Our cousin Bob: Black sheep becomes American hero
By Robert Field
When our generation was growing up, all the cousins were aspiring for high grades, good colleges, and brilliant careers in business or the professions. All that was but cousin Bob about whom we worried.
Cousin Bob was spending his spare time collecting jalopies, tearing them apart, repairing them, putting them back together. Pressed by his father to take a business rather than engineering in college, he dropped out of Penn and eventually joined the Air Force and ended up servicing airplanes in Texas where, to the short term displeasure of his Jewish family (this was back in the ‘50s), he met and married a down to earth, very smart Irish Catholic girl.
When he left the service, he obtained an entry job with Boeing and thrived in an environment of team work to achieve specific engineering goals. He completed his business degree at the night school of at Penn and took a number of engineering courses elsewhere along the way. His talent for analyzing problems and administrating a team effort propelled his career in the Boeing design ranks.
Bob was hired away by Westinghouse’s atomic engineer division. Their interest somewhat baffled him because he did not even have an advance university degree nor one in engineering. But by that time it didn’t matter. All they knew is that Bob was a problem solver.
He was paired with an engineer with submarine experience and told to start from scratch and design control system for a proposed atomic energy plant.
He and his partner thought the best place to start was to visit an existing plant. They were given a tour and witnessed a forty-foot long control room with gauges along the walls set in no particular order or relationships and danger signals in a variety of colors: red, orange and white. While listening to an explanation by management of how the control panels worked, he had to suppress laughter and was asked what he found amusing.
Upon prodding, he explained that the monitoring of a nuclear plant wasn’t that much more complex than piloting an airplane and certainly no more difficult than flying a helicopter, and yet the operator in those cases were strapped into a chair. His point: The controls had to be rationalized so that what was most important was centralized in the center with scores of other monitors either moved to the periphery of deemed irrelevant to the operator and eliminated.
Bob led a team that concentrated all the essential emergency information in an area six feet high and eight foot wide. More sophisticated gauges were installed that replaced a number of others. If something potentially dangerous occurred, the operator was immediately warned and in a manner that monitored proper attention.
Shortly after his team’s design for control room instrumentation was made part of a new plant, the Three Mile Island (TMI) disaster occurred. According to Bob, operators until then had not been properly trained on the workings of a plant and had little idea of what to do when something went wrong. According to Bob, if the intention at TMI was to cause a core meltdown, they could not have done better than all the foolish mistakes they made during the first two days.
President Jimmy Carter was an engineer who had worked under the legendary Hyman Admiral Rickover in designing the early atomic submarines. When Carter arrived at TMI during the height of the emergency, he instantly recognized that much of the problem was the lack of a rational control room.
Shortly after the TMI partial melt down (which fortunately was contained within the structure), orders went out (probably due to Carter) for the redesign of all of the atomic energy control rooms in the USA…except for one. The one that Bob and his teammates had designed was both approved and used as a prototype for setting new standards.
Bob has long been retired. He and wife Nancy live in a snug one story home in a very pleasant Florida beach community where for years he volunteered his service as a member of an authority that oversees the city’s utilities.
When asked to what he attributed his unanticpated accomlishments, Bob responded: “The application of what talents we are given with an inquiring mind and lots of common sense will solve most problems and carry you through. Also, Do something! Even if it’s wrong.”
For the writer, the irony of it all was his recent reflections on who from the old gang had made the most mark on the world. They included a four term U. S. senator, the president judge of a federal court of appeal, the founder of a New York Stock Exchange listed company, a distinguish college professor, a physician who led a medical department at a prestigious hospital, the head of a major Philadelphia law firm, and others of distinction.
Bob wasn’t even on that list until we visited with him and Nancy for a couple of days this week and we got him talking.
Now he may top it!