Remembering J. Arthur Freed

J. Arthur “Art” Freed embodied his awarded title as a “Living Treasure” for the Los Alamos community, and before that for Los Alamos National Laboratory.

By Cristina Olds | October 10, 2023

Publication Feature with Title@2x 1

Freed was working as a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library in New York, when he spied an advertisement touting the unique benefits of employment at Los Alamos. Views of sunsets and mountains, walks through the woods to get to your office, and “unequaled laboratory facilities where ‘tomorrow’s’ ideas are born and developed.” Freed was intrigued.

“‘Where’s that?’ I probably said,” Freed recalled in a recorded interview with senior Laboratory historian Alan Carr. His wife, Nancy, was working in a materials testing lab for the U.S. Navy at the time, and her skills translated to a staff position at LASL as well.

They soon left for the Southwest, where Freed worked for 33 years in the Lab’s library, serving as a Group Leader and head librarian from 1970 until the year before he retired in 1991.

Artboard 2@2x 1
Art Freed saw an advertisement like these that used images and vignettes about the unique New Mexico environment to recruit workers during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Having first completed a bachelor of arts in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, Freed later earned master’s degrees in anthropology and library science. Between his degrees, Freed served in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954.

Freed said his father didn’t care what he studied, only that he could support himself. He was working in a library and completing his first master’s degree when his supervisor suggested he pursue library science.

Of his alma mater, Freed said, “The most important part was I met my wife there.” Freed called Nancy the love of his life and credited their nearly 41 years of marriage as the reason he lived so long. “The university president said at the time that the Berkeley campus was the largest marriage bureau in the world,” Freed laughed, adding, “and that was the case for us.” The couple met through mutual friends and were married in 1954.

Freed died in Los Alamos on June 21, 2022, at age 92. He had lost Nancy in 1994 to cancer. The couple didn’t leave any immediate survivors.

The value of a librarian’s work to national security 

Artboard 1@2x 1
Art Freed with other Lab librarians in 1978. Courtesy photo.

Art Freed joined the Lab 13 years after World War II ended in 1945. Freed served under Lab Directors Norris Bradbury and Harold Agnew and no doubt interacted with other notable figures from the Manhattan Project, the top secret effort to create the world’s first atomic bombs to help end the war that made Los Alamos a household name. 

The role of the library, with its many classified and unclassified resources, wasn’t always explicitly valued during the decades after the war, but Freed clearly felt the responsibility of his position in the context of national security.

Artboard 3@2x 1
Nancy and Art Freed in White Rock, New Mexico. Courtesy photo.

“Art recognized the unique and priceless asset we had in the library going back through the Manhattan Project era,” Carr said. Many reports that Freed once maintained live on in the Lab’s National Security Research Center (NSRC) and remain accessible to staff scientists born decades after they were collected and archived.

“Making this information accessible is a cornerstone of good science and is a cornerstone of Art’s legacy,” Carr added. “There is tremendous utility in keeping our old reports; we have useful data that cannot be easily duplicated, if it can be duplicated at all.”

Now, with tens of millions of materials, the NSRC is one of the largest libraries in the United States. It houses the country’s most comprehensive collection of nuclear weapons–related national security documents, films, photos, and more. 

“At the NRSC, we maintain many things Art collected and managed, and we strive to carry on that legacy,” Carr said. “We have an incredible documentary foundation because of people like Art.”

Artboard 4@2x 1
Art Freed and friends with the monkey mascot that traveled
with him in his younger years. Courtesy photo.

A day in the life of a Lab librarian

The Lab library collection comprised printed books, journals, and nearly a half million formal technical reports in Freed’s day. According to Marie Harper, a library professional hired by Freed in 1989, the library “owned the nation’s crown jewels,” referring to the Weapons Physics and Engineering classified collection.

Harper, who retired in 2018, had previously worked for other scientific institutions and said she saw publications at the Lab library that she’d only read about. 

“Art was essential for building the collection of sometimes very expensive but fundamental publications—I replaced a copy once that cost $3,500,” she said. “We had the only copy in the state of some books. Nobody argued with Art about having those tools—we had them because people needed them.”

Some of the materials Freed amassed for the library were challenged, however, like a multi-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary. “The ‘cut-and-dried’ engineers said, ‘what do we need that for?’ Art insisted [that staff needed it] and he justified the cost,” Harper said. “I looked up the price from 1975 and it was more than $10,000.”

Notably, and likely a career highlight, Freed helped oversee development of the Lab’s modern conference and library facility, the Oppenheimer Study Center, completed in 1977. Then Laboratory Director Harold Agnew conceived the Study Center idea while working as a scientific adviser at NATO. Agnew saw conference facilities with study areas and access to library facilities unlike those in the U.S. Once he returned to Los Alamos, he obtained financial backing for the concept.

Harper was tasked with retrofitting the library to accommodate computers during the early ’90s, and she called Freed frequently in his retirement to consult with him about the building’s details. 

Artboard 5@2x 1
Art Freed was presented with a plaque commemorating his 49 years of service on the Oppenheimer Committee as chair, vice chair, secretary, and archivist. Courtesy photo.

A day in the life of a retired librarian

Besides the expansive New Mexico landscape and the cutting-edge science in Los Alamos, Freed found a community. He participated in several Los Alamos organizations in alignment with his dedication to the science of the Laboratory and his longstanding commitment to preserving history during retirement.

In 2021 the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee bestowed Freed with the title of emeritus member.

Fellow committee member David Izraelevitz said Freed’s meticulous work on the committee was dedicated to maintaining Los Alamos legacies. “Art was very enamored with retaining knowledge and believed you don’t know something if you can’t preserve it for others to learn from as well,” Izraelevitz said, “which is consistent with his career as a librarian.”

Freed acquired photos of the Oppenheimer family directly from Kitty Oppenheimer that have been exhibited in Los Alamos on two occasions.

“Oppenheimer has a certain mystery around him and the family also, and you get a pretty good idea of who he was [from the photos],” Freed said. He guarded those photos in boxes in his basement for years. In 1982, the photos were the first collection formally accessioned into the Laboratory collections; today the NSRC continues to maintain the images on behalf of the committee.  

Additionally, he helped the committee obtain a bronze bust of Oppenheimer by the notable sculptor Una Hanbury that is on display in the Los Alamos History Museum today. 

In 2016, Freed received the Los Alamos Historical Society’s Los Alamos History Medal, and in 2020, he was honored with the Los Alamos History Award, which recognizes those who have made a significant contribution to preserving the world-changing history of the community. 

“Lucky communities have an essential someone who makes things work yet is content to remain in the background. Known for his sound judgment, competence, selflessness, and humor, 2017 Living Treasure J. Arthur Freed is a Los Alamos Essential Someone,” wrote Colleen Olinger in the Los Alamos Daily Post in April of that year.

He traveled extensively throughout his life, often following performances of the John Adams opera Doctor Atomic. In his younger years, Freed packed a wooden monkey that he and Nancy had found together on their travels, as a sort of good luck charm. 

Freed socialized frequently and kept in touch with former schoolmates and colleagues. For many years, he would host a “holiday sherry” party at his home. “He had so many friends they all couldn’t come at once so Art rotated so that every third year you got invited,” Carr remembers. “You would park at Mesa Public Library and catch a bus to his house that he’d set up. It was a staple community event where you could mingle with a diverse community and over the years it became like homecoming to see all those people again.”

Resilience during tough times

Although Freed was respected and valued, his time at the Lab was not free of controversy. In the 1970s, the Lab’s unclassified and classified technical reports were stored together. As a result of human error, classified material was mistakenly left in the open, unclassified area of the library. The mishap was reported in the national news, and several political cartoonists capitalized on the government error. 

Then Lab Director Don Kerr called Freed into his office, surely to be fired, Freed thought. But his last day at the Lab was long away. Freed wrote to all the cartoonists asking for their original artwork. 

“He faced this setback with grace and dignity,” said Carr, adding that Freed hung the framed cartoons in his home. 

If he could see us now

“We really do have unique resources at the NSRC, and Art made it possible as a librarian and as a manager of librarians,” Carr said. “We wouldn’t have all this without Art and others like him who created a remarkable foundation, and enabled the current NSRC team to take it to the next level.” 

When Freed turned 80, his many friends held a surprise party for him at the Blue Window Bistro in Los Alamos. His friend and former colleague Jeannette Mortensen gathered historic photographs and postcards from his travels, along with cards and letters sent for the occasion, in a memory book.

She displayed the book at Freed’s celebration of life event the friends held in August 2022.

Mortensen also penned a parody of “(You Gotta Have) Heart,” from the 1955 musical comedy Damn Yankees, titled “You Gotta Have Art.” Former head of the Los Alamos Historical Society Hedy Dunn contributed to the lyrics. 

Freed’s community sang from their hearts at his memorial service: “When your staff is down to zero, and you need a volunteer, Mr. Freed can be a hero, he can be a perfect dear. There’s nothin’ to it: he will do it! . . . Yes we all love our Art . . .”

The Vault 2023 Int PDF
A friend shared this group shot of Art Freed (front left) and Lab colleagues for a
memory book created by Jeannette Mortensen. Courtesy photo.