After 60 years, Gulf Specimen Marine Lab founder reflects on the unlikely pen pal that saved his dream

Published: May. 3, 2023 at 8:42 PM EDT|Updated: May. 4, 2023 at 8:11 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - It all changed after a trip to the library.

It was 1963, and 20-year-old Jack Rudloe was struggling to see a path forward for his ambitious plans.

Rudloe had dropped out of Florida State University’s biology department after just three months, struggling to find a place among what he considered an academic world that had no interest in welcoming him.

He sat down to reflect on those early days 60 years later, knowing now that his dream would pan out. The Gulf Specimen Marine Lab would thrive and become a local institution.

“I never expected it to be anything like it is right now,” he said.

But how did a college dropout create one of the leading providers of marine life for scientific research? He stumbled upon the unlikeliest of pen pals.

“So I was in the library looking at books, and that’s when I found the Sea of Cortez,” Rudloe recalls.

He’s referring to “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” a nonfiction work by famed author John Steinbeck.

Unlike his fictional classics, “Of Mice and Men” or “Grapes of Wrath,” “Sea of Cortez” was a fairly dry account of his 1940 excursion to the Gulf of California with marine biologist Ed Ricketts.

Flipping through the pages, Rudloe found instant relatability. Here was an icon of American literature taking a keen interest in little known marine life, and he was joined by a marine biologist who also had expressed frustration with the establishment.

So Rudloe picked up a pen and began writing: “Dear Mr. Steinbeck. I’m currently writing a book...”

Rudloe assumed the letter he wrote would be one of the hundreds ignored by a celebrity used to receiving mountains of mail.

But fate had other ideas.

“Dear Jack Rudloe, it was a great pleasure to get your letter...,” it began.

John Steinbeck had seen his story and deemed it worthy of a reply.

“I was delighted and in shock, very proud,” Rudloe said.

It kicked off a four-year correspondence. They’d swap letters and postcards. Rudloe gained entry aboard a scientific expedition to the Indian Ocean. He’d fill Steinbeck in on his new discoveries, every triumph and every failure.

Rudloe learned from Steinbeck to ignore the doubters. Rudloe had ideas for books of his own and recalled the famed author’s message to him.

“Look, if you’re any good, and your persistent, you will get published. And if you’re not, you won’t.”

He took that advice to heart, beginning a decades-long publishing career. And along the way, the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab continued to grow.

Hundreds of academics started requesting samples from his lab to use for scientific research.

Valdosta State University Professor Thomas Manning is one of them.

“As a small business and a nonprofit, to last that long is incredible,” Manning said.

In 2005, Prof. Manning teamed up with one of his students to publish a paper on Rudloe’s Steinbeck connection.

“That had to be a huge boost to Rudloe, saying, this is what I’m supposed to do. One of those signs from above,” he said.”

Perhaps it was divine intervention or just a lucky break. Either way, Rudloe and his late wife and lab co-founder, Anne, were now well-established and redefining what they could offer the community.

Rudloe says Anne was a driving force in establishing the educational side of the lab. Today, it’s a popular destination for kids of all ages.

“I really wish a lot of those guys could see what it really turned into and what it is,” Rudloe said.

And he suggests anyone who thinks about giving up on a childhood dream to persevere.

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