May 12, 2008
Robert Moulton, helped gain federal funds to build SLAC, dead at 89
In 1959, Robert Moulton was Stanford's point man in the effort to convince Congress to appropriate millions of dollars to build the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). He memorably sealed the deal by promising Washington officials, without explicit authorization from Stanford administrators back in Palo Alto, that the university would not charge the federal government rent for its use of the valuable tract of real estate beneath the 2-mile-long particle accelerator.
The news was not initially greeted with enthusiasm by Stanford trustees, given the sizable worth of the land, but Moulton's improvisation eventually carried the day, and SLAC was funded and constructed.
"In terms of getting SLAC started, he played a major role," said Greg Loew, a SLAC deputy director emeritus. "In the late 1950s through 1962, he was one of the movers and shakers in Washington."
Moulton, 89, died April 15 at his home in Palo Alto.
Born in Los Angeles in 1918, Robert H. Moulton Jr. graduated from Stanford with an economics degree in 1940. A Navy lieutenant during World War II, he finished his tour of duty as a staff intelligence officer. After the war, he married Helen Bowman and settled in Menlo Park, working as a municipal bond specialist in his father's firm in San Francisco.
In 1952 the family moved East, where Moulton worked in administrative posts for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Ford Foundation. At the foundation, he recommended against a nationwide program to build backyard bomb shelters.
In 1957, he came to Stanford as the "top man" on the staff of his Stanford classmate, Ken Cuthbertson, vice president for finance and development. As undergrads, Cuthbertson had been student body president, Moulton chairman of the student council.
The '50s was a decade when Stanford was coming into its own, "trembling on the edge of greatness," in the words of the late author and English Professor Wallace Stegner. Gifts from private donors were growing as Stanford enviously eyed the much larger endowment of Harvard. At the same time, swelling Cold War research grants from Washington were creating an era of "Big Science" on campus.
Moulton was in the middle of it all.
When Provost Fred Terman dropped by Moulton's office to ask him to become the point man in Washington for a new linear electron accelerator, he agreed. "I said I'd be glad to. I had no idea what a linear electron accelerator was, but I didn't ask the provost that question. I am sure it was just as well," he later wrote. In those days, the accelerator was known as "Project M," as in Monster.
Moulton recounted his SLAC adventures in a lively 2001 article for the Stanford Historical Society. He titled it "Physics, Power and Politics; Fear and Loathing on the Electron Trail"a tip of the hat to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
At one congressional hearing, a senator insisted on an immediate answer to this question: Did Stanford expect financial compensation for use of its land? "My colleagues generously shoved me to the table in front of the committee," Moulton wrote. "Nervous lest I say something that would damage our case, I explained that the land would be made available under a lease at $1 a year."
Back on the Farm, university managers and trustees were not so sure of what Moulton had done. They understood the potential financial value of the land, as demonstrated by the revenue to the university from the Stanford Shopping Center and the Stanford Industrial Park. The trustees' decision was to request rent money from the government, despite Moulton's impromptu pledge. The shift in policy caused outrage in Washington, according to Moulton's account. A key federal official phoned him, demanding an answer: "Rent or no rent?"
"I told him simply that the land would be rent-free," Moulton wrote, though once again he was unsure he had been granted the discretion to make such a decision.
When the university trustees next considered the issue, it was Terman who convinced them to go along with Moulton's deal. Terman "sharply questioned the Board of Trustees as to whether Stanford was an academic institution whose mission was research and teaching, or a real estate enterprise," SLAC founding director Wolfgang Panofsky wrote in his memoirs.
Moulton's relief after the meeting was personal: "My head, neck attached, was returned to me." He stayed with SLAC until the mid-1970s as the associate director for administrative services.
In his private life, he was a founding director and later executive director of the Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition. In 2004, the organization named one of its affordable housing developments Moulton Plaza in his honor. "I loved the guy. He was really smart; a great sense of humor and just wonderful values," said Fran Wagstaff, the coalition's president.
His political views were proudly liberal and Democratic. In 1971, he joined a blockade of the San Mateo County draft board in protest of the war in Vietnam, said his son Mark Moulton. Robert Moulton campaigned for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon and felt the current president deserved a similar fate. "I'm just so furious. I'm trying to impeach Bush because he's worse than Nixon, but I haven't succeeded yet," he told Loew in the final weeks of his life. His fallback position was to outlive the Bush administration, his son said, but he missed that mark as well.
He loved Stanford sports, bridge, dominoes, raising tomatoes and talking politics. "He was a formidable dining room table debater," said his son.
In addition to Mark, Moulton is survived by Helen, his wife of 61 years; another son, Robert; daughters Katherine and Sarah; three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
No memorial service is planned.