William Jenkins Wilcox Jr., 90, Oak Ridge pioneer and longtime resident, died Monday, Sept. 2, at NHC Healthcare of Oak Ridge.
The son of attorney William J. Wilcox Sr. and Kitty Rogers Wilcox, Bill was born Jan. 26, 1923, in Harrisburg, Pa. He grew up in Allentown, Pa. He attended Allentown High School and graduated with honors from Washington and Lee University in 1943 with a major in chemistry.
He joined the Manhattan Project in May 1943 and worked that summer on uranium purification processes for Tennessee Eastman Corp. in Rochester, N.Y.
He moved to Oak Ridge in October 1943, when Building 9203 at the Y-12 Plant was completed. He was Badge No. 254. During the early war years and until the end of World War II, Bill was in charge of Beta chemistry, as well as the Special Operations Lab, and then served in the Analytical Chemistry Division, setting up the statistical quality control program, the first at Y-12. From there, his long-distinguished career included that of research chemist, technical assistant, physics department head, and division director for gaseous diffusion and gas centrifuge at K-25. For 12 years, Bill was the technical director for Union Carbide’s Nuclear Division in charge of the research and development, and technical service organizations at both the K-25 and Y-12 plants.
Following a heart attack in Switzerland in 1980, he served as technical assistant to company presidents Roger F. Hibbs, Ken Jarmolow, and Clyde C. Hopkins until retiring in 1986.
In 1983, he headed the independent Mercury Task Force investigating the use of mercury during the lithium separation years of 1955-1962 and its impacts on workers and the environment. During these years, he also introduced and facilitated strategic planning for the Y-12 Plant.
Following retirement, he also served as an independent management consultant for six more years, specializing in strategic planning for several divisions of the three U.S. Department of Energy plants in Oak Ridge, for DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, and the Oak Ridge school system, as well as other organizations.
During those early working years in Oak Ridge, he continued his education and earned his master’s degree in 1958 in industrial management from the University of Tennessee.
Bill was also an active member of the Oak Ridge community, serving on numerous boards including Methodist Medical Center, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Aid to Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties, Citizens for National Security, PTAs, the 43 Club, the Coalition of Oak Ridge Retired Employees (CORRE), and the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association.
Since its beginning, Bill served his beloved St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in several leadership roles, serving tenures on the vestry and many standing committees. For the past decade, he served as its archivist, having organized its records and compiling the church history. He was also active at the Diocese of East Tennessee, where he served as a member of The Ecclesiastical Court, as well as on committees and commissions. He often represented St. Stephen’s as a delegate to diocesan conventions.
As an author, lecturer, and historian, Bill reviewed and corrected a chronology of the first 50 years of the Y-12 Plant, written with inputs from more than 20 other Y-12 alumni. The unclassified history of the Y-12 Plant, “An Overview of the History of Y-12: 1942-1992,” was published by the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) in 2001. Also in 2001, Bill aided producers of the History Channel’s Modern Marvels documentary on the Manhattan Project, expounding on the history of the Y-12 and K-25 plants.
He wrote the proposal to the Rotary Club of Oak Ridge that put together The Secret City Commemorative Walk project to honor institutions, facilities, and founders of the Manhattan Project. He was also instrumental in the community-wide effort to save the K-25 “U” building and the Alexander Inn, and worked tirelessly with the National Park Service to include Oak Ridge in the Manhattan Project National Historic Park with Los Alamos, N.M., and Hanford, Wash.
The Oak Ridge City Council honored Bill in 2006 when he was given the honorary title of Oak Ridge City Historian. He headed the effort to collect oral histories on the Manhattan Project, which are housed at the Oak Ridge Public Library.
He received numerous other awards and honors during his lifetime including the Secretary of Energy’s Achievement Award, the Outstanding Service to Tennessee Tourism Award, and the East Tennessee Economic Council’s Muddy Boot Award. At the September 2012 National Archives of Atlanta symposium titled ”Secret City in the Tennessee Hills: From Dogpatch to Nuclear Power,” Bill received a Citizen Archivist award.
In addition to promoting Secret City history, Bill was an avid writer of his family history and genealogy. He was a longtime student and lectured at Mt. Vernon on George Washington’s life portraits. He was a lover of books, butterflies, birds, fishing, and was devoted to his family and their lake home on Watts Bar.
He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Eugenia “Jeanie” Holder Wilcox, whom he met and courted in Oak Ridge during World War II; his daughter, Kitty Ellen Soldano and her husband, Dr. Jim Soldano, of Columbus, Ohio; his son William H. “Bill” Wilcox and his wife, Elizabeth “Bet” Todd, of Dallas, Texas; his daughter, Martha Wilcox and her husband, Robert “Bob” McIntyre, of Alexandria, Va.; and by five grandchildren: James W. Soldano, Jennifer Soldano Purcell, William B.T. Wilcox, Ellen E.T. Wilcox, and Robert W. “Rob” Pickle.
Services will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. A reception for family and friends will follow at Pollard Auditorium.
The family asks that memorial donations be made to Aid to Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties, P.O. Box 5953, Oak Ridge, TN 37831.