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Walt Joseph: Sharing SRS’s story with the Aiken community

When Walt Joseph arrived in Aiken in 1954 to work at the then Savannah River Plant – with his bride, Paula, and fresh out of graduate school at Penn State – he thought the position would be just temporary.

Sixty-six years later, he’s still here. For 39 of those years, Joseph worked at what is now the Savannah River Site, helping produce nuclear material that allowed the United States to win the Cold War with Russia. For almost the last 20 years in retirement, Joseph has continued to work, helping establish the Savannah River Site Museum to tell the site’s unique story in American history.

Joseph, who spent 14 months in Korea as an ordnance officer before finishing his master’s degree, started the Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering at Penn State, but he knew he needed a break and told his adviser, “I’m tired. I’m broke. I’d like to get out and see the real world.”

His adviser told him about a new opportunity with DuPont, which originally built and operated SRS, in South Carolina.

“He said it’s a startup opportunity, so it will be a real challenge. It will be fun. It will look great on your resume. Don’t plan on staying there long because DuPont will not stay. This is a temporary contract for them,” Joseph said. “Save a little money and come back to finish your grad degree, and then you can decide what you want to do when you grow up. So that sounded good.”

Joseph interviewed and was offered a job, not knowing what it would be, and he and Paula, whom he proposed to before leaving for Korea and married as soon as he got back, settled in Crosland Park, like most other transplants who came to work at the site. They got the last rental property available from the plant’s housing office.

For three years, Joseph worked at the Savannah River Laboratory, now the Savannah River National Lab.

“I really, really enjoyed it. In the early days, it was exciting because none of us knew much about nuclear. I had a minor in nuclear, but they taught only one course in nuclear engineering at Penn State at the time,” Joseph said. “It was a very exciting time because we all saw this as a national program and a contribution to the national defense. President Truman had said it was vitally important to our national security.

“It was very new, and there was an awful lot we didn’t know. And in doing what we had to get done, we had to push back the limits of what we knew very frequently.”

Joseph said he loved working at SRL but was “getting awfully specialized.”

“I decided that I didn't want to see my career getting to be smarter and smarter on a smaller and smaller level, so I went to my boss and said I wanted to transfer. I said I love what I’m doing. I like working here. It’s been fun, but I’d like a transfer to the plant. I want to get out with people,” he said. “And so, at that point, I made a step change in my career, and after that, I moved every three years all over the plant. I did everything from running the railroad to building one-of-a-kind equipment that the plant needed but couldn’t buy anywhere and other things in between.”

Joseph said he and his colleagues in the early days of the site “believed that we were doing something that the country had to have done.”

“It was either us or the Russians at that time,” he said. “If there is one thing I have learned it is that you need to be happy. You need to believe in what you are doing, and you need to feel that you are making a difference in something. That was the thing about working there. Everybody believed in that.”

Today, Joseph still believes in making a difference, but instead of helping produce the materials that helped win the Cold War, he is telling the story of those products and the people who made them through the SRS Museum.

The plan for what is now the Savannah River Site Museum began with a conversation at the gym.

In the early 2000s, the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees SRS, began taking down buildings at the site. While they were working out one day, the late Dr. Todd Crawford, a friend of Joseph’s, told him about DOE’s plan and suggested he attend a meeting about the removal process.

“I went to the meeting, and DOE made a presentation. They were taking down buildings; and yes, before they took them down, they took photographs of what was there, and they collected the blueprints, and then the building came down,” Joseph said. “I said, 'What happens to the material that was in the building?' There was a lot of hemming and hawing, but it wound up getting buried or disposed of one way or the other. I said, 'Hey, it doesn’t sound like preservation to me.' Several of the other people said it didn’t sound like preservation either.

“So I went back to Todd and said if we’re ever going to have anything that tells the story of SRS, we’re going to need to take some steps to ensure that that material is saved. We’re going to have to have something to talk about. And he agreed.”

Joseph and Crawford pitched the idea of an SRS museum to the board of the Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness.

“They all said, uh huh, you’re right. It needs to be done, and OK, you guys are a committee. Go do it,” Joseph said and laughed. “It was just about that simple. Todd and I became a committee. He and his wife, Bea, and Paula and I were the design team.”

In 2005, that “committee” formally organized and incorporated as the SRS Heritage Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit entity.

“At the time, our purpose was to preserve artifacts, making sure that the artifacts did not get trashed or buried or whatever so that we would have something to tell the story with when we were ready to tell the story,” Joseph said.

Finding a building to tell the story became the next challenge.

DOE offered the Foundation a building on the site. Joseph hired an architect to design the building, but it was 20 miles from Aiken.

“And if location, location, location is the key to success, that’s not it,” Joseph said.

The perfect location came a few years later.

Joseph said he still remembers the day he and Paula were sitting in the foundation’s office at the Aiken Chamber of Commerce when the late Ronnie Young, who then was the chairman of the Aiken County Council, walked in.

“He walked in and said, 'I understand you’ve been looking for a building.' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'How would you like one?'” Joseph said. “That was in 2014.”

Aiken County gave the foundation the Dibble Memorial Library building on Laurens Street in downtown Aiken. The building had been the home of the Aiken County Public Library into the 1970s, and then the county used it for records and storage.

In 2015, the foundation held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and opened the building for guided public tours. In 2016, renovation work began to get the building up to code.

In 2017, the museum opened and has been open intermittently “until the (COVID-19) virus, of course, hit us,” Joseph said. The museum now is open again from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.

In October 2019, the museum opened its first major, permanent exhibit, “6,000 Voices,” which tells the story of the people and the communities, including Ellenton and Dunbarton, which were displaced when SRS was built southwest of Aiken in the early 1950s.

The exhibit features “photographs and touch-screen videos and accounts from people who lived there and were relocated and locations of graves,” Joseph said. “It’s an excellent exhibit.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration has provided funding for a future, permanent exhibit that will chronicle the building and the mission of SRS.

“They wanted to be able to tell the story of tritium and its production, the facilities that were built and used, the products that were made and their uses and the site’s ongoing mission,” Joseph said. “It’s in the planning stages. It’s all coming together.”

The museum tells a story that even most locals still don’t know, Joseph said. For years, security at the site was very tight. Employees were not allowed to tell people where they worked, and much of the site’s work was shrouded in secrecy.

“It is such a large story and such a varied story, and it’s so little understood here,” Joseph said. “Even for people who have lived here all of their lives, it’s always been over the fence. The Savannah River Site is that big green blob on the map. People who come in generally know very little about Savannah River. I think we fill a need.”

Because security was so tight, it was 25 years before his wife “set foot” on the site, Joseph said, and when his son was 5 or 6, he thought his father was a barber.

“I never talked about where I went or what I did, except that once a month, the carpool would drop me off at the barbershop on Whiskey Road, and Paula and the kids would come and pick me up at the barbershop,” Joseph said. “That’s the only work environment he’d ever seen me in; ergo, I was a barber.”

But there’s more to SRS than helping the United States win the Cold War with Russia, and the museum can tell that story, too, Joseph said.

“We made all the fuel for the space probes, so all of those beautiful satellite pictures of the planets and our understanding of astro-physics has been based largely on a product from Savannah River,” he said.

The work of the Savannah River Ecology Lab at the site reaches across the globe.

“The work they’ve done is international in scope,” Joseph said. “They have an office in Russia for Chernobyl, and have been working on reclamation of the Chernobyl landscape after the accident there. They assisted the Japanese in Fukushima after their accident. They go all over the world helping solve radiation issues and environmental impact issues of all kinds. Again, people don’t understand that we have that tremendous resource right here in little, ol’ Aiken.”

The museum’s staff also can answer questions from visitors considering relocating to the area but have concerns about living near a nuclear facility.

“We can resolve an awful lot of those questions just by talking about the outstanding safety record, the performance record at the site,” Joseph said. “The site really has been exemplary. It has set not only DOE records for safety but also international records for safety. It’s one of the safest places to work in the world. There are a lot of things we can be proud of, but we need to tell people about them.”

And while the museum focuses on the past, it is looking to the future, too, through educational outreach programs. A couple of years ago, the museum sponsored a robotics exhibit week, bringing in robotics teams from schools throughout the Aiken-Augusta area.

“We had professional robotics engineers there from the site, and the teams would demonstrate their projects. If they had issues with them, the engineers could help them,” Joseph said. “Those are the kinds of things that we want to be able to do more of. We want to be able to involve the young people in the STEM programs all around the CSRA because there is work going on everywhere, and we want to help them utilize the experience at Savannah River and learn from it and be able to teach it to their young people. That’s important.”

DOE provided funding for the museum’s full-time director, Lauren Miller, and Aiken County recently authorized a new part-time employee, which will allow the museum to be open Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“Once we get everybody in and trained and up to speed, we’ll be able to open Sunday to match the hours of the historical museum, which is our intent,” he said.

Although Joseph often worked long hours at the site – some nights sleeping on the floor of the computer room to get the answers he needed for a project back in the day when massive computers ran on punch cards and computer time was at a premium – he and Paula, who died in March, had a very active life outside of work. They were married 67 years.

“We had an incredible marriage,” Joseph said of Paula, who taught kindergarten at the old Byrd Elementary School in Graniteville for many years. “She was an absolutely wonderful lady, a little-bitty thing, tough as nails – always smiling. She was the light of my life.”

Joseph and Paula traveled all over Europe and Asia, often collecting Asian art, which Joseph took an interest in while he was in Korea. The works decorate their Asian-inspired home.

“She was an adventuress,” Joseph said. “I used to kid her that she had gypsy blood because I could come home from work and say how do you feel about taking a trip to some place, and she’d be ready to go whatever it was. We saw a lot of the world.

“Mostly, I like adventures. I like to go places I haven’t been, see things I haven't seen before. I like to do it with friends and family. I have a little bit of a wanderlust, too, I guess.”

And when the couple weren’t traveling, they danced.

“Paula and I loved to dance,” Joseph said. “We started out square dancing when we first came here. I learned that in North Carolina. Then we took ballroom dance lessons for years and years and years and years. Love to dance. I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again. I really don’t, but I have very fond memories of dancing.”

Today, Joseph reads, listens to jazz standards on the radio and continues his lifelong interest in history. He was one of the founding members of the Archaeological Society of South Carolina and “has been on the Aiken County Historical Commission forever,” he said.

Joseph also is active with the Aiken County Historical Museum, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in February.

“I’m helping them set up a program to do video interviews related to history,” Joseph said. “I’m very service oriented. I think, to be happy in life, you need to be doing something that you see as productive and worthwhile.”

Joseph said he always has been “very family oriented,” and his son and daughter followed him and their mother, either directly or indirectly, into their careers.

His daughter, Catherine Lee Gould, like her mother, is an educator, teaching special education in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I think it's a wonderful and amazing thing – so necessary. She’s very devoted, very dedicated to it. Her kids do well with her,” Joseph said.

Joseph’s son, J. Walter Joseph III, inherited his father’s love of history and earned a Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife own a consulting firm in Stone Mountain, Georgia, working with cultural resource management and environmental impact statements. One of their contracts is at the Savannah River Site.

His son’s firm also has a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to train veterans called the Veteran’s Curation Project.

“The veterans learn how to sort, how to classify, how to make spreadsheets, how to do good photography – law enforcement quality photography of artifacts – and how to write simple reports,” Joseph said. “They have a better than 85% success rate for their graduates. Most of them go out and get jobs immediately in various fields, not necessarily in archaeology, but a lot of them wind up in law enforcement. I’m proud of them for that.”

Joseph has four grandchildren and a few weeks ago became a great-grandfather.

For his dedicated work as one of the founders of the SRS Museum, Joseph received the Man of the Year Award in 2017 from the Aiken Chamber of Commerce.

The award was validation that all the years of effort to bring the story of the Savannah River Site to local residents and visitors had been worthwhile.

“Oh,” Joseph said, pointing to the award on an end table in his living room and stopping to consider its meaning, “it was wonderful – wonderful on several accounts.”

“This work has been going on for years, and there have been times when I felt like I was all alone, particularly since Todd Crawford, who was working with me, died, and it was just Paula and I doing this,” Joseph continued. “And you have to wonder, gee, is my vision shared by anybody? Am I a lone prophet on a mountaintop somewhere? So, to me, that was a marvelous recognition: Hey, the community is interested. They think it’s worthwhile. And that was great.”

But what really made the award, which was a complete surprise to Joseph, “great” was being able to share it with his family.

“Paula and I were invited to that meeting and had no idea why. CNTA invited me,” Joseph said. “But, unknown to me totally, they had invited my children. So both my son and his wife and my daughter and her husband were there for the award, and that really made it great. That was extra special.”

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