The Dahlgren 95th Anniversary Speaker series got off to a rousing start Sept. 11 with a panel discussion at the Community House featuring Leon Lysher and Jack Meyers-retired Dahlgren employees with decades of work and life experience onboard the installation. The pair discussed a diverse topic list that offered insight about the installation’s culture and history. The panel was moderated by Ed Jones, the former editor of the Free Lance Star and a well-known advocate for all things Dahlgren.
Minnesota native Leon Lysher came to Dahlgren after a stint in the Army and a gold mining job in Alaska. Recruited to work in Dahlgren in 1958 while he was a college student, Lysher’s initial position as a GS-5 physicist brought in an annual salary of $4,490.
“I filled out the application and got a letter that said ‘you got a job here, come to work,’” said Lysher. “[There was] no interview, no nothing, no further questions.”
He recalled his first-ever journey down Route 218. “It wasn’t the big superhighway that it is now,” he joked. “It was narrow and there weren’t any houses on it. I drove and drove and said ‘my God, what have I gotten myself into.’”
Lysher’s first assignment was to study the hazards of electromagnetic radiation. The HERO program, as it was later known, was a watershed moment in Dahlgren’s history. As the era of naval guns drew to a close, the work helped the installation stay relevant.
“When I came [to Dahlgren], HERO was just beginning,” said Lysher. ‘We did our first tests [with] missiles aboard a ship. We put igniters in them, turned on the radar and the transmitters and some of them went off, so the HERO program was born. After a couple of years, they found more problems. Explosives became more sensitive and transmitters became more powerful. more problems. We were basically deluged with money. not only did the HERO program grow, but a lot of programs grew out of that.”
Lysher would go on to become a division head, the deputy head of the Electronic Systems Department and the head of the Command Support Department. He later joined the senior executive service and led the Underwater Systems Department at White Oak. Though Dahlgren and White Oak were both dedicated to research and development, Lysher said the cultures were quite different.
He offered an analogy to illustrate the difference. In Dahlgren, he said, people worked to live. At White Oak, an environment much closer to academia, people lived to work. Lysher, whose son and grandson currently work for NSWC DD, preferred the family-friendly environment in Dahlgren. “White Oak people said if you wanted to work at Dahlgren, you had to have a pickup truck with a gun rack in the back,” he joked.
Before Meyers worked at Dahlgren he grew up at Dahlgren. His father, Wes Meyers, worked on the Manhattan and Elsie projects. He described the Dahlgren of his youth as a “gated and guarded small town and a country club all in one. It was a wonderful place to grow up.”
Jones, who also spent his childhood at Dahlgren, posited that the relative geographic isolation of Dahlgren helped it become self-sufficient not just in terms of life’s necessities, but in recreational activities. “I remember everything from ham radio clubs to foreign films being shown in the movie theater,” he said.
Meyers recalled fond memories of his time at Dahlgren School. In the days when the base was populated by civilians, students often spent their entire elementary and junior high school days at Dahlgren School, he said. “I remember my teachers quite well. They were great teachers and it was a great place to get an education.”
Meyers went on to earn an engineering degree from North Carolina State University before returning to the installation to work as a technician in T Department. He worked on cartridge actuated devices before becoming an original employee of the Naval Warfare Analysis Center, the predecessor of the Joint Warfare Analysis Center. When NWAC separated from the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, Meyers joined and later retired from J Department, now Z Department.
Jones asked both men about the Dahlgren Way, a managerial and organizational way of business in Dahlgren that fostered creativity and innovation. “If you had some idea, you’d find money somewhere to explore it and try it out,” said Lysher.
“I think there’s always been this feeling of getting the job done, in terms of what needs to be done to accomplish the end goal,” added Meyers. “There was a lot work we did that was very fun to do. When I was working I got to do a lot of test work; I got to see all the best deserts in this country. You go to where the people are for a lot of those tests and that’s what we did.”
Much has changed at Dahlgren over the years. For part of Meyers’ childhood he lived at Boomtown, a section of base housing built during World War II on the same ground that currently hosts the Aegis Training and Readiness Center. Boomtown is gone but Jones, Lysher and Myers agreed that a few areas of the base, such as the housing area around Dahlgren School, look exactly the same as it did during the 1950s.
Some of the biggest changes on base, however, were more than aesthetic. The security fence that divided the installation’s working and residential area created a sense of mystery among Meyers and other children at Dahlgren. His father worked on the top secret ELSIE project, an effort to create lightweight, ground-penetrating nuclear munitions that naval aircraft could deploy against the Soviets’ concrete-protected submarine pens.
The work was conducted in Building 492, which currently houses the Dahlgren History Project. At the time, the facility was guarded by Marines who had just returned from a combat deployment in Korea.
“It didn’t do them any justice to sit them here at Dahlgren,” said Meyers, recounting his father’s stories. “They’d get out and wander around at night with a loaded handgun. You had to be really careful coming in to work at night, because some of them wouldn’t be at their assigned places. My father would come to work late at night and get out [of his car], blow the horn and stand in the headlights by his car until [the Marines] showed up. It was an interesting time.”
The next forum will feature Chris Agnew, whose family was stationed at Dahlgren in the late 1950s, and Elizabeth Lyddane Agnew, NSWC DD employee and daughter of legendary Dahlgren physicist Russell Lyddane. The Sept. 18 discussion begins at 11:30am and will conclude at 12:30pm.