Oak Ridge scientist and historian Bill Wilcox dies

2:02 AM, Sep 4, 2013   |    comments
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Video: Web Extra Part 2: Bill Wilcox Oak Ridge historian interview

Video: Web Extra Part 1: Bill Wilcox Oak Ridge historian interview

Video: Web Extra Part 3: Bill Wilcox Oak Ridge historian interview

  • Bill Wilcox at his home library during June 2010 interview with WBIR.
  • Bill Wilcox in January 2010 interview with WBIR emphatically states Oak Ridge should be part of a National Park for the Manhattan Project.
  • Bill Wilcox in July 2011.
  • 1943 photo of Bill Wilcox in Oak Ridge.
  • Bill Wilcox at his home library during June 2010 interview with WBIR.

In life there are some people who teach history, some who keep records of history, and some who actually make history.  Bill Wilcox was the rare combination of all three during his life as a nuclear scientist and historian in Oak Ridge.

Wilcox died Monday night at the age of 90.  He arrived in the secret city of Oak Ridge in 1943 as a young chemist and attempted to enrich uranium for the first atomic weapons as part of the Manhattan Project. 

"I was very excited to get to get to this place in Tennessee. They told us to look for a bus that said Y-12," said Wilcox in a 2010 interview with WBIR.  "Oak Ridge was brimming full and the whole place was covered in different code-names.  Nobody dared actually speak the word 'uranium' or you would be discharged immediately."

Wilcox's career in Oak Ridge lasted several decades beyond the Manhattan Project as he went on to become technical director in charge of research and development at Y-12 and K-25.  When he retired, Wilcox continued working as energetically as ever on a new life's work of preserving Oak Ridge history.  His volunteer efforts and hunger to share his expertise led Oak Ridge to name him the official historian.

"Bill always had his bow tie on and his bright smile and his enthusiasm would just fill a room," said Lissa Clarke with the American Museum of Science and Energy.  "We're all going to miss him. And we're so glad to have the opportunity to be his friend, to have him show us the way."

"He was absolutely one of my best resources. When I needed any information about Oak Ridge, I would go to Bill," said Ray Smith, Y-12 historian.  

From the Alexander Inn to the old equipment in Y-12, Wilcox made efforts to preserve the physical history within the "secret city."

"It is very important that we save for future generations the few remaining really significant relics of the Manhattan Project," said Wilcox during a tour of Y-12 in 2010.

The enthusiasm that radiated from Wilcox could capture the imagination of any audience.

"He could connect with the generation that is here now and tell the story. It was an amazing ability to connect with people," said Tom Beehan, Mayor of Oak Ridge.

"When Bill waved his arms, you knew he was making an important point," said Smith.

Wilcox waved his arms during an interview with WBIR in January 2010 as he forcefully proclaimed 63 percent of the Manhattan Project was done in Oak Ridge. The statement was made in the context of outrage that the National Park Service could possibly consider creating a park for the Manhattan Project that did not include an exhibit in Oak Ridge.

While Wilcox fought furiously to include Oak Ridge in large plans such as a National Park, he would also gleefully help create even the smallest exhibits for the local museum. That dedication earned Wilcox a tourism award in September 2010 in recognition of his tireless promotion of Oak Ridge history.

"I'm a bit overwhelmed receiving such an honor for just doing what I love to do and would have been doing anyway," said Wilcox after receiving the award in 2010.

Although Wilcox focused much of his time researching and documenting the past, his efforts were always done with an eye on the future.  He frequently spoke in terms of making sure future generations are aware of the story of Oak Ridge long after his greatest generation is gone.

"Oak Ridge helped win the most terrible war in history," said Wilcox in 2010.  "But then those scientists focused their efforts and knowledge on endeavors that benefit people all over the world like nuclear medicine and nuclear power. These are the legacies we like to have people remember as well how we helped end the war."

"His dedication to Oak Ridge and Oak Ridge history is unsurpassed. We've lost a giant in losing Bill Wilcox," said Smith.

Reporter's Note:  See the "web extra" videos attached to this story for a full in-depth interview with Bill Wilcox about the history of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project.  The interview was recorded in June 2010 at Wilcox's home.  Due to the interview's length, the video has been uploaded in three parts.  Mobile users may have to navigate to their app's video section or go to the main website to view the web extra interview.

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