Getting His Feet Wet

On just his second day on the job, USD’s new president paddled like a pro

There’s a game that the USD Outdoor Adventures team likes to play while en route to outings, particularly when people are meeting for the first time. Someone volunteers to be in the “hot seat,” and the others take turns asking questions. That’s the situation USD’s new president, James T. Harris III, DEd, found himself in on just his second day on the job.

A supremely good sport, Harris and his son, Braden, agreed to accompany a group of students led by Outdoor Adventures Assistant Director Mark Ceder on a kayaking trip through the La Jolla Marine Reserve. Ceder was psyched for the trip, seeing parallels to outings designed for incoming first-year and transfer students to get to know the area: “Our trips help to build community and educate people. Getting out there gives them a sense of place.”

On the van ride from campus, the president was game to take the hot seat and get to know his fellow adventurers. Among them were senior Cameron Heyvaert, a biology major from Evergreen, Colo.; junior Angela Hessenius, an interdisciplinary humanities major from Brookfield, Conn.; and senior Danford Jooste, a mechanical engineering major from Capetown, South Africa.

While Harris’ wife, Mary, came along for the ride, she made it clear that she would be staying on dry land, content to hang out with her trusty camera and a convivial group of USD community members. The 20-minute drive to the beach was filled with laughter; there’s something about Harris that puts folks at ease. A personable soul, he clearly likes people, and much like a book that falls open to favorite passages, he has his go-to stories.

One is that when he first met Mary in college, he knew right away that he’d met the woman he was going to marry. “It was love at first sight,” he said, then laughed. “At least for me.”

In response to a query about his favorite food, he answered like a shot, nearly before the question was asked: “Ribs! My specialty is barbecued ribs. And yes, I give out my recipe, but you have to know that it’s always changing. Braden and I try to do something different every time.”

As the group grew closer to the launch site, the excitement was palpable. “It’s not just beautiful and a great place to go kayaking, but it’s also an ecological preserve,” explained Ceder. The location, just south of La Jolla Shores Beach, contains five distinct marine environments in less than two square miles. “It’s one of the most unique stretches of coastline in California. Sandy beach, rocky shallows, steep cliffs, kelp forests and deep-water canyons all come together here.”

Harris waxed rhapsodic about his love for the water, and kayaking in particular. “I’ve loved the water since I was a boy. My father and I used to go boating. Being on the water in some way has always been important to me.“ So important, that Jim and Mary bought a family vacation home on the Chesapeake Bay that they tried to get to as frequently as possible; succeeding most weekends and much of each summer.

“About three years ago, I bought a pair of kayaks,” he said. “I’d injured my leg a few years before and found that kayaking was good exercise. Before long, I’d go out every weekend when we’d go to our place, rather than using the motorboat. I loved getting into these little streams and watching the birds, figuring out what animals I was seeing. There were terrapins and snapping turtles and river otters and bald eagles, which were my favorite.”

He smiled, remembering. “There were dozens of bald eagles in the area. Last summer, there was a bald eagle nest that Braden and I discovered on one of the small streams. I’d go take a look every weekend, watching the pair of eaglets grow, alongside their mother. It really inspired me to start reading all about eagles and how they nest. It brought out the nerdy side of me.”

Harris approached this new fascination with nature and the outdoors methodically: “Other than in college, I’d never really studied botany or biology or the outdoors, but I found myself getting books so that I could learn more about, ‘What did I see today?’ I’d delve into all the different kinds of life I’d spot on the water, all the flowers, all the plants. And all of that started with kayaking.”
As the group neared the beach, Hessenius confessed that she was excited to have the opportunity to spend time with USD’s new president in such a relaxed, fun manner. “I feel really fortunate that I get to interact with him like this on just his second day on the job. How many people can say they went kayaking with the president? Experiences like this are what make USD special.”

Torrey-Pines-2Right on cue, the van had arrived. As the kayakers piled out onto the parking lot and made their way to the launch spot, there were plenty of other things to think about, such as getting geared up, following the lifeguards’ instructions not to linger on the shore too long so that other kayaking groups had the space they needed, and making sure that everybody actually listened to the instructions about staying safe before paddling out.

It was definitely an afternoon to remember. The water was sublime, the sun was warm but not punishing, and in a relaxed fashion befitting Southern California, the group paddled to the edge of sea caves, came across sleepy sea lions sunning themselves, splashed one another with their paddles, and generally had an awesome outdoor adventure.

And even though one rider — who shall remain nameless — took a tumble overboard when riding a wave back to shore, it was all good. That certain someone shrugged it off with a quick high five, a “what-can-you-do?” shrug and a blinding smile. All things considered, not a bad second day on the job. Not bad at all.

Photography by Chris Park. See the video of Dr. Harris’ kayak outing.