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James Ulwick died April 17 in Winchester. He was 89 years and 11 months old, and had managed to combine an unceasing scientific precision with an unceasing devotion to his eight children — none of whom were allowed to drive until they could change a tire and describe how spark plugs worked.
Professor Ulwick was an explainer to his bones. If a family member admired a sunset, they heard all the science behind the loveliness. When a wasp nest threatened their summer home, he sat on a wall across from it, observing quietly for hours before formulating his strategy. Moving something from this side to that involved fulcrums and levers and, of course, explanations. All the children could fix their own lamps and they learned to read the binary clock he was given when he retired after 25 years from an Air Force geophysics laboratory.
His area of research for the Department of Defense was the aurora borealis. He chased it across Alaska, Norway, and Northern Canada — atmospheric locations where he could launch measurement-gathering rockets.
His wife said he babysat the sky, waiting for luck and the perfect moment. A few times a year, he would pull the kids from school in order to drive everyone down to Cape Canaveral, so they could watch him direct launches. Usually they drove with a cooler and a Coleman stove in their station wagon. Once they drove with a rocket cone.
As a man of tremendous Catholic faith, Professor Ulwick saw no contradictions between the existence of science and the existence of God. He assumed the sky had been put together by a higher presence. When he taught Continuing Catholic Development in his church to high-school kids, they would show for his classes with their unfinished physics homework, hoping for help, and leave better-educated.
Professional accolades were bestowed that the family never even knew about until after his death. He was a private person who didn't indulge in self-adoration. On the other hand, he flagrantly indulged his adoration of children. If there was a baby around, it was in his arms.
The night before he died, as his wife sat across the kitchen table from him, he roused himself to ask her for some music. He wanted to hear Frank Sinatra, “Come Fly With Me.” She put it on, and he began to sing.
Did you know James Ulwick? Share your memories in the comments section.
This segment aired on October 8, 2014.
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