March 19, 2019  

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GCRL Retires Research Vessel After 16 Years of Service

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Pictured from left to right: Janet McIlwain, Allie Randall, Stacey Mcilwain Randall, and Lindsay Randall.

The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory recently retired the R/V Tom McIlwain with a ceremony aboard the vessel in Biloxi.

The vessel was named after former GCRL Director Tom McIlwain, who died in 2012. McIlwain spent more than 50 years in the field of marine fisheries sciences and all, but nine of those years (1994-2003), with GCRL.

A ceremony was held March 21 aboard the R/V Tom McIlwain for his wife Janet, daughter Stacey, and two granddaughters, Allie and Lindsay.

“He was so proud to have the vessel named after him,” said Janet McIlwain, McIlwain’s wife of nearly 50 years. “It was an honor he truly cherished.”

McIlwain began his career as a scientist in 1964 before eventually working his way up to assistant director of fisheries in 1978. He later held the position of director of GCRL from 1989 until 1994. McIlwain managed the transition of GCRL from an independent marine laboratory to an integral academic unit within The University of Southern Mississippi’s structure.

As director, he implemented a five-year strategic plan, streamlined personnel department, reorganized all the scientific support personnel into contract employees, and substantially transitioned the research facility into an academic facility.  During his tenure as director, the total budget for GCRL went from $5.5 million annually to more than $8 million annually.

GCRL researchers and staffers shared stories of the R/V Tom McIlwain during the ceremony.

“That vessel took at least 10,000 students out for research trips,” said Paul Beaugez, captain. “It should have been retired a long time ago, but somehow, it just kept getting the job done.”

The R/V Tom McIlwain served as a U.S. Navy survey vessel before joining the GCRL fleet in 2000. The vessel was recommissioned and named after McIlwain in July 2012 after his retirement from GCRL.

Beaugez said the 55-foot fiberglass vessel was built in 1978 and had engines that were discontinued in the 1980s.

“Repairs became almost impossible due to the rarity of the parts,” he said. “It’s amazing what a vessel built so long ago could continue to do.”

During the ceremony, Janet received the ship’s bell with a plaque commemorating its service.

“It’s kind of bittersweet to know it’s retired,” she said. “It was fun to be able to see it out there on the water. The vessel became part of Tom’s spirit in my eyes.”

McIlwain said her youngest granddaughter had recently been on a field trip to one of the barrier islands and didn’t realize she was traveling on a vessel named after the legacy of her grandfather.

“The teacher told her halfway through the trip and it put a huge smile on her face,” McIlwain said. “She was proud to tell the class about what her grandfather had done.”

At the end of the ceremony, as the family left the vessel for the final time, McIlwain’s granddaughter asked for one last souvenir from the vessel: the life ring.

“They gave it to her, and she left grinning from ear to ear,” McIlwain said. “We all left smiling that day.”