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In Memoriam: Gerald Bakus, 79

Beloved and respected by students for his enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge of flora and fauna, the intrepid professor’s career at USC Dornsife spanned more than half a century.

Marine biologist Gerald Bakus undertook 24 expeditions and cruises throughout the globe to study coral reefs and Komodo dragons. Photo by Irene Fertik, courtesy of USC University Archives.
Marine biologist Gerald Bakus undertook 24 expeditions and cruises throughout the globe to study coral reefs and Komodo dragons. Photo by Irene Fertik, courtesy of USC University Archives.

Professor of Marine Biology Gerald “Jerry” Bakus, an expert on the ecology of coral reefs and their natural products chemistry  who taught at USC Dornsife’s Department of Biological Sciences for 51 years, has died. He was 79.

After experiencing a major stroke in July, Bakus died peacefully on Aug. 17 at the Beachside Nursing Center near his home in Huntington Beach, California.

“Jerry was truly one of a kind, harkening back to an era of rugged field biology,” said Douglas Capone, William and Julie Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor and chair of biological sciences at USC Dornsife. “As a faculty member and teacher, he was thoughtful and dedicated to his students while maintaining educational rigor. In the 15 years I came to know him, I always found him to be extremely cordial and collegial.”

Cornelius “Neal” Sullivan, professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife, said Bakus was a stalwart colleague through the department’s remarkable evolution during the past half century.

“His detailed explorations and ecological investigations with his graduate and undergraduate students of Catalina Island and much of the coast of Southern California, the Sea of Cortes and Northern Mexico revealed the deep love of all aspects of life that this intrepid professor held at his core,” Sullivan said. “Jerry will be missed by all of us."

Bakus was born in Thorpe, Wisconsin, in 1934. His father immigrated to the United States from Lithuania and his mother was a native of Chicago. The family moved to Los Angeles, where Bakus’ parents worked in real estate. Bakus attended Manual Arts High School near USC, where he developed an interest in biology.

“My father always loved being outdoors in nature,” said Bakus’ son, alumnus Paul Bakus, who graduated from USC Marshall School of Business in 1987. “In high school and college he spent his summers working at a grocery store in Yosemite. He was born to be a biologist.”

Bakus earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from California State University, Los Angeles, an M.A. in zoology from the University of Montana in 1957 and his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Washington in 1962 under the mentorship of Dixie Lee Ray. Later that year he joined USC Dornsife, where he spent his career inspiring generations of undergraduates in his classes on general ecology, marine biology and quantitative biology. Bakus also inspired and mentored a substantial cadre of graduate students.

“What motivated my father more than anything else were his students,” Paul Bakus said. “He was passionate about being a teacher and sharing his wealth of knowledge in the hope that it would inspire the next generation of naturalists.”

Karla Heidelberg, associate professor (teaching) of biological sciences and director of the USC Program in Environmental Studies, said Bakus was an inspiration.

“Students in the department were constantly amazed at his tremendous knowledge of the flora and fauna in both terrestrial and marine environments,” Heidelberg said. “Most amazing was that Jerry, even last Spring, could out-hike any undergraduate in his class in rugged terrain. He was a true old-school biologist.”

An avid hiker and diver, Bakus was also a keen and prolific traveler. An accomplished linguist, he spoke four languages: English, Spanish, French and German. During his career he undertook 24 expeditions and cruises to corners of the globe as far flung as Iceland, Madagascar, Australia, Patagonia and Komodo Island in Indonesia, where he studied coral reefs and Komodo dragons. He made several voyages to Prince William Sound in Alaska to study the impact of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

However, his son said Bakus was happiest when leading his students to Catalina Island to visit USC Dornsife’s Wrigley Marine Science Center.

“Jerry was a vital part of the heart of the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and was affectionately dubbed ‘The Walking Wikipedia of Natural History’ by his students, who said it was impossible to stump him,” said Ann Close, assistant director of the Wrigley Marine Science Center. 

Elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1981, Bakus was the recipient of many honors and awards. As a Fulbright Distinguished Fellow, he held the Asia and Pacific Lectureship in 1996, covering Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. Prior to that he held a Fulbright Fellow Lectureship in Chile in 1987. He was elected to be a fellow of the Great Barrier Reef Committee of Australia in 1976.

At USC Dornsife, he was five times a recipient of innovative teaching awards and in 2003 and 1999, he was honored with the College Faculty Development Award.        

Bakus published many research and review articles including contributions in Science and Nature magazines. He was the author of several books including Coral Reef Ecosystems (Oxford & IBH, 1994), Quantitative Analysis of Marine Biological Communities (John Wiley & Sons, 2007) and books on the natural history of California, Oregon, Nevada and Catalina Island.

In 1970, he spent a year’s sabbatical in Barcelona, Spain, conducting research on his other great passion — Spanish flamenco guitar. He used this research for his book The Spanish Guitar: A Comprehensive Reference to the Classical and Flamenco Guitar (Gothic Press, 1977).

Bakus is survived by his wife of 60 years, Grace Bakus; their children Melanie Bakus and Paul Bakus; younger sisters Carole Duff and Ardean Downs and six grandchildren: Brandon Bakus, 23; Brittney Wells, 20; Crystina Bakus, 20; Cassandra Bakus, 16; Clarissa Bakus, 16; and Ashley Marin, 15.

In accordance with his wishes, there will be no funeral service. A ceremony to celebrate his life will be held in the near future.