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Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

Kenneth Sherwin, pioneering laser technician, dead at 80

Kenneth Homer Sherwin, a technician who helped build the first lasers for the late laser co-inventor and Nobel Prize winner Arthur Schawlow, died of heart failure Feb. 6 at a Sunnyvale, Calif., nursing home. He was 80.

Memorial services are scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 3:30 p.m. in Memorial Church, and Friday, Feb. 23, at 3 p.m. at Sacramento First Baptist Church.

"He was a problem solver," says Martin LaPointe, a friend of Sherwin's for 30 years and manager of the Physics Department's teaching lab. "His solutions may not have used the latest technology, but they usually worked."

Born in Sacramento on Sept. 5, 1920, Sherwin graduated from Sacramento High School in 1938 and received an associate's degree in aeronautics from Sacramento Junior College in 1940. He served in the California National Guard from 1939 to 1940.

Trained as an instrument technician, he joined then nascent Pan American Airlines in 1940 as a repair technician. In 1941, the company transferred him from Treasure Island to a maintenance facility in Hawaii.

"Because of a flight delay, he just missed being at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941," LaPointe recalls. While Sherwin missed the bombing that launched America into World War II, he made his way to Hawaii the next month to maintain Pan Am aircraft contracted to fly soldiers to and from the island.

He later moved back to the Bay Area to work for Pan Am and United Airlines. He joined the California Civil Air Patrol in 1949, becoming director of communications in the 1960s and later maintaining mountaintop transmitters and participating in search and rescue missions.

Sherwin was "a great communicator," according to Frank Duarte of the Civil Air Patrol. "As a member of the weather team for intelligence gathering for search missions, Ken was very active in communications and emergency work. As a silent radio, 'Yosemite 242' will be missed by many radio communicators."

In 1950, Sherwin came to Stanford and worked as a technician in the Ginzton Laboratories, helping build the MARK I, the prototype for the Stanford linear accelerator.

In 1959, he joined a growing research group formed by physics Professor Arthur Schawlow, co-inventor of the laser. The invention would win Schawlow the Nobel Prize for physics in 1981.

"Ken helped him build the first working lasers here," LaPointe says. "He was the principal technician to the group. From his work at Ginzton and with the spectroscopy group, he had become extremely knowledgeable about electronics. He became a resident expert, not only for the department but in the larger campus."

While Sherwin officially retired in 1985, his routine barely altered. He maintained an office in the Physics Department and was helpful as ever to the graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the group of Schawlow and Steve Chu, who won a 1997 Nobel Prize for work using lasers to cool and trap atoms.

"He was the source for information and even for equipment and components," LaPointe says. "If he didn't have something, he knew where to find it, either within the university or on the local markets -- even at the local electronic swap meets."

A 55-year resident of Menlo Park, Sherwin is survived by his sister, Phyllis Lewis, of Sacramento, and nephews Scott Lewis of Sacramento and Roger Lewis of San Diego.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in Sherwin's remembrance be made to the donor's charity of choice.


By Dawn Levy

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