Russell Ridge, biologist and professor, dies at 90

Richard Blair
Russell Ridge was a Master Gardener who wrote about his passion in a column in the Light.  
01/25/2018

Russell Ridge, a biology professor who studied bat rays in Tomales Bay, opened his garden to the community and often fell asleep to the classical arrangements of Johann Sebastian Bach, died in his Inverness Park home on Jan. 1. He was 90 years old.

A champion of ecology and fishing, Russ expanded the biology department at the College of Marin and established a science museum on campus that continues today. At home, football or basketball games were often broadcast by television or radio, and his favorite dessert was a slice of tiramisu. He was an educator outside of the classroom and once described his contributions to the longtime Coastal Gardener column in the Light as “one small way for me to share information.” 

“Every walk was a nature walk, where he would name every single plant—in Latin. It would take an hour to walk a mile!” his youngest son, Rolf, said. “He kind of kept his head down and did his own thing in a gentle and caring way. He rode this arc in his life by coming out of the Depression, getting out of the Central Valley, and eventually making it to the coast and connecting to the land.”

Russ was born on Nov. 5, 1927 to Harold and Margaret Ridge, and grew up on the family’s fruit ranch in Merced. They tended cattle and chickens, but mostly grew peaches. 

As the oldest of three boys, Russ handled the bulk of the chores and oversaw the drying shed. His mother instilled in him a fondness for classical music and he’d fish along the Merced River when he wasn’t playing football or baseball or running track. He once set a state track record and his performance on the field earned him a baseball scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. 

One of his college biology courses assigned him to camp overnight around Lake Anza to observe quail, and the experience inspired him to pursue a degree in wildlife conservation.

In a folk dance course, Russ was partnered with Margaret Persson, and he offered to walk her home afterwards. The Big Game against Stanford was that weekend, and Russ asked Marge if she’d be his date (she already had plans, but cancelled them). While at the game in Palo Alto, Russ leaned over and kissed her every time Cal scored.

The were married on July 9, 1950 after Russ graduated from college. While Marge pursued her teaching credential, he moved to San Diego to work for the California Department of Fish and Game. Russ was part of the “guzzler crew,” venturing out into the southern California desert to blast holes in the ground to create water holes for parched quail. 

Although blowing up holes in the desert was amusing work, Russ told Marge that he feared he was wasting his education, and she encouraged him to pursue a penchant for teaching. 

After Russ got his credential, the couple relocated to Antioch, where he got a job teaching high school biology and she taught third grade.

Their first of three children, Lisa, was born in 1955 and Reed arrived the following year. Russ nabbed a grant from the National Science Foundation for research to complete his master’s degree, and the family arrived in Marin County in 1964. Their youngest child, Rolf, was born a few weeks after the move. 

Russ conducted his research at the University of the Pacific marine lab in Dillon Beach and the family lived in an apartment on the mesa in Point Reyes Station. His research was primarily focused on bat rays, which he would fish and net out of Tomales Bay to identify their stomach contents. Marge remembered how their kitchen was constantly stocked with ray specimens, forcing the family to eat off of T.V. trays in the other room. 

A common concern at the time was that these rays were consuming an abundance of the bay’s oysters, but Russ’s research debunked this theory and showed they had a diverse diet.

Russ joined the biology department at the College of Marin in 1964. There he started the science museum to balance the lecture classes and enrich students not majoring in the subject he loved. The museum had over 400 participating students last year. Russ also advocated for zero population growth while at the college, and invited biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book “The Population Bomb” warned of overpopulation. In 1970, Russ gave a presentation on population control at the college titled “How Dense Can We Get?”

“He was always conscious of not offending anyone,” Marge said. “But part of ecology is not using all the resources.”

Since their days together at Berkeley, Russ and Marge would venture to beaches in West Marin. In 1971, during a hike on Mount Vision, they noticed plots of land for sale along Drakes View Drive. They stopped at the real estate office on the bottom of the road and put a down payment on a couple of acres overlooking the bay. But it was the barren hillside that would entice Russ the most. 

By the time they finished building their dream home in 1978, Russ had already begun cultivating his garden, a passion he’d had to put aside for years to focus on providing for his family.

Strawberries topped his list, and even though he didn’t care for raspberries, he grew them every season because they were Marge’s delight. He planted an orchard for pears and apples, selling his excess apples directly to Toby Giacomini, while asparagus, green beans, potatoes, spinach and chard were yearly staples. He used exotic mango mulch from Petaluma and always had a sack of seeds on hand to feed visiting quail. He grew flowers and would gift Sally Holmes roses to new neighbors. A bevy of flower vases remains atop the fridge for impromptu bouquets.  

His years of education had earned him the title of professor, but Russ seldom used it, preferring to downplay his academic status. He was more interested in sharing his passion with his students.

“I remember how excited he was about biology and I’ll never forget the time he took me in the laboratory to show me all the bat ray jaws that he studied,” Joe Mueller, a former student who now teaches biology at the College of Marin, said. “I use many of the same jaws to this day. He reminded me of David Attenborough, the way he presented the wonders of life.”

Following his retirement from the College of Marin in 1989, Russ became a Master Gardener, part of a program of U.C. Berkeley’s Cooperative Extension in which volunteers compile public research-based information about home horticulture and pest management. He offered free pruning workshops out of his garden and was named an honorary member of the Inverness Garden Club.

The club’s Coastal Gardener column began in the Light in 1988, and Russ volunteered to take it over after the founder retired. In a statement to the publisher, Russ said: “We’d like to think of our garden column as a community resource to help other people in the selection and care of plants suitable to this area.” He revealed the recipe behind his award-winning Western Weekend mango pie and welcomed questions on garden improvement. 

Beyond the garden, Russ conducted trail work around West Marin, joined the board of the Environmental Action Committee and worked to restore the Giacomini Wetlands.

Russ spent the latter years of his life with his family. He and Lisa would visit Cabo San Lucas 21 times to fish for mahi-mahi every November around his birthday. Photographs of ironing board-sized fish decorate the bookshelf in Russ’s study. 

“Dad did not drink or smoke,” Lisa said. “He ate healthy food and loved fruit, but he would bend a bit being on vacation and enjoy a strawberry-banana daiquiri while trading fishing stories in the hot tub with other guests.”

Reed fondly recalled a 2003 trip to Costa Rica, where they saw the rainforest, visited volcanoes and zip-lined through jungle habitat. Russ wrote about their experience in his column: “While others were in the gift and souvenir stores, I was out gleaning fallen, ripe, beautiful mangoes.”

About two years ago, Russ suffered heart failure and his health declined. In the weeks preceding his death, he returned home from the hospital. Rolf said they watched Jimmy Garoppolo lead the 49ers to an upset victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Christmas Eve. Russ had told them his wish was to die at home, with Marge at his side, while the symphonies of Bach played nearby. That wish came true on New Year’s Day.

Russ had spent the majority of his life by Marge’s side. They playfully argued over the exact location of their home (Russ was adamant that it was technically Inverness Park, while Marge countered it was Inverness) and they’d wind down the day with British murder mysteries on television. Now, the garden outside their home is mostly fallow, save for an incoming crop of asparagus: a departing gift from the man whom Marge described as her soul mate. “We had 67 years together—how lucky am I?” Marge said. “I just have to keep thinking about that.” 

 

Russell Ridge is survived by his wife, Marge; daughter, Lisa; sons Reed and Rolf; and Karen Wilson, Reed’s longtime partner. A private celebration of his life is planned, and donations in his memory can be made to the College of Marin science museum.