Written by Dr. Chris Jones
On New Year’s Day this year, the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center lost an important ally who was with us from the birth of the idea for Potomac Science Center until its construction at Belmont Bay in Woodbridge in the mid-2010’s. This is a good time to reflect on the life of Preston C. Caruthers and how PSC and PEREC were born.
I had the privilege of knowing Preston since the early 1990’s. A veteran developer from Arlington, Preston acquired property on the tidal Occoquan River in about 1990 and set about developing a waterfront community that was modelled in his mind after Porto-Vecchio in Corsica, a community with shops and restaurants lining the harbor. I became aware of Mr. Caruthers about this time because Dr. Don Kelso, GMU’s fish ecologist, and I had been interested for a number of years in obtaining a waterfront lab for research and teaching purposes. And I felt a special affinity for Mr. Caruthers since his life from a hardscrabble existence in the Oklahoma of the Dust Bowl days to a successful career paralleled that of my Dad who had a similar experience in Arkansas.
During the Harry Diamond Lab base closure process, we made a pitch for the lab at the tip of the Occoquan peninsula, but it was awarded to the Fish and Wildlife Service because Federal agencies had priority to pick up property from military base closures. However, the legislation that transferred the property to FWS had an interesting clause in it: “There should be an environmental science facility for research and teaching on the peninsula.” Thus, we felt encouraged to seek other nearby locations for the recommended facility.
We retained our interest in the area and our relationship with Preston, but building funds were not forthcoming. Then the Science Museum of Virginia (SMV) came into the picture and we were encouraged to partner with them in a new facility on the river which would have overlooked the water and been only a few hundred yards from where our building was eventually built. They came in big time with a large public science center proposal complete with a team of consultants to help develop exhibits. With money from the Caruthers family, SMV set up a foundation to help move the effort forward to which Mason contributed space for offices at the Sci Tech campus. As the plans evolved, an MOU was signed between Mason and SMV near the end of 2003. Mason was going to lease 35,000 sq.ft. including specially designed labs, offices and classrooms for aquatic ecology education and research. Things went well for a couple of years and then it was revealed that the SMV was broke and the museum project in Woodbridge was cancelled. We were of course extremely disappointed. But we were encouraged by many to keep trying. The university put together a team from Facilities Planning to spec out our own building, the beginning of Potomac Science Center. By 2008 faculty that would go to PEREC were holding retreats to map out the research and teaching plans at PSC.
While that seemed encouraging, where were we going to find $35 million? Preston wanted us to be at Belmont Bay, but he didn’t have $35 million to play with either. So we looked to the General Assembly of Virginia, who provides funding for university buildings. The university put PSC in their budget requests, but when push came to shove, there were always things more needy in the Mason administration’s mind. That’s where State Senator Charles Colgan who represented Prince William County came in. Senator Colgan was a senior member of the Senate Budget committee and legend has it that in the final hours of budget negotiations, a horse trade occurred. A senator in another part of the state wanted something and Senator Colgan said let’s give you what you want and that just about equals the PSC proposal of Mason so let’s make a swap and PSC was on its way to Preston Caruthers’ Belmont Bay.
Of course, there were many others who were crucial at getting this facility, but Mr. Caruthers was there at the beginning and stayed with us through the building opening. And this was all in a day’s work for him as he was involved in may educational initiatives during his public spirited life, including serving on Mason’s Board of Visitors and the Board of Education of the Commonwealth. He was also significant philanthropic supporter of many educational efforts including the Arlington County Public Schools Planetarium and Marymount University.
Preston Caruthers and his family joined Mason senior leadership and state legislators in Spring 2018 for the official opening celebration and dedication of the Potomac Science Center. He was 91 years old and his health was declining, but his renowned spirited demeanor was evident, and his pride in this accomplishment – more than 25 years in the making – was clear.