Bob Lawrence recently moved to Maine after retiring as the director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. He founded the center in 1996, based on the idea that understanding the relationships among public health, diet, environment and food systems are key to a livable future. When we called Lawrence up to talk, we quickly learned that “retired” is a flexible term in his mind.

GOLF? NAPS? Yes, he did retire from his faculty position at Johns Hopkins this May, but a life of golf and naps is apparently not his idea of retirement. He merely moved into emeritus status and was back in Baltimore the next month, teaching in the school’s summer institute. He’ll return to the university again in November and December to teach a course on food systems that he and a colleague developed 10 years ago and have continued to teach since. “The nice thing about university life is that as long as you behave yourself, they let you stick around.”

DEEP BACKGROUND: Especially if you founded the place. How did that come about? Lawrence’s career has taken many interesting turns. As a young doctor, he planned a career in international health and worked as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doing malaria research in El Salvador. His plans to move on to West Africa were upended in the late 1960s. “First Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and then Bobby Kennedy, and both my wife and I felt that we needed to get back home and get engaged in the problems of our own society.” He helped develop community health care centers in the rural South while serving on the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Then it was back to his alma mater, Harvard Medical School, for nearly two decades. In the 1990s he served as director of health sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, giving him a chance to return to international health. “I was living in airplanes, and I didn’t have my own projects. I didn’t have my hands on stuff.”

SOLID FOUNDATION: That dissatisfaction led him to Hopkins, and to an unexpected meeting in 1996 with Henry Spira, the animal rights advocate who fought against chemical testing and factory farms. Spira had thrown out a challenge to the dean who brought Lawrence to the university. “He said that it was time for Johns Hopkins to do the next big thing.” Lawrence sat down and wrote an impassioned 21/2-page letter tying together population growth, environmental degradation, food production and sustainability. He faxed it to Spira in New York and improbably, the next day, a philanthropist named Helaine Lerner, who was friends with Spira, reached out to Johns Hopkins; she wanted to fund a center to study these issues. “We took off from there.” He’s not kidding: 20 years later the center has 30 faculty members, 15 doctoral students and about a dozen part-time research assistants. “If your reach doesn’t exceed your grasp,” Lawrence said, referencing a line from a Robert Browning poem. “You’ll never get anything done.”

CURRICULUM SHIFT: How has his class on world food systems evolved over the decade? The course, looks at every aspect of the food system through the prism of public health. But climate change is playing a much bigger role on the syllabus as growing seasons in northern states like Maine lengthen, while areas near the equator suffer losses in food production. So too is dwindling biodiversity, from the impact of glyphosate-ready seeds and the emergence of superweeds to the shocking amount of food human beings waste. “We try to take a broader ecological perspective” in the course, he said. “How the food system is such a critical part of the future, yet we are mistreating it.” Worth noting: the environmental cost of producing beef and other crops. “A third of greenhouse gas production is within the agricultural sector,” he said. “We talk about all of that.”

ISLAND DOCTOR: Lawrence has a long history in Maine. In the 1970s, when he was building a medical practice in Cambridge after training at Massachusetts General, he’d come to North Haven to be the summer doctor, filling in for what was then a regular year-round island doctor. “I took care of Chellie’s (Pingree) little kids for scraped knees and such,” he said. “I remember her growing organic produce on North Haven. We used to buy some of her stuff.” He’s followed her career since. “It’s interesting how she, from the state of Maine, is really the voice for the small farmer in Congress.” And those small farmers are crucial to the future food systems, Lawrence said, as are regional food hubs and greater diversity “rather than relying on the Central Valley of California for everything.” Another Pingree issue he and the Center for a Livable Future are in sync with and working on? Improved food labeling to encourage less waste from consumers. “Most food is perfectly edible well beyond the use date.”

THE ANCHOR: His five children loved North Haven and the family stayed on the mailing list for the North Haven News long after Lawrence stopped filling in for the vacationing island doctor. When one of his daughters, Hannah, was home from college and casting around for a summer job, she saw a listing for a housekeeper/cook for a summer resident on the island and applied. “That is how she met her husband, who was a North Haven native and a summer lobsterman,” Lawrence said. “That sort of anchored our relationship with midcoast Maine.” The young couple went on to own and operate Penobscot Island Air, which eventually brought them to Rockport, and that’s where Lawrence and his wife bought a house as well.

GRANT-FREE: “I intend to stay involved with the things I really care about,” he said. “Really as long as I can make sense when I talk to students, there is no deadline that I have to quit. I probably won’t be writing any grants anymore. That is part of academic life I am perfectly happy to leave behind. At age 78, it feels like a nice mixture to be here most of the year and get involved with local organizations doing conservation work.” He is working with Maine Farmland Trust, which he particularly admires for its work getting young farmers onto land. And he’s part of a group working on trails in the Camden Hills for the Coastal Mountains Land Trust on Wednesday mornings. “This was my first experience learning how hard work it is to be clambering up a steep mountainside trying to figure out where the switchbacks go.” Somehow, we have a hunch those will be excellent switchbacks.