It all started at the University of Maryland.
For 10 years, Stephen P. Leatherman taught a freshman class called “Waves and Beaches.” It was so popular that, in spite of seats for 250 students, he routinely had a waiting list with 150 names.
That demand notwithstanding, Leatherman said that he had to work to keep the students engaged in his 9 a.m. lectures.
“They (were) partying all night,” he said, so they tended to doze off in class. “I’m going around, waking people up, (telling them), ‘That’s going to be on the exam’ and ‘No sleeping in my class!’”
Moreover, he said, “They couldn’t remember my name.” When they started calling him “Dr. Beach,” he said, “I didn’t mind it.”
Word of Leatherman’s classroom antics soon spread to Baltimore, where a TV weatherman named Ed Turney had become known for his own stunts. Turney had a regular local-news feature called “Turney’s Journeys,” so Turney came to College Park one day in the early 1990s, to film a segment on Leatherman’s class.
“He put (the video) on the 5 o’clock news and the 6 o’clock news and the 11 o’clock news,” Leatherman continued. It was referred to as the “Dr. Beach” segment.
“After that,” Leatherman said, “even the president of the university called me Dr. Beach.”
Even before he earned the sobriquet by which he is known internationally, Leatherman was recognized as an expert on beaches, having accumulated 60,000 slides and 10,000 maps from beaches all over the United States.
He received a phone call in 1989 from the editor of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. A new writer on staff had taken the “Waves and Beaches” course at the university, the editor said, and had recommended Leatherman when the staff started planning an article about the top American beaches.
Leatherman confesses that he was a bit distracted when he took the call, because he was trying to finish packing for a trip to Peking University, in Beijing, China, where he had been asked to serve as a visiting professor for two months.
When Leatherman asked what the editor wanted him to use as criteria, the editor said, “Tell me your favorites.”
Leatherman said he was standing there thinking, “I’ve got to get this guy off the line, (so) I just started rattling off beaches I knew and loved.”
After Leatherman had named 10, the editor told him that was what he needed.
“I’m all done, and he sounded happy,” Leatherman said, so he thought no more of it — for several weeks.
When he arrived in China, the student revolt in Tienanmen Square was under way. All the classes were canceled at Peking University, so he decided to march with the students.
He and a colleague decided to take a trip to the northernmost city in China, where the majority of seaweed served in Chinese restaurants comes ashore. When Leatherman returned to Beijing, his cab driver couldn’t even make it through Tienanmen Square. That was just hours before the tanks came out, he said.
After about three weeks of turmoil — and another week trying to get a flight back to the United States — Leatherman returned home. The interview with the editor was the furthest thing from his mind, when he found a copy of Traveler magazine in his mail one day, with a front-page teaser for the country’s “Top 10 Beaches.”
Thinking that would be fun to read, Leatherman opened the magazine to the page and found his list, in the order in which he had given it to the editor.
“I was a little bit horrified,” he said.
“Right away, the phone started ringing” with representatives of convention and visitors bureaus asking him for more details about why he had chosen their beaches.
“I didn’t know what a CVB was,” he said.
Among the callers, a woman from the Lee County CVB was elated, Leatherman said, because Sanibel was No. 8 on his list.
“Next year,” she told him, “we’ll be No. 6.”
“I said, ‘What do you mean, next year?’” Leatherman asked her.
Acknowledging the American public’s fascination with lists, and realizing that coming up with a Top 10 beaches list “was more interesting than anything else I had done in my life,” Leatherman said, he began devising criteria for all his subsequent lists. It took him two years, he added, to come up with 50 points.
In 1991, Leatherman released his first official Top 20 U.S. Beaches list, gave it to a public-relations person at the University of Maryland and took off for a project in Venice, Italy.
The PR person trimmed the list to 10 and released it just before Memorial Day weekend.
“He sent that out, and it went gangbusters,” Leatherman said, adding that the man called him in Italy to tell him, “You’ve got to come home.”
“I’m the only one who’s ever done this,” Leatherman said of his annual list. “I call it the icing on my cake … It keeps me moving around the coast.”
Dr. Beach bio
Hometown: Charlotte, N.C.
Education: Bachelor’s of science from North Carolina State University in 1970; doctorate in environmental (coastal) sciences from the University of Virginia in 1976
Occupation: professor at Florida International University in Miami and director of FIU’s Laboratory for Coastal Research
Professional accomplishments: author of 16 books and more than 200 professional journal articles and technical reports, including articles in both science and nature magazines; 10 appearances before the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives to provide expert testimony; and on-screen host and co-producer of “Vanishing Lands,” a 1992 documentary that won three international film awards.
IF YOU GO
What: Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, will be the special guest of the Siesta Key Association during its annual breakfast meeting. Other special guests will be Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson and John McCarthy, interim executive director of Sarasota County Community Services.
The meeting also will include the election of officers for 2012.
When: 8:00 to 11 a.m. Saturday, March 10. Breakfast will begin at 8:30 a.m.
Where: The Community Center at St. Boniface Episcopal Church, 5615 Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key
Cost: Each SKA member family receives two free tickets. Otherwise, tickets are $10. RSVP required; visit www.siestakeyassociation.com.