The J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee:
When J. Robert Oppenheimer returned to Los Alamos in 1964 to deliver a memorial address for Niels Bohr, Norris Bradbury– Oppenheimer’s successor as director of the laboratory– introduced him as “Mr. Los Alamos.” The overflow audience resoundingly cheered, welcoming Oppenheimer with unrestrained affection and respect. In failing health, Oppenheimer was never to return to Los Alamos and died in 1967.
In May 1968 John Brolley attended the 25th anniversary celebration of the first chain reaction at the University of Chicago where John had initially worked as a graduate student during World War II. He was quite taken with the Henry Moore sculpture that had been erected next to the West Stands.
On the flight home he began thinking about Lewis Strauss, Edward Teller and the infamous 1954 Oppenheimer security hearings. They “were conducting a vendetta against a fine man. And what does one do about this now?” By the time his plane had landed, he knew what he wanted to do. He went to the Los Alamos Arts Council and suggested that a statue of Oppenheimer be acquired for the community. From this, a separate committee was formed, the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee (JROMC). That was how, in John’s words, it “nucleated.”
Others on the committee in the early years certainly played important roles in the effort. But upon learning of John’s death, Nerses Krikorian or “Krik” stated, “He was the true initiator of the JROMC, a worthwhile contribution to the historical sense of Los Alamos.”
The JROMC was officially incorporated by the state in November 1971 with John serving as the first chair and Krik as Vice Chair with the following mission described in a public notice:
“A number of friends and colleagues of the late J. Robert Oppenheimer have joined together in planning to reserve a quiet park at Los Alamos in the mountains of New Mexico as a site for a memorial sculpture to be dedicated as a symbol of the affection and esteem of those who will always remember him. It is also planned that an annual series of Oppenheimer Memorial Lectures be established in furtherance of his view that it is the sense of science that there be harmony between knowledge of nature and the community of man. A memorial fund has been created to provide the needed financial support for these endeavors . . . “
According to John, the financial support began when Glenn Seaborg, head of the Atomic Energy Commission, came to Los Alamos for a visit. Upon learning of the new committee, Seaborg gave JROMC member Max Fowler a check for $500, no small sum at that time.
The annual Oppenheimer Memorial Lectures began in 1972 with George F. Kennan, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Yugoslavia, followed by a number of illustrious persons, sixteen of whom have been Nobel Laureates. All have been internationally recognized for their contributions to the search for a more truthful understanding of the universe, planet earth, humankind and its cultural impacts.
Upon the request of Harold Agnew, then director of the laboratory, a bust of J. Robert Oppenheimer was executed in 1973 by the late sculptor Una Hanbury of Santa Fe. LANL purchased the first of three casts and housed it in the new J. Robert Oppenheimer Study Center. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery commissioned the second cast. The “artist’s copy”, the third and final cast, was obtained by the Committee and displayed in the Los Alamos Mesa Public Library on permanent loan. Later Hanbury designed a medallion, utilizing a side view of the bust, to be given to each J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial speaker.
Dwight Hackett cast both the bust and the medallion after first meeting Hanbury in 1971 when she was using the Nambé Mills Foundry in Pojoaque for her work. Then in 1980 Hackett opened his own casting operation in Santa Fe and cast the JROMC medallion for many years. Unfortunately, there are no foundries in northern New Mexico anymore, so the local connection to the medallion given to each lecturer has been severed.
As for the park with a memorial sculpture, it never came about. Instead the committee decided to devote resources to scholarships for worthy high school seniors. The scholarship program began in 1984 and has annually granted scholarships in Los Alamos, nearby Pojoaque Valley High, Santa Fe High and Capital High in Santa Fe. The Committee also has provided books as awards for science fairs in Los Alamos. The rationale for these memorials came from Robert Oppenheimer’s thoughts on science and its relationship to humankind and society:
“We know that our work is rightly both an instrument and an end. A great discovery is a thing of beauty; and our faith—our binding, quiet faith—is that knowledge is good and good in itself. It is also an instrument; it is an instrument for our successors, who will use it to probe elsewhere and more deeply; it is an instrument for technology, for the practical arts and for man’s affairs.”
In 2004 the JROMC sponsored a banquet to honor Oppenheimer’s 100th birthday. This centenary celebration brought together a number of people who worked at the Laboratory during his tenure as director in 1943-45. A dramatic reading based on material from many sources and written by Committee members was performed by regional actors using a backdrop of slides of the places and people relevant to his life.
A photographic exhibit collected from several institutions for this occasion was exhibited in Los Alamos. Generating renewed interest in Oppenheimer, the exhibit traveled to the Oñate Center in Alcalde, the Santa Fe Community College, and to the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, before returning to Los Alamos.
Publications sponsored by the Committee include a reprint of “Robert Oppenheimer 1904-1967” by Robert F. Bacher, originally published in 1972 in the proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. Reprints are available through the Los Alamos Historical Society. BEYOND TALL FENCES: A Collection of Stories and Experiences about Los Alamos was undertaken in 1984 by the Committee for the 40th anniversary celebration of the Laboratory. The Los Alamos Historical Society and Exceptional Books, Ltd. jointly republished it with the title BEYOND TALL FENCES: Stories and Experiences About Los Alamos at Its Beginning.
The JROMC consists of twenty-five members of various professional backgrounds and regional communities, all dedicated to furthering the memory and spirit of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
J. Arthur Freed and Mary Louise Williams (Revised August 2010)