When E. Walter Adams ’32 was told a few days before his 100th birthday that he was the school’s oldest alumnus, he responded with characteristic humor. “That is entirely possible. I am pretty far long,” he said.
That, he is. Born on March 11, 1909, Walter entered a world far removed from our modern life. His birthday was only five years after the Wright brothers took to the air and one year after Henry Ford sold his first Model T. He was nine when World War I ended and 20 at the onset of the Great Depression. But though he’s witnessed a long and fascinating chapter of history, he down-plays the significance of his life. “You may as well be practical. I didn’t build Hoover Dam, you know.” Be that as it may, over the course of his long life, he’s earned the love and respect of many, and done a lot of sound engineering along the way.
“I wish you were as smart as your brother,” the principal of Denver’s East High School once said to John Adams, Walter’s younger brother by 14 years—he’d clearly left a lasting impression. Walter made his mark at Mines too. He joined Kappa Sigma, living in a fraternity where he was house manager for a year. He excelled academically, played varsity football for a year, and, according to John, played a critical role in getting a permanent supply of electricity up to the M, allowing it to be permanently lit at night beginning in 1932.
During his senior year, Walter met and married Catherine Primm, and the two moved to South Dakota after he graduated with his degree in metallurgy. Walter spent seven years at the Homestake Mine—the largest gold producer in the U.S. Having served as assistant to the chief chemist, Walter is proud of the fact that their predications, made in the late 1930s, that the mine would run out of gold in 60 years, were almost spot on—the mine closed in 2002.
After seven years at Homestake, prospects for advancement were slim. Meanwhile, Walter’s family had grown, with the arrival of his daughters, Nancy and Mariam. With the war creating an insatiable appetite for aluminum and steel, Walter left the mine to begin a 31-year career with Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical, his first job taking him to a manganese plant in Los Altos, CA. In the busy years that followed, he moved with his family repeatedly as he built and managed a variety of Kaiser plants in California, Ohio, Louisiana and elsewhere. “If you’re an engineer and you stay in one place for more than two or three years, you’re no good,” Walter once said—and he didn’t.
In 1959, he was promoted to an administrative position in Kaiser’s head office in Oakland, CA—an honor to be sure, but one he might rather have forgone. “That was the only time when I saw him unhappy at Kaiser. He wanted to be out with the boys. He wanted to be out in his Brogans,” said Nancy, who at the age of 70 runs her own private detective agency in Baton Rouge, LA. (“I’m an old, gray-haired lady. Nobody suspects me!” she joked.)
After the wrenching loss of Catherine to breast cancer in 1956, Walter moved from his home in Columbiana, OH, to an apartment in the nearby town of Poland. Both his daughters had left home, and he moved because “he couldn’t stand the sympathy,” said Nancy. A year later, he married Eleanor Roberts.
He retired from Kaiser in 1970, and Walter and Eleanor moved to a large property in Lititz, PA. “Everyone worried about him when he retired,” said Nancy. “He couldn’t be idle.” But with fruit trees to care for and an extension to build, he didn’t have trouble staying busy. And Walter returned to a hobby he’d long enjoyed—woodworking. “He is a master craftsman,” said Nancy, who has much of his work in her home. In subsequent years, he took up painting; his watercolors won several awards and found their way into galleries in and around Lancaster City, PA.
Walter’s birthday celebrations in March were a festive occasion. Family and friends traveled from around the country to join Walter and Eleanor at their home in North Lima, OH. Bill Scoggins, president of Colorado School of Mines, called to wish him a happy birthday. A care package arrived from Mines sent by Marv Kay, an old friend of John. And four former employees of Kaiser flew in for the occasion.
After the hubbub had died down and Walter was able to catch his breath, he confided to John that although he’s had a lot of birthdays, his 100th was the best yet.
Alumnus Helps Build Nuclear Engineering Program
“Worldwide energy demand is expected to double in the next 20 years,” says Frank Gibbs ’84, PhD ’98, before asking, “Where will it come from?”
He believes the answer, at least in part, is nuclear power. And to help Mines play a significant role and establish its Nuclear Science and Engineering Program, he is contributing half his time and has taken on a transatlantic commute to his job with CH2M Hill at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, UK.
Gibbs believes the demand for electricity, particularly of the carbon-free variety, is so high it can’t be met with any one technology alone. “People say we have to drill more, use clean coal, or develop renewables,” Gibbs says. “But the answer is everything. Nuclear has got to be part of the answer.”
A longtime nuclear engineer, Gibbs was supportive when discussions on starting a nuclear engineering program were revived several years ago. “Frank was one of the people who got the program up and running,” says Tom Boyd, dean of graduate studies.
Having helped launch the graduate-level program in 2007, Gibbs was officially given the title of research professor and director of the Nuclear Science and Engineering Research Center in July 2008. Though he has not yet collected a paycheck, he’s been cultivating industry support, research contracts and partnerships with federal laboratories. “He’s been fundamental in raising the profile of this program with industry sponsors,” Boyd says.
Gibbs began working in the nuclear industry 25 years ago when he graduated from Mines with a degree in metallurgy. His first job was working at Rocky Flats as a plutonium development engineer for the U.S. Trident weapons program. When the decision was made to close Rocky Flats, he joined the CH2M Hill team that managed to decommission the plant ahead of schedule and under budget. Along the way he earned his PhD in metallurgy at Mines, and spent a few years at Los Alamos National Laboratory in plutonium metallurgy research. He’s currently in his ninth year with CH2M Hill.
Gibbs acknowledges that public skepticism of nuclear energy is understandable. But, he emphasizes the industry’s safety record: “While the nuclear industry has been dormant for the last 25 years, over 100 operating reactors have quietly been generating approximately one-fifth of CH2M Hill power.” He goes on to explain that with all that has been learned during that time (at both CH2M Hill and abroad), combined with the updated designs and safety protocols that have been developed, the U.S. is well-prepared to enter a new era of building safe and robust reactors.
“The rest of the world gets this, and is going nuclear as fast as they can,” he says, mentioning France, which gets 75 percent of its power from nuclear energy. “We have one of the best universities in the world for this business,” he says, which is why he’s so enthusiastic about academia and supporting the program. “Mines has all the pieces for a comprehensive program covering the entire cycle of nuclear power generation,” from mining material to processing and converting it, generating power, and storing and reprocessing the fuel.
“Mines has been extremely good to me, and the basis for my livelihood,” he says. “I can give money—and I do—but I also give my time.”
“For me, as it is with most Mines grads, it’s a lifelong partnership.”