Alan Waterman, professor caught up in 1960's protests, dies

Alan Waterman

Alan Waterman

Alan T. Waterman Jr. was a runner, a mountain climber and a professor of electrical engineering whose work on radio waves pushed him into the contentious Vietnam-era turmoil over military research on the Stanford campus.

Waterman was 89 when he died of pneumonia in Palo Alto on Jan. 9.

He was born in 1918 in Northampton, Mass. As a youngster he took care of Dolly, the family plow horse, and took long canoe trips with his father and younger brothers through the Allagash, a 92-mile-long ribbon of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams winding through northern Maine.

"It was a pretty idyllic childhood," said Bernadette Waterman Ward, his daughter-in-law.

Waterman's father, a Yale physicist, was the chief scientist of the Office of Naval Research after World War II, and was then chosen by President Truman to become the first director of the National Science Foundation.

The younger Waterman was a letterman on the Princeton track team when he graduated in 1939. He earned another bachelor's degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1940 and then a PhD from Harvard in 1950, the same year he came to Stanford.

His work in meteorology at the California Institute of Technology during World War II led him to research on radar and radio waves. His specialty was the study of how radio waves propagate through the atmosphere and are affected by turbulence and layers. By "bouncing" off the ionospheric layer in the upper atmosphere, for example, line-of-sight radar can see beyond the horizon. For experiments with microwave communications at Stanford, he erected antennas in the Dish area west of campus.

He held leadership positions in the International Union of Radio Science and the Antennas and Propagation Group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

In the late 1960s, with the war in Vietnam raging, antiwar students and faculty members were calling for the university to withdraw from military research contracts. Don Carpenter, a fellow professor, remembers students throwing rocks at the Durand Building, where he and Waterman worked. "They broke all our windows," he said.

Waterman became a target of the activists, who objected to his research, citing military contracts for "electronic countermeasures" and other studies. Waterman defended the defense contracts at an Academic Council hearing and in letters to the editor of the Stanford Daily.

"He stuck to the line that what he was doing was basic research, though it had applications in all sort of fields," said Dane Waterman, one of his two sons.

A defining moment of the military research debate was the firing of Associate Professor H. Bruce Franklin as a result of a student occupation of the Computation Center in 1971. Among the formal charges brought by Stanford President Richard Lyman was the accusation that Franklin had urged and incited students to return to the area around the building after police had ordered them to leave.

Waterman, who was standing outside the building near Franklin during that crucial point in the protest, testified against him, telling a faculty advisory board hearing that Franklin was "shouting to the crowd, telling them to come back, challenging the right of the sheriff's men to declare it an illegal assembly, and saying that they had a perfect right to hold a peaceful meeting and that they should return to do so."

The university eventually pulled away from classified defense contracts, and funding for Waterman's research ebbed, said his son Dane. Waterman's attention then shifted from research to teaching and raising his children.

He met his wife, Lori, in New York City on VE Day in 1945. She was a professional acrobatic dancer, performing that day in the back room of a bar. The customers, however, were out front celebrating the end of the war in Europe, so the dancers were sent out front as well. There, in the midst of the carousing, the dancer met the "mild-mannered science type,'' said Ward, who is married to Dane Waterman. Lori and Alan were married for 54 years, until her death in 2001. They loved traveling together; an artist, she would sketch the landscape while he went rock climbing.

Waterman loved mountain climbing. "He climbed basically anything south of Alaska in the Americas," including peaks in the Andes, his daughter-in-law said. In 1997, when he went to Colorado to climb with other Princeton alumni, he was the oldest climber there. His brother, Guy Waterman, was a noted mountaineer and writer in New Hampshire.

Alan Waterman took his boys climbing when they were in their teens. It stuck with Dane but not with Bruce, who took up surfing instead. "So Dad took up surfing too, so he could be with one son surfing and the other son climbing," Dane said.

Running was another of Waterman's passions. Sometime around 1964, he helped form the Angell Field Ancients, a running club that continues to this day. In his 50s, he could still run a mile in less than five minutes. Family members said he once held a national steeplechase record for runners 55 and older.

He was a guitarist and cellist who loved opera, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and folk songs, especially old Scottish ballads.

In the last two weeks of his life, he was still reciting from memory his favorite passages from Byron, Scott, Shakespeare, Shelley and Wordsworth, his daughter-in-law said. "Two days before he died, he asked that my two girls come to the hospital and sing him some Gilbert and Sullivan," she said.

Waterman is survived by a sister, Anne Cooley, of Bethesda, Md.; a brother, Neil, of Sonora; daughters Linda Waterman Schrader of Roseburg, Ore., and Donna Waterman of Wiscasset, Maine; sons Bruce of Oakland and Alan Dane Waterman of Irving, Texas; and 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Family members are planning a memorial service for July.