Robert C. Crook

The Lab photographer who wasn’t there

April 26, 2023

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When Robert Charles Crook (“Bob”) joined the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory as a photographic technician in December 1946, he was 21 years old. He accepted a $200 per month salary, signed his contract — directing him to report to Project Y — and got to work.

On what he was getting to work on, exactly, it’s hard to know. Many of Bob’s photographs involved careful 

imaging of countless experiments at the Lab. He took pictures of visiting VIPs, events and all sorts of research as it progressed; he was the videographer of scientific demonstrations and documented their results. Bob didn’t talk about the details of his work, and his family didn’t ask.

“Our whole family was LANL at some point in our lives,” said his grandson, Steven Mullins (Weapons Product Definition, W-11). “My mother worked at Meson Physics Facility (now Los Alamos Neutron Science Center) and X Division, my aunt worked in what is now called DET (Detonator Production group), my other aunt recently retired from a long career in procurement and myself in security and emergency management. So we grew up with ‘How was your day?’ Never ‘What did you do today?’ It was normal for us.”

There are photos on the walls of certain Lab buildings that Steven is curious about, though. And when he hears about various milestones from the Lab’s history, he wonders: was his grandfather there?

Leading to the Lab

Bob was born on the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch — a 110,000-acre cattle ranch in Oklahoma — on March 1, 1925. He moved to Santa Fe in 1934 and later served in the United States Army Air Corps, piloting a P-51D Mustang during World War II. 

Steven said his grandfather was a prankster. It’s how he tried to impress his future wife, Ilah Arnold. Crook loved square dancing, and became a well-known square dance caller, even publishing a few square dance routines and songs.

Ilah was fairly new to Los Alamos, moving to town after hearing about job opportunities, and she accepted a date with Bob to go to a square dance at the Sheriff’s Posse Shack.

During the date, Bob hatched up a surefire way to get her attention: he released a pen of calves into the hall, mooing and all.

Bold-faced names

Bob, group leader of D-8, was part of a tight-knit group of Lab photographers and colleagues that included 

William Claybrook, Jack Clifford, Winfred Headdy, Donald Randolph, Bill Jack Rodgers and Vic Stevenson. It was a quick-witted group — sarcastic, with a wicked sense of humor. Their collective laughter was a useful tool in blowing off steam.

Bob would spend his lunch hour talking about fishing and playing cribbage with his photography buddies, and he was friendly with Laboratory legends, like Harold Agnew, Mel Brooks, Sig Hecker and James Tuck. He was on a first-name basis with Lab Director Norris Bradbury.

Long after the Lab, as they scattered around the country and lived their new lives, they stayed in touch.

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Drillmaster Sonny Thomas and Bob Crook before a Los Alamos County Sheriff’s Junior Posse riding session.

Riding and rodeos

When Bob passed away in 2018, he’d shared thousands of stories with his family — mostly about watching Los Alamos grow, and tales from his cowboy days.

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Bob was a fixture at the local horse stables, driving cattle from Truchas up through the canyons. He was a drillmaster for the Los Alamos County’s Junior Sheriff’s Posse, coaching local kids to ride horses and perform on them publicly throughout New Mexico and Colorado.

Bob loved to fish. He gardened. He hunted. He was a leatherworker and a silversmith who made his own turquoise jewelry and conches for his family’s bridles and saddles.

He built his own dark room.

He took photos of glaciers in Alaska, and chased leaves with his camera as they changed colors from the Jemez to the Pecos, to Colorado. He loved taking pictures of the birds in the Bosque del Apache. At some point, he put down his rifle and preferred to shoot only through a camera lens.

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Explorations near and far

While he was with the Lab, Bob traveled frequently — sometimes to the headquarters of Kodak, a company with which he worked closely. Steven remembers that his grandfather introduced him to the wonders of the first color photocopier. Bob was pleased that the machine not only duplicated photographs — it could also enlarge and enhance them.

Quick to experiment with new technologies, Bob co-authored a technical report about color output from computers. He helped hone the Lab’s microfilm system to make reproductions look like originals. (After retirement, he didn’t slow down — he jumped into digital photography and learned everything there was to know about Photoshop.)

His job took him around the world, but Bob didn’t talk too much about where. Nevada, maybe, or somewhere in the Pacific.

There were times he would be gone up to six months. He would return with gifts: leis, fresh Bird of Paradise flower arrangements for Ilah, bowls made from tropical monkeypod, coconut syrup.

He would tell his daughters that he was headed to Hawaii, and later showed them a photo of himself in an open-collared shirt, clutching a ukulele, to prove it. In the picture, his other hand is gripping a cannister of film.