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In Memoriam: Joe Dykstra

In Memoriam: Joe Dykstra

Joe Dykstra

At 6-foot-9, Joe Dykstra may have been too tall to be in the Army or Navy in World War II but played an invaluable role in the Manhattan Project.  At Oak Ridge, Joe worked on developing fluorine cells and fluorocarbon chemicals for the gaseous diffusion operation at K-25.   He also played center on the K-25 basketball team and remembered the games as spirited and competitive. Having played for Grinnell College in Kansas, Joe was no doubt one of the stars on his team.

In recent years, Joe was a knowledgeable and thoughtful contributor to the efforts to preserve the K-25 plant, now known as the Partnership for K-25 Preservation (PKP).  As one of the few Manhattan Project veterans who were intimately involved with the inner workings of the plant, Joe was an invaluable source of technical expertise.  He could remember details about how the plant worked when it was first operational to when the plant was shut down. A regular presence at the meetings, he made many contributions to the project and will be greatly missed. After struggling with health problems, Joe died at age 85 on Monday, April 23, 2007.  You can read Bill Wilcox's remarks on Joe's life below.

"I feel very honored to have this chance to pay tribute to Joe's outstanding service at K-25.  From the beginning of his long career here in the 1940s when K-25 operations bosses like Johnny Murray needed someone they could count on to safely start up the complex and hazardous new chemical operations here like the fluorine plant, the UF6 feed plant, and the K-1420 decontamination facility, they turned to Joe to check out the designs, test the equipment, develop the operating procedures, and train the people.  Two decades later when the time came to shut down the mammoth K-25 "U" building in 1964, Joe took charge. The reason he was so valuable in those demanding jobs was because Joe not only knew the chemical technology and how to manage these very hazardous materials safely, but his people skills were exemplary --- he talked in his same easy Iowa drawl to front line union workers and to the top brass.  Everyone up and down the line liked working with him because they respected his know-how and his integrity, you could always count on him and his word.   

One good story about his Manhattan project days I learned from his son Doug.  Joe was hired into the project from the 1943 graduating class – as so many of us were to work in the project facilities all over the U.S.  Joe took a job with Hooker Chem. in Niagara Falls, NY, the country's major supplier of the so important chemical fluorine.  During the early part of his stay there he became fast friends with the guy he roomed with in town, so Joe was distressed when his buddy got drafted into the army and left for unknown parts.  After two years at Niagara Falls Joe came to K-25 and joined the 11,000 then working at K-25.  Imagine his surprise when one day he bumped into his good friend from Niagara Falls!  This good friend was Bob Dyer – and as many of you know he and Bob worked together here for the next 40 years.   

Reminiscing a few years back, neither Joe nor I could recall just when we first met. In the early years he was a busy supervisor over in the cascade, I was in the technical division and our worlds did not intersect.  We likely met at one of the annual plant picnics or fish fries because I just had to meet this tall guy everyone agreed was K-25's top angler.  I figured he must share the same passion for fishing I did and I’d get some pointers.  Well, after getting to know him I soon decided that my passion for fishing (by comparison to his) was just a puppy love -- because I learned he fished 10 times as often, 10 times as hard, and 100 times as productively as I ever did.   

How important was Joe’s work?  He was a major contributor to the success of K-25.  K-25 was a major contributor to our country winning the cold war!  K-25's mission was to highly enrich the chemical element uranium in its U-235 form using the never before attempted gaseous diffusion process, an extraordinarily difficult and costly undertaking.  When Joe started work in 1945 there was considerable doubt about whether K-25 would succeed, but succeed it did and produced the large part of that vital defense material for the US nuclear defense stockpile that helped the USA stand down soviet Russia!  After 1964, Joe’s mission was producing low enriched fuel for peacetime power plants all over the world.  In 1985 everything at the site was shut down, and Joe retired, having served K-25 for its entire life.  

But then began another very productive period in his life – as he was asked to educate and consult with firms beginning to plan how to eventually take down this very complex facility, Joe’s counsel was especially valuable because of the hands-on familiarity he had with the entire operation, his keen ability to remember it all, and his integrity in telling things just like they were, good and bad.  

Then four years ago, the DOE mission to finally take down K-25 moved up to their front burner when the congress appropriated money to get started.  That signal also fired up some of us in the ORHPA to start arguing that doe ought to save some part of this monumental facility and relic of the Manhattan project.  The challenge was and still is to come up with a "doable" plan.  I was thrilled when Joe joined our group, now called PKP – partnership for K-25 preservation, and he has been our team's primary expert on what equipment to save and how to save it.  A month or so ago on a visit to the hospital, suffering from the stroke, I reported to him, on some PKP progress, and how I had packaged some really important suggestions he had made as "the Dykstra plan"  --  broke into a huge smile, grunted in delight.  I hope to someday hang a bronze plate in his honor in the north tower.  A valued contributor all his life, highly respected colleague and true friend.  May he rest in peace."

~Bill Wilcox Jr.

April 26, 2007