The second of three discussions about the history of Dahlgren presented a child’s eye view of the base as well as a remarkable story of reconnection and love that unfolded over the course of nearly four decades. Chris Agnew, son of well-traveled Navy officer, befriended Elizabeth Lyddane Agnew, daughter of Dahlgren’s first technical director, while both were young teenagers at Dahlgren in the early 1960s. After going their separate ways when Chris’s father received a new assignment, the pair reconnected 37 years later, married and returned to Dahlgren, where Elizabeth works as a scientist for the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division.
The discussion was moderated by Ed Jones, who himself spent his young years onboard the installation. “One of the themes coming through in these discussions is the multigenerational connection to Dahlgren,” he said, opening the forum.
Chris Agnew’s parents met in 1931 along the Panama Canal; his father served on a U.S. battleship and his mother worked for the Ithsmanian Canal Commission. “They married and they raised their family the Navy way-in Hawaii, California, Mississippi, Virginia, Rhode Island, Newfoundland, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington state and Deleware,” he wrote. He would spend a little less than three years at Dahlgren.
Elizabeth Lyddane Agnew spent all of her childhood at Dahlgren, where her father Russell Lyddane served for 23 years as a physicist, the head of the Armor and Projectile Laboratory and eventually, as Dahlgren’s first technical director. He helped usher in a new era at Dahlgren by leveraging the base’s ballistics computers for new and novel missions.
The Agnews’ observations painted an endearing picture of Dahlgren in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the period when Dahlgren’s population was at its zenith. An on-base phone system meant that the operator, one Mrs. Dunning, played an intimate role in the lives of children at Dahlgren.
“I’d come home from school, pick up the phone and say ‘Ms. Dunning, do you know where my mom is?’ She’d say ‘your mother has gone to Fredericksburg and she wants you to start dinner,’” said Elizabeth Agnew. “She knew everything. She knew everybody and all the kids checked in with her.”
Elizabeth lived in no fewer than five houses at Dahlgren, starting with a unit in the now-demolished Boomtown. “We started off in Boomtown,” she said. “Daddy was in a bachelor pad with a bunch of other physicists, which was hilarious. The stories about that are a riot.”
Chris and Elizabeth first met as young teenagers, when Chris’s family moved in next to the Lyddanes. “I was sitting on the front steps reading because this handsome guy with a dog kept walking back and forth across my lawn,” said a smiling Elizabeth.
The exact moment when each party became aware of the other was not entirely clear; Chris remembered noticing Elizabeth while she was sitting inside. “Can you tell they’re married?” Jones asked the amused audience.
“He was a prep school boy so he was hot stuff,” said Elizabeth, describing her budding friendship with a precocious young Chris, known affectionately as “the Professor” by his Dahlgren pals. “We had a small [group of friends] that was very close and we’re still friends with them today.”
Both eventually fell out of touch in the years that followed but maintained mutual friends. “We went to the movies together when I was home on spring break in 1960 and that was the last I saw Elizabeth for a long period of time,” said Chris.
Chris and Elizabeth each went on to marry other beaus but both were single by the late 1990s.
The pair next saw each other at a 1997 Christmas dinner hosted by the family of Capt. A.R. Faust, who commanded the Naval Weapons Laboratory from 1959 to 1960. They married the following April and eventually resettled in Dahlgren a decade later.
Jones discussed Elizabeth’s father, an “iconic” figure at Dahlgren who played a key role in modernizing the base’s mission. “I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that without Dr. Lyddane, we might not be sitting here,” said Jones. “Like so many people at Dahlgren, he was a renaissance man.”
Baltimore native Russell Lyddane was a professor of physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he was drafted after the U.S. entered World War II. Instead of putting on a uniform, Navy authorities realized Lyddane could better serve his country as a scientist at Dahlgren’s Computation Lab.
By the time Lyddane left Dahlgren in 1964, he had helped the mission evolve away from proof-testing naval guns and toward the development of complex combat systems. “He loved being a physicist,” said Elizabeth. “He didn’t like having to go up [to Washington D.C.] to sell Dahlgren over and over again to people who were changing every 18 months. But that’s what he did and he did it for quite a long time.”
By all accounts, Lyddane was a commanding presence during his career at Dahlgren and set high standards for his employees. He also had a photographic memory and spent his college years in labs with the likes of Albert Einstein.
“A lot of people were terrified of him,” said Elizabeth. “But if they knew him well, they knew he was not somebody you needed to be afraid of unless you weren’t doing what you should be doing. He was noisy, explosive. he was very explosive, but he was fair and he was very well-educated.”
Chris became acquainted with his future father-in-law while he was a young teenager on the base. Both men shared a love of reading and Lyddane often loaned Agnew books that helped inspire him to become a historian. Chris returned the favor decades later before Lyddane passed away in 2001. “I remember loaning him my entire set of Samuel Eliot Morison’s [15-volume]’History of United States Naval Operations in World War II’ and he polished that off in less than a week with virtually every page memorized.”
Lyddane was also a dedicated family man. “He was a lot of fun,” said Elizabeth. “He held us to high academic standards and he was very strict. He was probably stricter than my mother. It was the Cleavers: my dad went to work and my mom stayed home. It was an idyllic life.”