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WHOI Waypoints: Dick Pittenger leaves WHOI in Ship Shape

By the time Dick Pittenger stepped down in July 2004 as WHOI Vice President for Marine Operations, he had visited 35 countries, sailed in most of the oceans, and directed the operation of more than a dozen oceanographic research ships.

As Oceanographer of the Navy from 1988 to 1990, he oversaw the U.S. Naval Observatory and the U.S. Naval Oceanography Command, which was responsible for 61 oceanographic facilities around the world, 12 oceanographic survey ships, and three survey aircraft. He spent much of his time getting new ships into the Navy budget, including one that became the WHOI-operated research vessel Atlantis. Little did he realize that his brief encounters with the Institution would lead him from Washington to a second career in Woods Hole.

It was former WHOI Director Craig Dorman who invited Pittenger to apply to become WHOI’s arctic research coordinator in 1990. “Craig and I worked closely together when I was Director of Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW) in the Navy,” Pittenger said. “Our offices were just down the hall from each other in the Pentagon, and we would often meet early in the morning to discuss ways to solve the difficult ASW problem. One day he said he was leaving the Navy, retiring early, and had accepted the job as Director of WHOI. I was surprised, but knowing something about the Institution, I was very impressed
and supportive.”

“When it came time for me to retire, I spoke with my family about the possibilities,” Pittenger added. “They wanted me to go to a world-class organization, so I applied to WHOI, got interviewed by the search committee, and was hired by Bob Gagosian (then Associate Director of Research). It was a great decision for me.”

Born in Nebraska during the worst of the Depression-era Dust Bowl days, Pittenger grew up in Tacoma, Wash., where he was active in the Sea Scouts and Sea Cadets. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy on a Naval Reserve appointment and was commissioned as an ensign in 1958. He commanded a minesweeper in Vietnam and held various fleet assignments on destroyers, guided missile destroyers, frigates, and the Navy’s most advanced antisubmarine warfare surface ship. In 1984 he was promoted to Rear Admiral and became Chief of Staff of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, as well as Deputy U.S. Commander for the Eastern Atlantic. He became Director of the Navy’s ASW Division in 1986, and the following year he received his second star as Rear Admiral.

Pittenger’s experience in anti-submarine warfare and his postgraduate degree in underwater acoustics from the Naval Postgraduate School made him an excellent candidate for Oceanographer of the Navy, a position he assumed in 1988. He continued the modernization of the Navy’s oceanographic fleet and was recognized for his efforts in standardizing the oceanographic models that sailors use in ASW operations; for declassification of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Exclusive Economic Zone coastal charts; and for acquisition of the Navy’s first supercomputer for oceanographic and meteorological model and data processing.

His challenges at WHOI were of a different sort. After only a few months on the job as arctic research coordinator, Director Dorman asked Pittenger to assume leadership of Marine Operations in 1991. One of the first things he did was make a list of priorities and goals—a list he kept and updated until the day he retired. He accomplished most of his goals.

“We’ve hired some very good people, changed the organization to be more user-friendly, and made a major shift by integrating the remotely operated vehicle Jason and other towed systems into the National Deep Submergence Facility,” Pittenger said. “We’ve improved the quality of operations and worked hard at getting scientists and sailors talking with each other. The marine personnel are good at what they do, and they care about their reputation. I am extremely proud of them and what we have accomplished together.”

As head of WHOI Marine Operations, Pittenger oversaw a major upgrade and lengthening of the Institution’s largest research vessel, the now 279-foot Knorr, and modernization of the 177-foot Oceanus. The 210-foot Atlantis II was retired and sold, replaced in 1997 by the new 274-foot Atlantis, the support vessel for the Alvin submersible. WHOI submitted a successful proposal to replace Alvin with a deeper diving submersible, announced in August 2004, and built the 60-foot coastal vessel Tioga, which joined the fleet in April.

In his retirement, Dick Pittenger pursues his love of fishing and photography and spends more time with his children and grandchildren. He will continue to provide guidance to the Institution in its fleet replacement efforts and continue to share the experience and expertise of a distinguished 32-year naval career.

Originally published: November 1, 2004