June 4, 2008
George Leppert, nuclear researcher, peace activist, dies at 83
George Leppert, an engineering professor who brought a nuclear reactor to life on the Stanford campus in 1959, died in his Palo Alto home on March 9 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. He was 83.
Leppert came to Stanford in 1954, hired by Dean of Engineering Fred Terman to direct a nuclear technology program in the Mechanical Engineering Department. It was a time of enthusiasm for nuclear power and atomic research in general, and by 1957 the Atomic Energy Commission had agreed to fund construction of a 10-kilowatt Stanford research reactor.
The reactor, fueled with uranium, first went criticalbegan operationin December 1959 on Stanford Avenue, near what is now Nixon Elementary School. It served as a research facility for engineering students until it was shut down in 1972.
Leppert was an advocate of nuclear power, but not nuclear weapons, said his stepdaughter, Ann Wood, the institutional editor at Stanford's Hoover Institution. He became a peace activist after working with scientists at the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. "I remember him saying it had been an intellectual experience up to that point, and then he realized that people actually planned on using those things," Wood said.
In 1966, Leppert took a leave from Stanford to run for the U.S. Congress in hopes of ending the war in Vietnam. He lost, but remained active in Democratic politics and in 1967 was elected president of the Palo Alto-Stanford Democratic Club.
In 1968, he was selected as a delegate for Robert Kennedy to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When Kennedy was assassinated before the convention, Leppert sobbed at the news.
During the convention, Wood turned on her television and unexpectedly saw Leppert, usually a "very dignified, put-together professor type," standing on a chair yelling "Noooo!" when the delegates moved to make Hubert Humphrey the presidential candidate by acclamation. (Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon.)
"Thanks to him, I was an activist as well," Wood said.
Leppert was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1924, the son of Leah Oleve Leppert and Alva Leppert, who devoted their lives to unionizing workers. From them he acquired a passion for human rights and social justice.
During World War II he served in the U.S. Navy on a submarine stationed in the Southwest Pacific. He graduated in engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1947. In 1952 he was appointed manager of engineering research for the Monsanto Chemical Co. and also served as a consulting specialist in nuclear power to Lockheed and other companies.
In 1954, he received his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin and moved to Stanford shortly thereafter to run the nuclear program. In 1960, he became one of the university's youngest full professors and was given the Best Teacher in Engineering Award. In 1961, he broadened his teaching to include courses in disarmament, international conflict, professional ethics and human values.
In the late 1960s he was appointed dean of engineering at Clarkson College in Potsdam, N.Y., followed by a stint at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. He then worked at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto.
Bedridden the last four years of his life, he faced his illness and death with love, laughter, generosity and gratitude, Wood said.
Leppert is survived by Helen Robinson Leppert, his wife of 46 years (she was Fred Terman's secretary when they met); Clint Shiells, his son from a previous marriage, and daughter-in-law Svetlana Shiells of Vienna, Austria; Helen's children, Ann Wood of Palo Alto and Ralph Liddle, who resides in the Santa Cruz Mountains; and several grandchildren.
Services will be private. Donations in Leppert's memory may be made to the Pathways Hospice Foundation, 585 North Mary Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94085.