game."
Bill Hargis was a native son, with a mother from Tangier Island out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay and a father from the hill country down in the southwest corner of the state. Photograph: Courtesy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science
He wanted to build fast because there were other players in the game — and they had a head start on Hargis. In Maryland, Don Pritchard had been running the Chesapeake Bay Institute (CBI) at Johns Hopkins University since 1949. And Gene Cronin had been leading the long-established Chesapeake Bay Laboratory (CBL) since 1955. It was a growth era for marine labs, and Hargis was playing catch-up in the race for money and recognition. "We competed," he said. "The question was: 'Who was going to be Mr. Chesapeake Bay?'"
Hargis wasn't just following in the footsteps of Pritchard and Cronin in Maryland; he was trying to surpass their labs. "Bill wanted to build a bigger, better, more impressive organization," said Jerry Schubel, "so his strategies were different." An associate director at Pritchard's lab, Schubel became an expert on lab building, heading up a major lab at New York's Stony Brook University and later leading two of the largest aquariums in the country. What was so different about the Hargis strategy? According to Schubel, Hargis was an entrepreneur.
No longer the patient parasitologist, he turned his directorship into his greatest experiment: a 22-year test of a fast-moving, risk-taking model for building a modern marine lab. To grow his lab quickly, for example, Hargis did all the hiring himself. "There were no such things as search committees," said Don Boesch, a graduate student and faculty member under Hargis and now president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. A new scientist would just show up at the lab one day, much to the surprise of other lab scientists, none of whom were consulted about new hires. According to Boesch, "Bill was not happy with faculty input."
And an unhappy Hargis could be a forceful presence. Under a shock of hair that went gray early, he had a broad, expressive face, a strong jawline, a deep voice, and a readiness to use the whole package to get what he wanted. He could cajole on occasion, intimidate when he wanted to, and negotiate when he had to.
He didn't do much negotiating with the faculty he hired. They could spend 25 percent of their time doing what they wanted. "The rest of your time is mine," Hargis told them before putting them to work on projects he thought were important to Virginia. "The state's paying your salary," he said, "and that's the way it's going to work."
His was a hiring strategy tied to a funding strategy. He brought on researchers from diverse disciplines, expanding the lab's focus beyond the problems of the state's commercial fisheries. And just as quickly he expanded his search for funding by making himself and his lab well known in Washington, D.C., policy circles. He recognized early on that federal agencies, many of them newly organized, would become major sources for research funding.
"He wanted to be a national player," said Boesch, and he succeeded. He became chairman of both the National Advisory Council on Oceans and Atmosphere (NACOA) and the Coastal States Organization (CSO), two big-picture groups that were developing federal policies for managing the country's ocean and coastal resources. In those posts, Hargis lobbied for efforts like a Coastal Zone Management Program, a network of Sea Grant colleges, and a string of estuarine sanctuaries.
With all his travels, Hargis was working a multipronged strategy to benefit VIMS. He tried to shift the federal focus away from traditional "blue-water oceanography," the province of well-established labs and schools. He hoped to win more support for what he called "green-water oceanography," the province of coastal labs like VIMS that focused on the problems and economic potential of estuaries and inshore waters. By the mid-1970s, his lab was landing contracts and grants from a dozen federal agencies. His greatest funding coup was a huge grant from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that would pay VIMS to run chemical and oceanographic surveys along the Mid-Atlantic coast.
VIMS was landing big-time funding, but in the Hargis dream, a big-time marine lab also had to have something else: a large, ocean-going research vessel. The famous labs, Woods Hole up in Cape Cod and Scripps out in California, had big boats. According to Boesch, "It is part of the manhood of oceanographic institutions."
With his big-boat obsession, however, the Hargis reach would finally exceed his funding grasp and even endanger his career. To get his ocean-going vessel on the cheap, Hargis made a deal with the U.S. Navy to take over a surplus minesweeper, the U.S.S. Thrush. And he made a deal with the state, saying he would not spend much on converting it into a research vessel.
To finish up the conversion cheaply, Hargis had to make yet another deal: a risky barter arrangement with a red-bearded ship's carpenter named Jim Taylor. In exchange for the carpenter's extra unpaid work on the minesweeper, Hargis agreed to let Taylor take home a salvaged boat engine so that he could strip it for spare parts for his own boat. It was a small deal for a piece of surplus junk, said Mo Lynch, a long-time program manager at VIMS. But the deal would nearly prove the undoing of a lab director.
With conversion completed, Hargis renamed his vessel the R/V Virginian Sea and ordered it out on the Atlantic, overriding the worries of scientists concerned about its sea-going safety. "I was told, 'No ifs, ands, or buts!'" said Don Boesch, one of those scientists. "I was going to take this vessel out." Hargis wouldn't brook dissent, and he couldn't afford delay. He needed to start collecting BLM payments for running their coastal surveys.
In his rush to build fast, Hargis was running into a classic problem facing many entrepreneurs: cash flow. To make money he would have to spend money he didn't have yet. Most of those hard-won federal funds could only be collected after all the work was completed, all the reports were filed, and all the budgets closed out. As so many new contracts and grants came flooding in, his financial office soon sank underwater, struggling with slow invoicing, frequent extensions, and reimbursements that were often delayed and sometimes denied. VIMS began finishing many budget years with expenditures outrunning collections.
His solution: take out temporary loans from the state's general funds to cover each year's shortfall. When the state loans came due and federal payments were still uncollected, he would make loan payments by overspending his state accounts. To cover this new deficit, he would turn around and apply for a temporary loan. Then he would repeat the cycle the next year. And the next. According to the state's Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission (JLARC), he managed to take 11 such loans in one 12-year stretch, a practice that left the lab with a large and growing long-term debt.
While state auditors were noting the Hargis habit of deficit spending, some economic planners and Tidewater politicians were tracking the Hargis history of publicly criticizing popular projects and powerful industries.
As a new director, he challenged a long-standing request by business leaders for a deepwater channel that could bring more ocean ships up the James River to Richmond. In 1962, he spoke at public meetings and wrote critical analyses, arguing that a deeper channel in the James might endanger oyster beds by funneling more high salinity waters over the beds and unleashing more oyster parasites and predators. His questions made him popular with oystermen and won him funding for a hydraulic modeling study, a multi-year project that delayed the channel project into oblivion.
In 1975, however, Hargis upset the entire seafood industry, annoyed a giant chemical company, and embarrassed a state environmental agency — all this during the Kepone debacle, the most notorious episode of toxic pollution in the history of the Chesapeake Bay. The crisis began in Hopewell where the state health department had to shut down Life Sciences Products, a small company producing a pesticide called Kepone in a town called "The Chemical Capital of the South." Kepone killed rats and ants, but it also left workers with tremors, chest pains, enlarged livers, sterility, and neurological disorders. Hargis quickly sent out VIMS researchers led by Bob Huggett, an environmental chemist, and they began finding Kepone in sediments and oysters and finfish in numerous locations along the James River and the lower Bay.
Analyzing sediments, finfish, and oysters in 1975, VIMS chemist Bob Huggett found evidence that Allied Chemical Corporation had been dumping a pesticide called Kepone into the James River for 10 years. A toxic insecticide that does not degrade easily, Kepone proved carcinogenic and capable of causing neurological and cognitive dysfunctions in humans. The VIMS findings led to a closure of James River fishing waters in 1975, a U.S ban on Kepone use in 1978, and a global ban in 2009. Photograph: Courtesy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science
When Hargis announced Huggett's findings, concerns about the safety of Virginia seafood began rising, only to skyrocket when the federal Food and Drug Administration said that Kepone was a carcinogen. By December 1975, Governor Miles Godwin, Jr. was finally forced to halt oystering, commercial fishing, and sportfishing for a 100-mile stretch of river reaching south from Richmond down to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
"We had some very scared people," said Huggett. And some very angry people: as the fears and the fishing closures cut the sales of all Virginia seafood, thousands of watermen went out of business or moved to other rivers. Some of them launched bomb threats and death threats against VIMS researchers, says Huggett. "I slept with a shotgun by the bed."
Hargis made sure somebody would pay a price. He announced that VIMS research had also linked the pollution to Allied Chemical Corporation, the giant firm that first began producing Kepone in 1966 before jobbing the work out to Life Science Products. The link came from Huggett and the oyster samples that he had been taking since 1969 at 10 locations around the Bay. When he checked his early samples, Huggett found Kepone. "It proved," he said, "that Allied was also dumping Kepone into the river."
It also proved that Virginia's State Water Control Board was not doing its job. Investigations revealed that the board had taken no action as Kepone wastes ran through Hopewell's water treatment plant for nearly a decade, causing periodic breakdowns in the plant and steadily contaminating sediments, oysters, and finfish. For oystering, the ban would last 10 months. For most finfish species, it would last 13 years.
Life Science Products, the Allied offspring, went out of business, but Allied Chemical, the original producer, had to settle lawsuits from victims and, in addition, pay a $13.2-million fine. The bulk of the payment, $8.2 million, went to founding the Virginia Environmental Endowment, a grant-making organization still at work addressing environmental issues in the state.
While the Kepone crisis was still hot, Hargis also spoke out against a popular oil industry project. In 1976, the Hampton Roads Energy Company proposed building an oil refinery in Portsmouth near the mouth of the Elizabeth River, a good spot for oil-tanker deliveries. The Elizabeth, however, flows into the mouth of the James River, and the James flows into the mouth of the Bay, ensuring that an oil spill here could have devastating impacts on nearly every key commercial fish species in the lower Bay. Ocean-spawned fish congregate in that area while adjusting to salinity changes, pregnant female blue crabs bury themselves in the nearby mud every winter, and the lower James River holds the oyster seed beds that are so essential to the oyster industry. "If you had to pick a bad spot [for an oil refinery], that was it," said Bob Huggett.
When Hargis came out against the project, he was not alone. The refinery location drew criticism from the seafood industry and from three federal agencies. The opposition from Hargis and his VIMS scientists, however, left Governor Godwin with no support from the state's leading marine lab. "He was not a popular guy with the governor," says Huggett. "That's how he fell out of grace."
His fall was sudden. Shortly after opposing the oil refinery, Bill Hargis found himself facing criminal charges, sitting in the old red-bricked Gloucester courthouse accused of grand larceny. His alleged crime: stealing state property.
A big-time marine lab needed a research fleet, and Bill Hargis tried cobbling one together with surplus boats from other organizations. His proudest catch was a 144-foot Navy minesweeper (above) that he converted at great cost into a research vessel he called the R/V Virginian Sea. His plan: stop paying to rent ocean-going ships and start charging rents for running coastal surveys. The ship never proved an effective research platform, never brought in much money, and nearly cost Hargis his career.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science
It was his dream ship, the minesweeper called the R/V Virginian Sea, that was now threatening to sink his career. The detective sent by the state police had poked around VIMS long enough to discover the swap deal that Hargis had made with Jim Taylor, the ship's carpenter. On that evidence the Gloucester County Attorney charged the director of the state's largest marine lab with stealing a state-owned engine.
His trial in September 1976 was, for Hargis, a fall from grace that hurt for a long time. "I knew I wasn't very popular," he said, decades later, "but I didn't think I was unpopular enough to have the state police come down here after me." To prepare for his trial, Hargis took leave from the job he had held for 18 years. "That was," he said, "a lonely time."
He wasn't alone long. Local friends raised money for his legal fund, and Herbert Kelly, a prominent member of the Board of Trustees for the College of William and Mary, stepped forward to defend him. When Kelly questioned the ship's carpenter, Jim Taylor sat on the witness stand, stroking his red beard, and told the jury "the theft" was simply a barter deal he and Hargis had worked out. Hargis sat at the defense table watching the jury and worrying. "You look up there," he said, "and you realize those 12 people can decide whether you live or die professionally."
In the end, however, only one person decided his legal fate. "Where is the crime?" said Judge James B. Wilkinson of Richmond. After listening to the prosecution case, he dismissed the charge, dismissed the jury, and verbally indicted the state police. "It's rather shocking to me," he announced in open court, "that the Virginia State Police have wasted nine months on something like this."
Hargis, according to the news reports, was embraced by his wife and two sobbing daughters, but he showed no emotion and made no comment on the politics behind the investigation and trial. The reporters covering the trial, however, sensed political payback when they saw it, and cited his outspoken stands about Kepone pollution and the oil refinery project in Portsmouth.
The governor was still unhappy with Hargis. After the trial, Miles Godwin, Jr. turned over the state police report, all 243 pages, to the independent Board of Administration that oversaw VIMS and suggested they might want to take action about their lab director. When the board put the report aside and welcomed the lab director back to work, the governor called Hargis in to his office and told him it might be time to make a change.
The big change came in 1979. The independent board was dissolved, and VIMS and Hargis were put under the administration of the College of William and Mary. Two years later Hargis resigned as director. "I got the message from the president that it might be a good idea if I went back to the bench," said Hargis. The message Hargis took away was that the lab would not do well getting state support if he remained director. It was time for the deal maker to become a researcher again. He wasn't going to hold back his lab, he said. "It was my baby."
Why did Bill Hargis lose his position? Political payback or financial problems? Opinions vary, even among his supporters. Many saw politics at play in his trial and his resignation. VIMS researcher Bob Diaz said the trial "was completely trumped up, a move to get rid of him." And Bob Huggett said, "It was payback." According to Mo Lynch, however, Hargis still had support from many legislators, if not from the governor. "It was the financial thing," said Lynch. "It was the red ink that cost him his job."
In April 2004, Bill Hargis joined Governor Mark Warner (above) to sign a bill naming the VIMS library as the William J. Hargis, Jr. Library in honor of his work in leading VIMS through its greatest growth era. A number of laurels came to Hargis late in life. In 1997 he received the Mathias Medal from the Virginia and Maryland Sea Grant programs for applying science to public policy. And in 2003 he accepted the Thomas Jefferson Medal and the Virginia Lifetime Achievement Award, both for contributions to science. Photograph: Courtesy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Did his entrepreneurial model work? In 1959, he took charge of a fishery lab with six scientists and 26 support staff. And by 1981, he was leading a broad-based institute with 71 scientists, more than 400 support staff, and grants and contracts coming in from 24 separate agencies. His little fisheries laboratory had morphed into a large research institute with an active advisory service and with programs in marine culture, pollution studies, wetlands science, and biological, chemical, geological, and physical oceanography.
It would take two decades, but another Virginia governor would finally honor Hargis for leading VIMS through its greatest growth era. In April 2004, Governor Mark Warner signed the bill naming the VIMS library as the William J. Hargis, Jr. Library.
Would his model for leading a lab work today? Perhaps not. "Leadership is not just command," said Boesch, "it is bringing people along." Lab directors are no longer in position to order researchers around, in part because individual scientists bring in much of the funding that supports their salaries and their laboratories. And the authoritarian style so loved by Hargis would no longer work well for recruiting the most creative scientists, the potential rainmakers a laboratory needs to flourish. In the contemporary model, researchers rather than lab directors are the entrepreneurs.
But the Hargis model had its payoffs. In commander mode, he would order his faculty to head out on the Bay and bring back basic data on blue crabs, finfish, wetlands, and seagrasses. And long-term data sets that began on his watch are now seen as essential for tracking the health of the Chesapeake.
In the eyes of many who worked with him, Hargis remains a hero, perhaps a flawed one, remembered for his willingness to speak out for science and take the political heat. But in recent decades science leaders have developed a different model for shaping public policy on environmental issues. According to Boesch and Schubel, many science leaders now favor a consensus approach: gather experts and get them to work out the best policy recommendations possible on the basis of present, perhaps incomplete, knowledge. It's a safer model, perhaps, offering cover for individual scientists, and it probably provides advice that is more accurate, more nuanced, and more influential. It's easier to ignore the lone scientist. It's harder to dismiss a whole cadre of experts. Or bring them to court on trumped-up charges.
But here also the Hargis model worked, up to a point. There's been no deepwater ship channel dredged up to Richmond, no repeat of the toxic Kepone catastrophe, no oil spill disaster on the crab-spawning grounds of the lower Bay.
Bill Hargis never learned to keep his mouth shut — after stepping down as director he wrote and spoke out for years about mismanagement of the oyster fishery — but he did learn some lessons. In his last year as director, he finally began cutting the lab's long-running deficit. He sold several vessels and reduced the fleet operations staff from 55 workers to six, one of them part-time.
And he asked the Navy to take back the big boat that he had — at great expense and at great risk — converted into an ocean-going research vessel. The Navy retrieved its minesweeper, and in 1982 it converted his dream ship, the R/V Virginian Sea, into scrap metal.