Archive for April, 2015

In Memoriam: Rudolf Slovacek

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

I got to know Rudy Slovacek at a critical juncture in my doctoral work on the RPI Freon loop and Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) Parallel Channel Effects (PCE) experiment.  In June 1979, anticipating my Ph.D.,  I accepted a job with EG&G Idaho.  All I needed to get my degree was some data, but the data acquisition system was part of a separate program under my advisor, and it didn’t work!  The project was supposed to be completed that summer, the budget was spent, and the NRC had been told the Data Acquisition System (DAS) was complete and functioning.  I resolved to get my degree, not realizing that my thesis advisor would not support me financially over the next three years while I undertook to fix the DAS.

Rudy Slovacek and Bill Conlon outside the Notty Pine in June 1983

Rudy worked for General Electric at Knolls Atomic  Power Laboratory (KAPL), and used the Gaerttner Linear Accelerator for neutron cross-section measurements.  He would come over to Troy a couple of days a week while his experiments were being set up or run.  Our paths first crossed at the coffee pot down the hallway and past the dosimeter station and the cork board with polaroids of everyone who worked at the lab.

Rudy was an experimentalist, so he knew how difficult it was to make good measurements, and how important it was to get good data, and how these things take time.  Rudy also had experience and maturity from his own doctoral research, his service  in the Navy, and his time with GE.  Unwittingly, he became a mentor while I worked through the design, scrounged for money to fabricate the 128-channel data acquisition system, and wrote all the software needed to collect and analyze data from my experiments.

I got most of my advice after I started joining Rudy for lunch at the Notty Pine on Fifteenth Street.  We would wash down the antipasto salad with a pitcher of beer, often with the lab’s technical staff including Jim Westhead and Bob Pendt, my fellow grad students including Harold Maguire and Bob Little, and sometimes Rudy’s boss Bob Luce.  We usually got the long table in the back of the dining room, and as the organizer and instigator, Rudy would regale us with tales about his folk dancing, his garden, and his Slovak heritage, and of course we all laughed a lot.

Rudy could always find something amusing about a situation.  It was not Schadenfreude, the taking of joy in someone else’s misfortune, but a real appreciation of life’s absurdities.  He loved referring to Hasek’s Good Soldier Schweik, which I believe he read in the original Slovak, which seemed to inform his world view.  Rudy could follow the rules while laughing about them.  I know he was scrupulous about the classified nature of his work (he wanted to visit his ancestral homeland, but was restricted from traveling behind the Iron Curtain), but could still beam proudly when describing his son’s pirate radio station.

As an experimentalist, Rudy was pragmatic and could see both the scientific method and the scientific establishment in which we worked in a balance.  He helped me to see myself as a real scientist, working diligently toward my objective, rather than as a victim of mismanagement, incompetence, or circumstance.

Judith and I were entertained several times at his home on Blue Barns Road, where Rudy and and his wife Dolly were warm and gracious hosts.  I recall walking around the property on a summer evening, admiring their gardens, and being warmed in their cozy dining room on a winter night, surrounded by photos of their kids.  A special memory was when he broke open a bottle of Elderberry Blo, a wine that he and Dolly had made from Elderberry blossoms — it was a rare, fragrant and delicate wine, and Rudy’s generosity was just as special.

My Ph.D. was awarded in 1982, and the next year, Judith and I came up to Troy after our honeymoon for lunch with the LINAC gang at the Notty Pine.  Rudy and Dolly gave us a beautiful crystal pitcher on our wedding.  Our contacts became less frequent over the years, and the last time we spoke, I felt that Rudy was having difficulty recalling those times that are so vivid in my memory.  But I remember Rudy fondly and with admiration and appreciation for his kindness, advice, generosity and friendship.

Rudy passed on January 13, 2015.  Odpočívaj v pokoji (Rest in Peace)