An Uncommon Woman: Ellen Virginia Clark Revelle, 1910-2009

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Ellen Clark RevelleShe had a strong mind and wasn’t afraid to use it. She was an intrepid explorer of the world who learned to snorkel in her 60s and swam daily in the Pacific until her mid 90s. She held deep loves—for family and friends, for music and art, and for several fortunate institutions. Late in life, she traveled, wrote critical letters to the editor of various publications (including this one), entertained, read widely—and was always ready to share a good story or a laugh.

No one who knew her will forget her.

Ellen Revelle died in the early hours of May 6 at age 98 of a massive stroke, hours after playing a game of dominoes and just days after attending the theater near her La Jolla home.

She made her mark on Scripps early, as a member of the first graduating class of 50 women. And although she was the great niece of the College’s founder, she never used that to her advantage. She once turned down a chance for elected office in one of the residence halls when she learned she was nominated because of her family connection.

She remained close to Scripps throughout her life. She joined the board of trustees in 1938 as an alumna trustee, and then served continuously since 1947 as a trustee and then emerita trustee. Former President Fritz Weis said: “Ellen was treasured not only for her unswerving service and devotion to the College, but for her intellect, her curiosity, and her great good humor. She continued, throughout her life, to be a role model for our students.”

As trustee, Ellen often asked the penetrating question, pointed out the overlooked consideration, and made the essential connection. When she could no longer travel the miles to come to the annual trustee retreat, the College came to her in her beachfront home for advice.

A strikingly beautiful woman all her life, Ellen is remembered by her daughter, Carolyn Revelle, as the mother who often tucked a flower behind her ear. And for a more creative use: “Going out in the evening in a long dress with a slit up the seam, she had used lovely white flowers [gardenias] to adorn the metal pins projecting on either side of her leg, broken in a skiing accident.”

Ellen and her late husband, Roger Revelle, established the James E. Scripps Scholarship Fund in 1985 to provide merit scholarships each year to undergraduates. This fund, which allows Scripps to attract and enroll some of the most superior students in the nation, enabled the College to award half-tuition scholarships last year to 118 students.

Ellen was married for more than 60 years to Roger, who was the main force in the founding of the University of California at San Diego, in 1960; the first of its colleges was named in his honor.  In the 60s, Roger directed Harvard University’s Center for Population Studies, where he taught a new generation of students, including Al Gore, about possible environmental effects of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Ellen retained a close friendship with Gore throughout her life.

Roger was also a former director of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Ellen was “truly its first lady,” according to Tony Haymet, director of the marine institution.

Roger died in 1991 at age 82.

Ellen shared Ellen Browning Scripps’ commitment to community. Her son, William Revelle, said, “She believed we are stewards of the planet and our population. She cared about people.”

Her many contributions to community included service on boards of the La Jolla Art Museum, The Bishop’s School, the La Jolla Playhouse, and Scripps Memorial Hospital.  She was also deeply involved with the La Jolla Music Society and the San Diego Symphony.

A celebration of her life was held May 10 at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, Ellen Browning Scripps’ former home. After her four children, several of her grandchildren, and friends reflected on “the lightness of her being,” the several hundred assembled guests joined singers and musicians in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (Symphony No. 9) in tribute to this remarkable woman.

The Scripps community will celebrate Ellen Revelle’s life on Saturday, October 3, at 2 p.m. in Margaret Fowler Garden at Scripps; a reception will follow in Revelle House. Contributions in her memory may be made to the James E. Scripps Scholarship Fund at Scripps College.