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Tying up loose ends

Pioneers in stealth technology and vocational education receive honorary degrees

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  • Story by Jamie Scheppers
  • Published: Dec. 15, 2008
Beauford Wayne Robinson

B.W. Robinson today and pictured with his wife, Erma Lee, in 1947. The couple chaperoned the junior/senior prom at Eldon High School when Robinson was a principal there. Photos by Shane Epping and courtesy of B.W. Robinson.

During the 2008 winter commencement ceremonies, the University of Missouri will honor two men who both were pulled away from their pursuit of higher education decades ago but became leaders and innovators in their fields.

One honoree, was asked by the then-president of the University of Missouri to walk away from his pursuit of a doctorate in education and instead become the superintendent of the struggling Rolla, Mo., school district in the 1950s. The other, F. Robert Naka, was an undergraduate engineering student at the University of California-Los Angeles when he was interned with other Japanese Americans after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

Both men accomplished great things and gained acclaim among their peers despite the setbacks to their intended education plans.

Better late than never

B.W. Robinson was a young superintendent in the Eldon, Mo., school district in the early 1950s. One day in 1956, Robinson’s tenth year in the district, Elmer Ellis, the president of the University of Missouri at the time, came into Robinson’s school unannounced and told him of a “great disturbance” in the Rolla school district.

The district had been through several superintendents in just a few short years, and, as a result, the school was struggling to attract and retain quality teachers and students. To make matters worse, the problem snowballed, adversely affecting Rolla’s School of Mines (now known as the Missouri University of Science and Technology). Potential university faculty were hesitant to take teaching jobs in a town that lacked a strong school district for their own children, and current faculty were considering moving away.

President Ellis, impressed by Robinson’s strong record in Eldon, asked Robinson to apply for the Rolla superintendency and revive the struggling district. Though honored, Robinson was hesitant to accept the position. He felt he could still do more good in the Eldon district, his wife was unsure about the necessary relocation, and, perhaps most important of all, he was still working on his doctorate at MU. The job in Rolla would mean abandoning the degree.

After a few phone calls, though, Ellis finally convinced Robinson to accept the job. Robinson applied and was practically a shoe-in with Ellis’s backing. In just one year he felt he had turned the district around.

After nine years as the Rolla superintendent, Robinson accepted a position as Missouri’s Assistant Commissioner of Education, which included the role of director of vocational and technical education. The year was 1964, and President Lyndon B. Johnson had picked up President John F. Kennedy’s interest in vocational training, making it a key part of his Great Society program. The states were beginning to receive an influx on money for that purpose, and Robinson was poised to take advantage of it.

Robinson took control and led the state to develop 56 vocational-education programs throughout Missouri. He developed certification requirements for teachers, fostered the curriculum development and worked to expand the role of women in vocational education. Robinson also worked hard to recruit the best teachers possible.

“We were looking for people who had experience in the local community,” Robinson says. “It was important for the community to respect the teachers so that the students wouldn’t have trouble finding jobs.”

Those 56 vocational institutions are all still active in some form or another, and at age 92 , Robinson continues to work as a doorkeeper for the Missouri State Senate and as a Salvation Army bell ringer.

A victim of war

Robert Naka

F. Robert Naka today and as an an electrical engineering student at MU in 1944. Photos courtesy the Missouri Shamrock, April 1944, and by Justin Allardyce Knight.

Robert Naka was ripped away from his studies at UCLA shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He and his parents were interned along with more than 120,000 other Japanese Americans for the duration of World War II.

During this time, a group of university presidents formed the Japanese American Student Relocation Council, which was supported by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. It was the foresight of this group that enabled Naka and other university students whose education had been interrupted to relocate to universities outside of the Western Exclusion Zone (western Washington and Oregon, southern Arizona and the entire state of California), where they could then finish their education.

After nine months in the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the high desert of East Central California, Naka moved to Columbia, Mo., to finish his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Naka then earned a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate from Harvard University.

Despite his mistreatment during World War II, Naka went on to serve on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, where he consulted on various advanced satellite systems. He eventually was chosen to supervise the National Reconnaissance Office, a secret spy satellite organization, and also served as chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force. Ironically, given his internment, this position made him one of the most trusted Americans in the nation.

Naka made several contributions to the military, but he is best known for being one of the three men who developed the radar cross-section reduction technology used for the U-2 spy plane — the trait that made it so stealthy. He was then the sole designer of a major portion of the A-12’s stealth design. The single-seat Mach 3 A-12 led to the development of the more recognizable SR-71 “Blackbird.” Naka also made recommendations for the development of other aircraft, including the B-2 and F-117.

Naka served the country outside his work as well. He and his wife were active philanthropists.

“One day, when our four children were little, the oldest about 15 and the youngest about 6, we were sitting out in our patio,” Naka says. “Suddenly my wife announced that they should not expect that we would leave them any money because we were going to donate it all to charitable causes.”

Despite philosophical differences (Naka likes to support education, but his wife preferred to support organizations such as the Salvation Army), the couple worked hard to give money where it could be best utilized.

One example of their generosity: In 1988 Naka received a $20,000 reparations check that was meant as an apology for his internment. He took that money, added $10,000 from his own pocket, and donated it. Half went to the Quakers who had helped him relocate to Missouri, and the other half went to MU to be used for undergraduate scholarships. Nearly 40 students have benefited from that gift so far.

Naka and Robinson will receive their honorary degrees during the MU Graduate School’s commencement ceremony at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 19, in the Hearnes Center.

Read more in:  Beyond CampusOn CampusScience & TechnologyEducation

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012