Bill Wilcox, a passionate advocate for preserving Oak Ridge’s history who was known for his bow ties and captivating storytelling, died Monday evening. He was 90.
Wilcox died at NHC, longtime friend Gordon Fee said. He had been moved there from Methodist Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized for almost three weeks with heart issues and shortness of breath, Fee said.
“We’ve lost a person who had more knowledge of our history than anyone else I’ve ever known,” said friend D. Ray Smith, Y-12 National Security Complex historian and newspaper columnist.
Wilcox was a chemist who started working at Y-12 during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project, a top-secret federal project to build the world’s first atomic bombs.
He went on to become a technical director for Y-12 and K-25, a former uranium-enriching site now known as Heritage Center. Wilcox, who had moved to Oak Ridge from Rochester, N.Y., during the war, had worked at both sites. He oversaw development activities at both plants for many years, and he retired as a special assistant to the president of the contractor running the Oak Ridge sites and others, Fee said.
Wilcox’s passion for preserving Oak Ridge’s history had a particular emphasis on the production plants.
“He was the undisputed leader of trying to save K-25,” said Fee, retired president of Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, which used to operate all three Oak Ridge plants—K-25, Y-12, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory—as well as sites in Paducah, Ky., and Portsmouth, Ohio.
Among other things, Wilcox worked to save the North Tower of the former mile-long, U-shaped K-25 Building, once the world’s largest under one roof. But that proposal became impractical because of the high cost and the deteriorated condition of the building, so Wilcox and others worked with the U.S. Department of Energy to come up with an alternative. A plan to build an exhibit hall at K-25 is really due to Wilcox’s leadership, said Fee, who was hired by Wilcox at K-25 in 1956. (Wilcox was then head of the physics department of the Gaseous Diffusion Plant at K-25, and Fee was hired as a junior physicist.)
But Wilcox also helped in other ways, including with the installation of historical monuments in front of the Oak Ridge Municipal Building; in the fight to preserve the Alexander Inn, which was formerly known as the Guest House; and by serving as a guide on public bus tours of the K-25 site.
History was a passion until the end. In March, Wilcox, who was named the city historian several years ago, discussed the last eight days of World War II. This week, Fee said, Wilcox was working on history papers for the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association. And business executive and former Oak Ridge Mayor David Bradshaw, who often worked on historical issues with Wilcox, including on the K-25 agreement, said Wilcox had been working on a technical history of K-25.
“Bill had a particular love of K-25,” Bradshaw said.
Friends said Wilcox had had one heart attack years ago and another in February 2012, and his body succumbed to congestive heart failure. But Smith said Wilcox had a “mind like a steel trap to the end” and had expressed his appreciation for the recent efforts of historic preservationists to recognize the former Wheat community in west Oak Ridge. Wilcox was still thinking about K-25, Smith said.
“He put an enormous effort in the last few years of his life into preserving the history of K-25, among other things,” Smith said.
Friends said Wilcox, who has three children and a wife Jeanie, was a unique man who will be hard to replace.
“We’ve sure lost a great resource for the history of Oak Ridge,” Smith said.
“When an icon passes, it really leaves a hole in the community that you can’t really fill,” Bradshaw said.
“He was an iconic figure for the whole community in a number of ways,” Fee said, pointing out Wilcox’s passion for history, his church, and his family. “One of the challenges for the community and all of us is to see that his legacy is carried forward and brought to fruition.”
That legacy includes advocacy of heritage tourism as a possible economic pillar for Oak Ridge, Fee said.
A funeral date for Wilcox had not been set as of Tuesday morning.
Note: This story was last updated at 3:45 p.m.