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Thomas Reid Stetson

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of retiree Thomas Reid Stetson on February 6, 2022. He was 90.

Born in Boston, he was the son of Henry Cosby Stetson and Edith Reid Stetson. He graduated from Belmont Hill School in 1950. While at school, he designed and built an instrument to measure light intensities at the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton that won a prize at the MIT Science Fair that year. At home, he used part of the basement for his chemistry experiments and a darkroom.

His father’s work at Harvard University allowed for summers spent in Woods Hole to research the geology of the seafloor and ocean currents at WHOI. When Thomas was 12, he was hired by WHOI to help Dr. Nelson Marshall of the University of Rhode Island to tag sea robins. He earned .50 cents an hour. At age 15, he had a license for a lobster pot line in the local waters, and from 1944 to 1952 he spent summers at WHOI as a deckhand on the first Asterias under Captains Barstow, Butcher, Backus, and Bosworth.

He was graduated from Brown University in 1954 with a degree in geology. Although lab work took most of his time in college, he volunteered in the Drama Department and was awarded Sock and Buskin membership for his skill in managing props and his creativity in stage settings.

Thomas had enlisted in the Army Reserve while he was an undergraduate, earning several specialist ratings. After graduation, he was called up for active duty. He was posted to Japan and stationed in Kyoto as a sergeant with a specialty in cryptology. He was classified as a veteran of the Korean War when he was honorably discharged from the Army.

Following his military service, he worked as a geologist with Continental Oil Company in Texas briefly before moving back East.

Thomas began his scientific career at WHOI as a research assistant in 1957, working for Brackett Hersey in his Hersey Group that would later become the Department of Geology & Geophysics. He soon was a trained diver and became certified. In 1969, he became assistant to the department chair and then department executive assistant in 1970. He transferred to coordinator of the Ocean Industries program in 1976. He spent much of his working life at WHOI, with much of it at sea, beginning on Atlantis, the research vessel the institution had designed and built-in 1930. A lifelong sailor, he said he never tired of sailing on Atlantis: “heaving to in mid-ocean to conduct experiments, meeting ships from other institutions for joint cruises, docking in foreign ports and exploring waterfronts.” He left in 1982.

Thomas eventually moved from scientific research into administration. His final job was as the administrator of UNOLS, a national collaboration of universities and scientific laboratories to coordinate oceanographic research.

An article in the Enterprise in the late 1950s described one project that became harrowing when he was 27. He was one of 20 stranded on Ice Station Alpha, 960 miles northeast of Barrow, Alaska. A deep crack was splitting the ice floe and had separated their camp from the ice runway with a belt of open water, and halved the useful length of the runway, thus halting the team’s research. Thomas had been on the ice island about three weeks, recording sea sounds and collecting samples for geophysical analysis.

The ice finally moved close enough to Greenland so that a plane could reach the men, but they were not allowed to take any baggage. Mr. Stetson tucked 10 Nielsen bottles in the fingers of his Arctic gloves, rescuing them for recalibration by Geoff Whitney at WHOI.

Whatever ship he was on, he loved his work at sea, figuring how to make marine research tools work, and how to fix them when they did not work. He especially loved creating topographical records of the seafloor and the geology beneath. It required him to carefully measure charges set to explode at a specific depth and drop them overboard. The resulting sound waves were then graphed on board.

During his retirement, with slides and stories, Thomas shared his experiences as a geologist and oceanographer when he was featured as a guest speaker for the Woods Hole Historical Museum “Conversation” series presented at Woods Hole Community Hall. He discussed his involvement in early scientific work on the Blake Plateau, an interruption of the continental shelf off the coast of Florida and the Carolinas, as well as his years as WHOI’s first project coordinator and his duties while sailing around the world on its research vessels.

In 1997 he served as part of the Quissett Harbor Management Committee; a group appointed by selectmen to study the mooring situation at the harbor during that time. This included looking into ways to increase mooring availability in the harbor. During his interview for the position in March that year, Mr. Stetson told selectmen that his family had had one mooring and a dock in the harbor since 1958.

Thomas met his wife, Judy, during Labor Day weekend in 1959, when he anchored his boat off Nobska Beach to swim with his lifelong friend, David Clarke. Mr. Clarke saw his cousin, Martha Fuller, waving from the beach. She had come to Woods Hole to tour Jacques Cousteau’s research vessel Calypso, which docked at WHOI, and had brought along her lifelong friend, Judy Grace. The couple married in Milton on October 8, 1960.

To celebrate the birth of their children, Christopher W. and Virginia, Mr. Stetson had a local foundry cast in bronze a working replica of a long gun from the USS Constitution. For decades afterward the cannon was used for many celebrations.

Thomas continued sailing, fishing, beachcombing, quahogging, shoveling snow, and chopping wood into his 80s.

He was preceded in death by his brother, Robert Gray Stetson; and his sister, Eleanor Gray Hankins.

Services will be private.

Information for this obituary is from the Falmouth Enterprise