Centennial Story 21: Tom Oswold, Jr (Staff 1948-93)

As the School approaches its centennial year (2019), we have been telling the stories of many of the important figures in SAFS’s development and evolution: deans, directors, faculty, and students. In fact, there have been many long-standing staff members who have played significant roles in helping SAFS become a major academic and research institution. Tom Oswold Jr. is one such long-term staff member. He joined SAFS as a transfer student in 1948 and stayed on as a staff member until 1993, when he retired. Tom was born and raised on a farm near Bellingham, but was associated with the Alaska fishery through his father, who worked summers on the canneries in Bristol Bay. Tom began working in Alaska at age 14 and was skippering a fishing boat before he finished high school.  That experience peaked his interest and led him to join the UW School of Fisheries (SOF) in his sophomore year.

Tom Oswold (circa 1987)

Because of the skills he had acquired in Alaska, shortly after he came to SOF, he began skippering the R/V Onchoryncus, a 50-foot surplus Naval personnel carrier converted by the UW into a stern trawler. Because the Onchoryncus was limited to short runs in local waters, it quickly became clear that marine research and class operations needed a vessel with greater capabilities. In 1950, the School became the College of Fisheries and acquired the R/V Commando, a 67-foot halibut boat with a deep hull that was capable of extended runs in the open ocean. Running the Commando meant Tom had to hire an engineer, take on charter work for other research organizations, and finally give up on the idea of finishing his degree.

For the next thirty years, Tom took fisheries students and scientists out on Lake Washington, Puget Sound, and the Pacific Coast from Monterey, California, to the Aleutians to catch, count, and tag or dissect fish of multiple species and habitats. His job was to provide a research platform for hundreds of studies and projects undertaken—not only by the School, but also by the Alaska, Oregon, and Federal Fish and Game Departments. The success of many of these projects was predicated on Tom’s ability to find and catch the target species or thoroughly sample the targeted area or habitat to obtain an accurate survey.

Tom took a one-year leave of absence from the School in 1962 to join the United Nations World Health Organization’s Food and Agriculture Department. His project was to bring more modern fishing technology to local fishers on the small island of St. Kitts in the Leeward Islands of the West Indies. At the time, the local fishers were using hand lines from small sailing skiffs to catch grouper and other fish for personal consumption and local sale. He spent the year designing and refitting a small motor boat to use trawl and trolling gear and most important, providing a local fishery with the potential to greatly increase its yield and efficiency.

In 1980, the School retired the Commando when it acquired the R/V Alaska. Tom skippered the Alaska until his retirement in 1993. For almost his entire tenure, Tom was joined by Olaf Rockness (1918–2005), his engineer and deckhand. The two served the School for almost their entire professional careers and witnessed the evolution of the School from its days of focusing on support of the fishing industry to its concentration on environmental and sustainability issues.

The R/V Commando off the old Fisheries Building

Tom was an integral, though perhaps less visible, part of nearly half of the one hundred years we are now celebrating.

Tom passed away on April 18, 2018. His ashes were scattered off the Oceanography dock where he spent so much of his life.



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