I’m thinking about my dad, who would have been 100 years old today. He was born on Easter in 1912, but never had his birthday land on Easter again until his 60th. His mother always thought of Easter as his birthday, though. His birth was just eight days before the famous sinking of the Titanic.
My dad grew up in Los Angeles. He was smart in math and science at school, and even won a statewide contest for high school students. As a state winner, he got to travel (by train) across the country to compete with other state winners in 1929. They all met Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a third inventor, possibly Harvey Firestone. Of course his family was extremely proud and there was an article about him in their local paper.
Although he’d hoped to attend the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he was offered a 1-year scholarship, he attended the University of Southern California (USC) because they offered him a 4-year scholarship. The decision of which college to attend was a no-brainer because the family didn’t have money for college. He graduated in 1934 with a degree in chemical engineering, and soon went to work for Shell Chemical. A few years later he went into the non-metallic mining business with a friend, although he later admitted he really didn’t care for the mining business.
After World War II started, he was one of many to become involved in the Manhattan Project, the building of the atomic bomb. He researched plutonium at the University of Chicago under Glenn Seaborg, who was to become a long-time friend. After the end of the war, he came to Berkeley with Seaborg and others from the project and began an almost 30-year career at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (then called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory—the name later had to be changed because of the negative connotation of the word “radiation.”) At the Lab, he met my mother, who had also worked on the project as a secretary in Oak Ridge. Their mutual interest in photography brought them together.
Photography remained one of his interests, along with chemistry, math, electronics, astronomy, and computers as they came of age. He bought himself an Apple II soon after they came out and then later bought himself a second one. He used it to do high level mathematical computations and wrote programs in assembly language for the Apple II. His hobby, especially after he retired, was computing constants (numbers) out to 30 or more digits. He could figure out how long a certain computation would last and this card was once placed on the computer to assure it wouldn’t be disturbed while completing a lengthy job.
To my dad, math was a joy. He was a wealth of information if I needed any help with my math homework. However, I had to be careful about asking for assistance because a simple question could easily turn into a rather long, although enthusiastic, discussion on math. I’d only ask him if I had plenty of time for it.
He also loved astronomy and I would occasionally accompany him to astronomical society lectures. I was very fortunate to go with him on two separate trips to view a total solar eclipse. Those were experiences I’ll never forget. In the summer of 1972 we went with my aunt to Tuktoyaktuk, above the arctic circle in the Northwest Territory of Canada. What a thrilling experience that was to watch the sun disappear in the middle of the day! Besides the eclipse, the whole trip was a fantastic experience. I can say the same thing of our next trip, the following year, to Kenya for another eclipse. Once we’d viewed the eclipse we spent several days touring the safari parks in Kenya.
My dad wasn’t perfect, but he certainly did the best he knew how. He was always honest, almost to a fault. I’ll never forget his adding up the restaurant tab in his head everywhere we went. He would always correct the server, even if the mistake was in his favor. He was also quite modest about his level of intelligence; the family considered him to be very smart but he didn’t think of himself that way. Of course, he worked with several nobel prize winners and probably compared himself to them. He wasn’t an emotional man; the only time I saw him with tears in his eyes was soon after my mom had died. He was very frugal, probably from growing up during the depression. I remember him often complaining about how much something cost, especially when there was only a few cents worth of material in the item. He was aghast that I once spent about 98¢ on an Indian head penny. Of course, he’d probably seen many of them in circulation at one time, so they weren’t as interesting to him.
So, on this 100th anniversary of his birth, here’s a tribute to my dad and thanks for the parts of me that are so much like him. (And thanks for the many more parts of me that are like my mom!) I love you, Dad.