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Dean took plunge many times

USF's marine science college bloomed under his charge.

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG- The research vessel Triton was crossing the Atlantic Ocean, carrying a young marine science professor named Peter Betzer and his first graduate student.

The crew dropped a specially designed plastic bottle nearly to the ocean floor and hoisted it back up toward the top deck.

This hard-to-get sample was like 30 liters of treasure for a scientist like Betzer. But clamps gave way, and the bottle plunged 20 or 30 feet back into the sea.

The valuable sample was lost forever.

Or was it?

The former graduate student, Don Eggimann, told what happened next at a dinner honoring Betzer on Thursday:

"I watched as my major professor did a swan dive off the top of the ship. He landed in the water; he saved the sample. ... You've got to realize this is not according to the rules. When the man-overboard alarm sounded ... the captain on the bridge almost had a heart attack."

That's how the night went at the Mahaffey Theater as speakers extolled Betzer, who began teaching at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg in 1971 and now is retiring as dean of the College of Marine Science.

The dinner raised more than $30,000 for one of Betzer's causes, the Bridge to a Doctorate fellowship, which supports minority students.

Also, it was announced that an endowment at the college would be renamed the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership Peter R. Betzer endowed chair in marine science.

Several lauded Betzer for taking a small department and raising its profile not only in academia but as an economic development engine for downtown St. Petersburg, which now is home to several marine science institutions.

As Betzer recalled, Bayboro Harbor in the early 1970s was home to some rundown buildings and a bar known as the Stick and Rudder. His sister visited and asked: So this is what you get with a Ph.D.?

Betzer built more. He lured faculty and proved to be a master at obtaining grants for sophisticated research. The profile of the college grew.

Lisa Robbins, a senior scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey, described Betzer's canny and successful efforts in the 1980s to attract a USGS center to St. Petersburg. The delegation completed its visit and got in a limo to head to the airport. Then came the crowning touch: a carefully timed call from the governor.

Betzer's daughter Katherine whispered to the crowd Thursday: "My father is actually a superhero." Another daughter, Sarah, praised him for being willing to stay home with his 3-year-old daughter while his wife enrolled in medical school.

Speakers said Betzer will leave big shoes to fill. So far no one has been chosen to fill them.

As for himself, Betzer said he has had some job offers but is not sure what he'll do next.

He made it clear he'll remain optimistic about the future of the marine science college he built up.

"We can eclipse Scripps" Institution of Oceanography, he said. "We can eclipse Woods Hole. We can become a model for the world."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at or 727 893-8232.

[Last modified November 10, 2007, 21:56:16]

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