He was born in Dunfermline, Andrew Carnegie's hometown, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. "My dad was a coal miner and my mother was a coal miner's daughter. And they wanted to get out of Dunfermline."

When Ritchie was 9 his family moved to Toronto; they migrated to Southern California when he was 15. After graduating from Bell High School he studied at Occidental College and UCLA, where he earned his doctorate. He joined the UCSD faculty in 1969.

Ritchie hadn't expected to leave San Diego when his future employer first came knocking. "The Huntington had been sort of in a valley for about 20 years, and it had become self-referential, inward-looking, a bit of a man's club essentially," Ritchie said. In those days, he recalled, you could look down the venerable library aisle where researchers sat, known as Mahogany Row, and "the youngest person was 70 years old."

The Huntington's then-president, Robert Skotheim, persuaded Ritchie that major changes were afoot that would open up and professionalize the institution across all departments. When he arrived, Ritchie said, the Huntington mounted exhibitions only from its own permanent collection. Since then, it has hosted critically praised, highly popular shows on Lincoln, Washington and the California Gold Rush.

It also hosts scholars-only symposiums on subjects as varied as Medieval history and modern literary critical theory that attract top professionals. Ritchie's secret to ensuring a good turnout: "Scholars will agree to anything a year ahead of time."

The Huntington expects to name a new research director later this month. Koblik said the search committee has come up with two fundamental notions. "One is Roy is not replaceable." The other, Koblik said, is that Ritchie's successor must build on the "extraordinary base" that he established.

Ritchie plans to spend his next years writing a follow-up to his Captain Kidd book, and another on beach culture, which he said began in British seaside towns that enticed tourists with pseudo-scientific "water" cures. He also may continue to lead Huntington-sponsored high-end cultural tours in Europe and elsewhere.

He leaves behind some unfinished business. He'd still like to see a larger, state-of-the-art auditorium to accommodate the Huntington's ever-increasing activities. But he appears to have no regrets.

"A very good friend of mine said, 'You've given up a professorship in the University of California to go to the Huntington?' Nobody here would be asked that question anymore. 'Why are you at the Huntington?' Because it's a very different place. And there's been a lot of people involved in that."

And few probably more so than a certain omni-competent coal miner's son.

reed.johnson@latimes.com