A funeral and community reception have been scheduled for Saturday for Bill Wilcox, a chemist who came to Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project in World War II and went on to become technical director for federal facilities K-25 and Y-12, was named Oak Ridge city historian, and led the fight to preserve the history of the former K-25 site, which was built during World War II to enrich uranium for atomic bombs.
The funeral is at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church at 212 N. Tulane Ave. in Oak Ridge. The community reception is at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in the lobby at Pollard Auditorium at Oak Ridge Associated Universities at 120 Badger Ave.
Wilcox, 90, was a beloved storyteller known for his bow ties and passion for life. He died Monday evening but appeared to be thinking about the city’s history even in his last days.
“The last time I spoke with him, I was told by his son that he became more alert than he had been for some time,” said friend Ray Smith, who is Y-12 National Security Complex historian and a newspaper columnist. “I only stayed for a very few minutes as he was obviously very weak. He told me ‘good job’ on the newspaper articles about Wheat (a former community in west Oak Ridge near the former K-25 site)…Imagine that, my friend and mentor to the very last. I will miss him immensely.”
Smith said Wilcox was “a fighter until the very end and insisted that he was going to beat congestive heart failure once again.”
Wilcox rallied over the weekend, Smith said.
“But after he was moved to NHC Healthcare on Monday, he again became weaker and just never could regain his strength this time,” Smith said.
Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan released a statement on behalf of the city.
“I was very saddened to hear the news of Bill’s passing,” Beehan said. “He is truly one of Oak Ridge’s most distinguished citizens and has enriched our community in countless ways. He was a pioneer scientist of the Manhattan Project, and as city historian, Bill helped preserve Oak Ridge’s unique history through his leadership on projects such as the Secret City Commemorative Walk and the Birth of a City projects. On behalf of the City of Oak Ridge, I extend our condolences to his wife Jeanie and their children.”
People across the community said Wilcox had had a major impact upon their lives.
Longtime friend Gordon Fee, who was hired by Wilcox at K-25 in 1956 and went on to become president of Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, said Wilcox factored into all of his major decisions.
It might be a cliche, Fee said, but “they’ve thrown away the mold on this one.”
Katy Brown, president of the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Wilcox was a key volunteer for the city’s tourism organization for at least the 12 years she has worked there.
“He was always a fixture in our media strategy, serving as an interviewee many times over for hundreds of journalists from across the world,” Brown said. “He was captivating, and the media raved about the personality and information that he brought to their stories.”
Brown said she could count on Wilcox for anything.
“He never told me ‘no,'” she said. “In fact, he’d stop what he was doing just to spend time with a travel writer or take on a media opportunity. We spent his 84th birthday together at his house with a film crew and Oliver North, capturing footage for ‘War Stories’ on Fox News Channel, and Bill was happy as a clam. He was unique and heartfelt because he lived the stories he told. He was funny and charismatic, a wealth of knowledge, and extremely humble. None of this was done for any other reason than to continue sharing our history, and the incredible things that were done here, with the people of the world.”
Like others, Brown said she is terribly sad that Wilcox is gone.
“But I feel so lucky and honored that he would consider me a friend,” Brown said. “I just wish we could’ve shared more than just 12 years amidst his 90.”
Note: This story was last updated at 9:30 a.m.