Archive for October, 2008

John P. Tully, my mentor

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

One of the joys of my job at Ausra is the opportunity to work with many talented young engineers who are eager to learn from my experience.  This has reminded me of my mentor, John Tully,  who took me under his wing when I was a doctoral candidate in Nuclear Engineering at RPI.

My thesis involved constructing a large Freon loop and test section for experimental investigation of Loss of Coolant Accidents in Boiling Water Nuclear Reactors.  My thesis advisor, R. T. Lahey, Jr. recognized the need for an experienced engineer to guide the design of this experiment, and hired John onto the research staff.

John had already retired after working for General Motors, Westinghouse and ALCO (American Locomotive Company), where he had been responsible for several early nuclear reactors. on early nuclear power reactors.  Under his guidance, I learned about pressure vessels and piping, bolted joints, dimensions and tolerances, carbon and stainless steels, non-ferrous metals, thermal expansion and corrosion, and a host of non-technical areas.  He used a very light touch, leavened with a sense of humor and a lot of patience, and had a wealth of stories about engineering successes and failures to impart his wisdom.

John had served in the Army Air Corp during World War II and graduated from RPI as a Mechanical Engineer.  As I recall, his experience at GM in Detroit had convinced him that engine blocks should be made from cast iron, because aluminum had too much thermal expansion.  I guess it was his engine experience, plus wanting to return to Albany, that landed him at ALCO, possibly to work on their diesel locomotives. When ALCO got a contract to build packaged nuclear reactors, he ended up being the Chief Mechanical Engineer.

These were small, skid-mounted systems, capable of being air-lifted into remote locations.  They put one up in Churchill, Manitoba for the DEW line radars, and one at Camp Century under the Greenland icecap. Another reactor, which I had visited when I was an Army ROTC cadet, was at Fort Belvoir in Maryland.  Somewhere I have a reprint of an article John wrote, “How Small can a Portable Reactor Be?”, which I will try to scan and post.

He had testified at the hearings regarding the SL-1 accident, since it was similar in design to the ALCO reactors.  John felt that the cause of the accident was a decision to replace some stainless steel components in the core with aluminum, which oxidized and caused the control rod to stick. When the operators attempted to free the stuck rod, they pulled it out too far, resulting in prompt criticality and their deaths.  Twenty years later, he was still distressed that what he felt was the true root cause had not been identified by the commission investigating the accident.   This instilled in me a real desire to understand and remove the true causes of failure.

John also taught me about business, and the ruthlessness of General Motors in buying up and shutting down the nation’s trolley lines, and General Electric in putting ALCO out of business.  And he taught me about politics, with great admiration for Erastus Corning 2nd, who had served as Albany’s mayor for fifty years.  He said Albany was a democratic town because the party made sure everyone had food to eat on Christmas, provided they were registered accordingly.

John also provided innovative approaches to flow visualization for the air-water experiments being performed by other students in the lab, but I worked closest with him. I was and am amazingly lucky to have a Chief Engineer paying such close attention to me, giving me the best education I’ve ever received.

Mine was quite a difficult thesis, which was greatly delayed by the failure of a parallel project to implement a data acquisition system.  About four years into the work, John was let go as the research funds dried up, and it was at this point that I got to know him socially.

After ALCO, John also worked at Westinghouse in their Pressurized Water Reactor program.  Living in Pittsburgh, he had become quite a Steelers fan, and would always talk over the games with my friend Mark Vince on the Monday after. John had retired to return home to Albany to care for his mother Anna and his aunt Katherine, who were both still spry  in their 90s, though a little bit hard of hearing.  Katherine in particular was a hoot: she chain-smoked camels and drank tea by the gallon, and told stories of her youth in Ireland. They lived in a small house on Osborne Road, number 50 if memory serves, with a glassed-in front porch and a detached garage in back.  When I would visit, John would make me a cup of instant coffee and we would sit and talk in the kitchen, sometimes moving into the small living room where he had a recliner and the TV.

He had never married, but liked to go on cruises, to dance and meet ladies.  He dated a wealthy socialite from New York while I was still in Troy, but on one cruise, he met a woman who changed his life, his wife Bernice.  In his 60s, John talked his brother and sister into caring for Anna and Katherine and moved to Beverly Hills to live.  We were invited to the wedding, in the Beverly, I think, and I visited them a few times over the next few years, but then I stopped calling.

Thinking about John last week, I called his old number and asked for him.  Bernice told me he had passed away six years ago, but she hadn’t been able to find my number to tell me. She said she was grateful for their fourteen wonderful years together. I could only say how important he had been to me personally and professionally.

For those whom I’m lucky enough to mentor, if anything I say has merit, please thank John Tully;  and know that the errors are mine alone.