Serendipitous discovery connects grandfather and granddaughter at LANL 60 years apart

Third-generation employee learns about family from historic collections

September 28, 2021

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By John Moore, Image/Media Archivist, National Security Research Center

The Lab’s enduring mission work means people like Cameron Townsend are one of many family members who have careers here. 

Cameron is her family’s third generation to work at LANL, beginning with her great grandparents, followed by her grandparents (skipping her parents), and now including her and her husband. She didn’t know about her family history at LANL until three years ago when a typical day on the job became a serendipitous window into her family’s long history with Los Alamos.

Cameron, who is an architect in Environmental Stewardship and helps manage LANL’s historic buildings program, was given a drawing from 1960 to aid in an assessment. The drafter’s name on the sketch: Ron Turner, her grandfather.

Cameron Townsend
Cameron Townsend, an architect in Environmental Stewardship, was given this drawing from 1960 to aid in an assessment. Coincidentally, it was drawn by her grandfather, Ron Turner, 60 years earlier when he was working at the Lab. Below is a closer look at the drawing’s title block in the lower right corner. It includes Ron Turner’s signature in the “designer” and “drawn” sections.
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“Who would have thought the first drawing that I would get came from my grandfather? It’s so cool that I’m working on the same buildings 60 years later,” Cameron said. 

She has since come across other drawings by her grandfather, asked her family members a lot of questions and wondered if other LANL documents related to her family existed. 

Cameron also checked with the National Security Research Center (NSRC), which is the Lab’s classified library that also houses unclassified historical materials. As such, highly trained experts, including historians, digitizers, archivists and information specialists, make up the staff. They are often asked for information about family members who have worked at LANL. 

These items are preserved among the NSRC’s collections of national security materials because they are important to the Los Alamos legacy. And they’re filled with interesting stories from LANL’s earliest days — just like those that Cameron heard from her grandparents.

Los Alamos memories

Now retired and living near Aztec, New Mexico, Cameron’s grandparents, Ron and Pat, who both worked at LANL, grew up in Los Alamos in the late 1940s and early 1950s, respectively. 

Ron was a fifth-grader when the Turner family arrived in 1947 from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Ron’s parents were working at the Oak Ridge lab as part of the Special Engineer Detachment (SED) during the Manhattan Project, which was the U.S. government’s top-secret effort to create atomic weapons and help end World War II.

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Now retired and living near Aztec, New Mexico, Ron and Pat, who both worked at the Lab, grew up in Los Alamos in the late 1940s and early 1950s, respectively.

His father, John Turner, worked as a shift supervisor at the Los Alamos S-Site, where detonators were produced during World War II and then where explosive shots were conducted after the war.

Ron remembers when the town was still enclosed with a protective fence: “In those days we’d also go into the canyons, take .22s and shoot cans. The army ran the gates, but never said much about us playing; we were just kids.” 

In 1952, Pat’s family moved to Los Alamos from Colorado. Her father, William Eaton, was a machinist. Today, Pat describes Los Alamos as the “best place to grow up ever.”

Ron and Pat attended what is still the only high school in town. Ron was part of the first graduating class to complete all grades. Pat recalled that in high school, she and classmates “climbed and wrote on the water towers and we were even the first to make the L.A. sign on the mountains.”

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Pat’s high-school graduation photo, Los Alamos High School, 1956. Ron's high-school graduation photo, Los Alamos High School, 1955.

Their social circles intersected when they were teenagers; their relationship began with a game of spin the bottle, followed by Pat’s frequent visits to Ron’s ice cream cart, which often passed by her house. 

One incident in particular from her childhood sticks with Pat: “In high school, we had a sleepover and prank-called a teacher because he wouldn’t chaperone a dance that we wanted to have.” The Los Alamos police found out and when she interviewed years later for a security clearance at LANL, the incident was in her records.

Following their family’s footsteps 

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Pat and Ron today.

Both Ron and Pat began their careers at LANL in the mid-1950s. With Pat’s typing and shorthand-writing skills, she started right after high school. At one point, Pat was part of the Theoretical Division, where she worked for scientists Hans Bethe and Stan Ulam, among others. 

“We had old electric typewriters,” Pat said. “We’d do so many equations that we had to change the keys out to get the specific symbols for the formulas that we were typing.”

Pat’s brother, Ed Eaton, also worked at the Lab in chemistry and metallurgy. Ron, like his father before him, worked at S-Site, where he was “brought on to draft components and parts for the device systems that were developed on-site at the Laboratory,” he said.

Six decades later, several of those drawings have made their way to Cameron. 

“There are probably more that I just haven’t happened to come across yet,” she said. 

The family was certainly surprised by the coincidence, which gave Ron and Pat an opportunity to share these stories with their granddaughter.

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Dee and John Turner, holding their son Ron, circa 1938