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Obituary: Glen A. Graves Nov. 11, 1927 – Sept. 12, 2017

on September 16, 2017 - 11:39am

GLEN A. GRAVES Nov. 11, 1927 Sept. 12, 2017

Glen A. Graves of 80 Barranca Road, a 67-year resident of Los Alamos, died Tuesday evening of complications from a stroke. He is survived by his sons Frank (in Boston), John (in Newport Beach, CA) and Thomas (now in Los Alamos), as well as one sister, Maxine Mann (in Bloomington IN), still surviving from his four siblings. His wife Sue passed away in March of 2016, and is now resting at Guaje Pines, where Glen will also be interred.

Glen was born on November 11, 1927, in Stanford Indiana, a small town near Bloomington Indiana. He grew up on a farm that faced significant economic hardships for much of his childhood through the Great Depression and World War II, raising a few animals for their own food and for occasional sale, and growing a mixture of vegetables to eat and some corn to sell. He was the second youngest of five children, with two older brothers and two sisters; the youngest, Maxine, is his only surviving sibling. He often regaled his sons with the proverbial stories about how “in my day, we had to walk miles in the snow to get to school, and …” but in his case that was true (though that did not make the stories any more credible to his boys). His family had no indoor toilets until after he graduated from college, and no central heating beyond a stove or fireplace for that same period. Due to both distance and expense, he did not go to a movie until he was in college, and a candy bar was an extreme and rare luxury for most of his childhood.

Despite those difficulties he was a precocious student, skipping both second and third grade and as it became obvious that he was very talented in math and science. He graduated from high school at the age of 15 and went to nearby Indiana University in Bloomington where he was on the track team and obtained his undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics. He stayed on to get a PhD in nuclear physics in 1953. At IU, he was a Wells Scholar and a member of the Board of Aeons, very high honors reflecting both scholarship and civic contributions to the university. His doctoral research about neutron shielding was relevant to Los Alamos, where after a summer internship, he decided this is where he wanted to be, moving here in 1952 with his newlywed sweetheart, Sue Finkbine. 

He met Sue while working as a student in the physics lab. One day his professor kept him too late to be able to eat dinner at the undergraduate dorm where he resided, so he prevailed on some of the women providing food service to get him an after-hours snack. Sue was the head chef and dietician for that dorm, and when she learned of this situation she contacted him to see if it was going to be a recurring need. Not long after that introduction and some of her fine cooking, they were a steady couple and were married in Chicago in 1951.

At Los Alamos, Glen was part of the Critical Assemblies (N )division working in the Pajarito area along with other long-standing Los Alamosans (many now deceased) including John Orndoff, Bob Keepin, Bill Bernard, Gene Plassman, Gordon Hansen, Hugh Paxton, Cleo Byers, Dick Malenfant, Clay Watson, Bill Stratton, Don Petersen, and many others who became lifelong friends (and poker buddies).His work focused on the Rover program and the possibility of nuclear-based rocketry, which apparently was proven feasible but did not receive federal support to carry to fruition. 

At the same time, he was a very supportive father, attending all of his kids’ activities, acting as a cubmaster, playing catch in the summers to help his sons improve their baseball, helping with homework, learning to ski with them, and generally pushing them to be diligent while still having fun. He did not try to make his children turn out like he wanted. Rather, he tried to make sure they had many opportunities and that they took advantage of them to be good at something they enjoyed.

In early 1969, Glen took an 18-month post in Vienna Austria as the head of the Physics section of the International Atomic Energy Agency, responsible for worldwide nuclear safeguards oversight. He moved his family there, from which vantage they travelled very extensively to nearly all of western Europe and several parts of eastern Europe in the USSR, including a trip to Prague just a few weeks after Alexander Dubcek was forced out of office and Soviet tanks were still positioned in public squares around the city. This was the beginning of a life of regular travel to most parts of the world. He and Sue, and sometimes his children, travelled together often, frequently back to Europe and also farther afield to Brazil, Belize, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, China, Egypt, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Russia, and nearly every state in the US. He was an avid consumer of anything new, from food to art and cultural practices, to lifestyles of other peoples. A unifying theme of his life is his broad curiosity and his open-minded acceptance of other systems, values and beliefs.

On returning from his stint at the IAEA, Glen work for three years as one of two Assistants for Research for Dick Taschek in the Directors’ Office of LANL, where he helped design the Lab’s early programs in non-nuclear energy research that became possible in 1972.Then he went on loan to the National Science Foundation in Washington DC, where he was acting director of the Office of Energy R&D Policy from 1973-1977.There he worked on risk measurement for nuclear safety matters and he published papers on the potential benefits of breeder reactors. He was also a Science Advisor to the President of the United States in the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. He returned to the Lab in 1978 as an Assistant to the Director, where his work involved helping to propose and plan the future funding needs of the Lab in light of federal policy shifts and budget constraints. In 1986 he became a member of a LANL systems analysis group that evaluated processes and policies for nuclear stockpile reductions. He retired from the Lab in 1995 and remained with his wife Sue at the house they built on Barranca Mesa in 1961.

After retiring, he kept his hand in the politics and policies of nuclear power development and nuclear safety. Trying to improve public understanding of risk and the many environmental and long run economic advantages of nuclear power has been a lifelong cause, as was the potential public benefits from food irradiation. He participated extensively with the Los Alamos Education Group in this regard, and with his son Frank, an energy economist, he co-authored a paper following the Fukushima nuclear disaster about the lessons learned and the feasibility of safe handling of nuclear materials in the US to avoid such risks. 

As a scientist he was naturally a critical thinker, both listening intently but also constantly testing what he heard or read to see if it held up to common sense or to more formal tests of credibility. He pursued this approach whether an issue was large or small. For instance, a few years ago Gov. Bill Richardson was credited with having broken the world record for most handshakes, purportedly greeting 13,280 people in a 6-hour period. Glen quickly got out his calculator and noted that this would require spending only 2.15 seconds with each person in a constant procession for that entire time – a length he considered implausibly short for even moving people along that fast, no less engaging with them at all in a political way. This culminated in a letter to the Albuquerque Journal asking for a more critical view of this record! Parenthetically, he was no fan of Bill Richardson, but that was not his reason for commenting.

Glen was an outgoing man known to many around Los Alamos, with many years of active participation in Kiwanis and Toastmasters. Beyond that, there was virtually no one he would encounter anywhere with whom he did not try to strike a friendship and to find out what they were interested in, what their life was like, and how they plied their craft, from hired hands to his accountant or bankers, doctors and nurses, and store managers. Sometimes, this was more attention than was needed, but it was always sincere and mostly appreciated. Likewise, he was fascinated by design and was intrigued by how nearly any object worked and why it was built the way it was. He had a big heart and a big respect for the value of every person, which translated into the virtues of curiosity and receptiveness he tried to instill in his family. He could have strong opinions but at the same time welcome conflicting views. These are traits that seem increasingly rare in our current culture, and he will be sorely and fondly missed for his example in demonstrating such genuineness and openness.

The service for Glen is 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19 at the United Church in Los Alamos, followed by burial at Guaje Pines. All are welcome.