MIAMI-DADE — By the time Evan Forde was in the third grade, he already had a microscope, a telescope and chemistry set and was spending time gazing at tiny creatures, taking things apart and putting them back together and, in his words, “blowing up things.”
The self-confessed sometimes geek was so engrossed in a world of his own making that school work was not even on his radar.
“My brother, who is five years younger than me, was reading at my grade level,” Forde recalled.
In fact, his late parents, Samuel and Margaret Forde, both teachers, were so worried about his academic future that they had a talk among themselves about little Evan as they agonized over this question, “Why can’t Evan read?” But he was so “oblivious” to everything else that he did not know he was lagging behind in his grades.
Then came the night when he was 15 and nearly died in a fire at his home that seriously injured his sister Bernadette and their mother and left him unconscious.
“I felt somebody grab me by the collar and shake me, saying, ‘Evan, wake up! Evan, wake up!’ To this day, I don’t know who it was — and there was nobody else with me. I think it was God,” Forde said in an interview on Tuesday. “As I sat on the grass watching the house burn, I thought to myself that, if I had died in the fire, a year later nobody would have known that I had lived.”
God, Forde said, must have wanted him around for some purpose. “I decided there and then that I would do something with my life,” he said.
And something he did.
The kid who wouldn’t be bothered about books at Bunche Park and Rainbow Park elementary schools in unincorporated Miami-Dade began to shine at then North Dade Junior/Senior High and Miami Carol City High School in Miami Gardens.
He shone all the way through college, attaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology and geophysics from Columbia University.
He eventually landed a job at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Administration on Virginia Key and has been with this arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for 37 years.
Evan B. Forde, a research oceanographer, has been a
pacesetter ever since. A recognized authority on the formation, evolution and sedimentary processes of U.S. east coast submarine canyons, he remains one of only a handful of black oceanographers in the United States. He was the first African-American scientist to undertake research dives aboard a submersible and has completed dive expeditions in several submarine canyons using three of those vehicles.
He has conducted scientific research in a number of oceanographic and meteorological disciplines and his current research includes using satellite sensors to observe and analyze atmospheric conditions related to hurricane formation and intensification.
Why this rather esoteric field of study?
“My son became an oceanographer because his grades were below C level,” he remembered his father once jokingly saying.
But Forde has also embraced another pursuit in life. One day his father asked him whether he had benefited from public education and he answered yes.
“My father then told me that I should show my appreciation by doing something to further public education,” he said. “I decided to act on his suggestion and one of my goals is to make sure that any child in America can get a first-class education and that they can go as high as their hopes and dreams and determination can take them.”
He is already well on that journey.
Forde developed and taught graduate level courses on Tropical Meteorology for the University of Miami's INSTAR program for seven years; graduate teachers from his course teach an estimated 15,000 students each year.
He created and teaches an oceanography course for middle school students called Oceanographic Curriculum Empowering Achievement in Natural Sciences (OCEANS).
He also created a Severe Weather Poster for NOAA that was distributed nationally to 50,000 teachers and is seen daily by an estimated 8,000,000 students.
He has spoken to nearly 40,000 Florida students during career days and other school presentations and, for three years, he wrote the Science Corner column in Ebony Jr. magazine.
So impressive has been his work in education that Forde received a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator’s Award during a ceremony at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., on Oct. 6.
The Miami native was cited for “outstanding communication of NOAA science, sharing the joy of science with students, and helping to foster a science-literate society.”
Forde has been under the spotlight in other ways. He has been the subject of three museum exhibits and he has been featured in several articles and science text books, as well as books and publications on prominent African-American scientists.
Active in the community, he has served as a PTA president, Scoutmaster, youth basketball coach, Sunday School and youth church teacher, church webmaster and neighborhood Crime Watch chairman.
His awards include being named NOAA’s Environmental Research Laboratories EEO Outstanding Employee, South Florida’s Federal Employee of the Year (in the Service to the Community category), a Congressional Commendation and NOAA Research Employee of the Year. In 2009, days were named in his honor by the city of North Miami and Miami-Dade County. In 2010, the Miami-Dade County School Board issued a proclamation honoring his contributions to students.
As the years pass, Forde remains convinced that a higher power is watching over him, including the time he was trapped in a mini-submarine two miles down in an underwater canyon.
“There have been times in my life when I have had narrow escapes,” he said, “and I believe that I survived because I haven’t completed what I was born to do.”
And that is?
“I believe I was born to share the joy of science with children around the world,” he said, “That mission is only just getting started.”
Photo: COURTESY OF MICHAEL MCELROY
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Evan B. Forde stands in front of a modern oceanographic research ship on Virginia Key. Forde’s earlier research was aimed at uncovering the mysteries of the oceans and he now looks to the skies hoping to unlock secrets that will improve hurricane intensity forecasting.