Ron Townsend's farewell at ORAU

I've been to a bunch of these ceremonies (farewells, memorials, dedications, award presentations, etc.) over the past 30 or so years, and the one this afternoon honoring Ron Townsend was way above average. It was funny and poignant and entertaining and thought-provoking, and that typically reflects on the person being honored. In this case, I'm sure of it.

The many folks who came out in a drenching rain on a Tuesday in January were genuinely invested. They wanted to applaud and show respect and admiration for Townsend, who's leaving ORAU -- where he's been president for more than 11 years -- to become an executive at Battelle Memorial Institute.

It was a good show.

There was an eclectic mix of speakers, and, again, that reflects Townsend's varied experience while in Oak Ridge. He did a lot more than head a university consortium and manage Dept. of Energy contract activities. He was involved (really, really involved) in the community.

Homer Fisher, who's serving as interim president of ORAU, was master of ceremonies, and at one point introduced himself to the employees who might not have met their new boss.

Jim Siedow, chairman of ORAU's board and vice provost for research at Duke University, wondered aloud if anyone else saw the irony of honoring a meteorologist (Townsend's academic training) on a day like this. Siedow called Towsend the "Father of the ORAU we know today," and the ORAU chairman worried that he might be remembered as "the guy who lost Townsend."

Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan presented Ron and Karen Townsend with a key to the city, an honor not bestowed too often, and said he wanted them to use it when they came back to Oak Ridge for good. "We think his real hometown is Oak Ridge," Beehan said.

Parker Hardy, Chamber of Commerce chief who came to Oak Ridge about the same time as Townsend, probably gave one of the best public speeches of his life, and you could tell it was because he truly cared about Townsend. His list of 11 things to never ask Ron Townsend was well crafted and alternately left the audience laughing and sighing.

Congressman Zach Wamp, who's in his first days of a run for governor, was not present but he sent a video tribute to Townsend. "Well, once again, our loss is Battelle's gain," Wamp said, referencing other key Oak Ridge figures -- including two former ORNL directors -- who have gone to Battelle HQ in Columbus, Ohio.

Wamp called the Townsends, "Two of the most decent people we have ever worked with."

Ron Towsend was involved in many community activites, ranging from modernization of Oak Ridge High School to making thousands and thousands of books available to Anderson County kids through the Dollywood Foundation's Imagination Library.

Nobody was funnier at today's event than David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation.

Dotson recalled how Towsend got involved with the program when Gordon Fee (former Y-12 chief who's now on the search committee for Townsend's successor) took Townsend to a Dolly Parton concert and heard about the Imagination Library.

Dotson said he was intoxicated today by being in the presence of science, noting that's he not really around a lot of science at Dollywood "except the science of having a good time."

He then spun a tale about the importance of molecular structure to making a program successful, and he reminded the audience that his boss is well known for her molecular structure, "with some mighty big molecules."

Dotson then read a sweet letter from Parton praising Townsend for his work.

Thom Mason, who along with Townsend was instrumental in redoing Oak Ridge High School, noted that his relationship with Townsend will change but continue. Townsend will continue to be on the UT-Battelle board of directors, but in the future he'll be representing Battelle (where he'll oversee all lab operations) instead of ORAU.

"It's not a goodbye," said Mason, the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

DOE's Oak Ridge manager, Gerald Boyd, recalled the day last year in which he first learned that Townsend might be leaving Oak Ridge. Boyd said his assistant informed him that Townsend had called and was on his way over to the Federal Building to talk to him, but added that Townsend wouldn't say what the topic was except there was a "personnel issue" he needed to discuss.

Boyd said he thought the worst. "He must have found a terrorist somewhere," the DOE manager said.

When he learned that Jeff Wadsworth, the new head of Battelle (and former director of ORNL), was trying to hire Townsend, Boyd said he thought, "You know, for a Brit, he (Wadsworth) is smarter than I thought he was."

Townsend, who spoke at the end, was clearly moved by the proceeedings. His farewell thoughts were about gratitude and pride, and he urged those present to "shape the future" of Oak Ridge by continuing to invest strategically.

"The best is yet to come," he said.


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    Frank MungerSenior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go. Contact Frank.