Garrison has plans to step out on his own terms

COSTA MESA — When Tom Garrison left the Navy, he had to decide between becoming a physician, or a teacher.

After teaching marine science at Orange Coast College over 42 years, Garrison is preparing to end his career right where it started without looking back.

"I never had any regrets because teaching has been so rewarding and so perfect for me," he said.

Garrison, OCC's only faculty member to ever be given the title "distinguished professor," will retire at the end of the month.

The 68-year-old's idea of retirement though isn't what most people would want—he doesn't really plan on changing at all — and don't ask him if he is going to take a vacation.

"Why? For what? This is what I love to do," he said. "For me sitting on a beach recreationally versus sifting sand looking for shells or going shopping, that's not a vacation. That's a pain in the ass."

Garrison instead will continue to teach his "Introduction to Oceanography" class, update his textbooks, volunteer with the college by writing a lab manual and lecture around the world. He is also hoping to keep his office, he said.

The Newport Beach resident is slowing down a bit to deal with his lymphoma which relapsed in January. He's also concerned about his younger colleagues in the department during budget cuts, and hopes his retirement will mean another faculty member won't be fired, he said.

Continuing to work through his retirement is no surprise for the professor that continued to teach after he was diagnosed with lymphoma in November 2008.

Being in the classroom with his students is Garrison's top priority, said Robert Mendoza, OCC's Dean of Math and Sciences.

"His students are his No. 1 priority. Period," Mendoza said. "Being in the classroom with his students has been his priority for 42 years."

Garrison won the ACCT 2010 Pacific Regional Faculty Award, was named an Outstanding Marine Educator by the National Marine Technology Society, and was given the Excellence in College Teaching Award by the Salgo-Noren Foundation.

During his career, he also wrote the script for the Emmy-award winning TV series "Oceanus," co-founded OCC's honors program and wrote 15 textbooks, including the bestseller "Oceanography," which has been translated into three languages and soon-to-be two more.

The textbook was part a project during his two children's awkward years and also during a time when all the other oceanography books out there were "thunderously dull," he said.

"The books have worked out well because they are written for students," he said. "It sounds screwy, but most people I guess write for their peers. That's why they are boring."

Garrison also donated back all the royalties from the book sold for his OCC classes back to the college's foundation.

For Garrison, marine sciences is everything, literally.

"You think about it, it's all the sciences you've ever wanted, its math, physics, chemistry, biology, all that," he said. "It's economics, anthropology. It's history. … The whole thing blends together into great stories and that's how I teach the class."

Garrison went to University of Utah, Salt Lake where he took some marine science classes before serving in the Navy. When he got out, he earned his Master's in marine science at San Diego State, where he also met his wife.

It was while student-teaching in San Diego that he got his first taste of teaching. He said he wasn't nervous and just knew what to do.

"I just loved it from the very start," he said.

After starting at OCC, Garrison got his doctorate in higher education from USC. He also serves as an adjunct professor at USC, but turned down a teaching position there, he said.

The position would only require him to be on campus one or two days a week, but Garrison said he wanted to be on campus every day.

It was also his love of getting students started that kept him at OCC.

Teachers like Garrison don't come around often, Mendoza said. He has the ability to explain complicated subject matter in a clear and easy to understand way, always stay positive and is a role-model to other faculty around campus, he said.

"Big shoes to fill," he said.

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