Second time and hopefully better than the first.
Memories of My Friend, Tom Ashe
I have known Tom Ashe since the autumn of 1971. We also worked together in parts of the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2002-2004. Tom was a good friend and the best all purpose engineer I have ever known or will ever know. We spent a lot of time together in the 70s because we worked as long as 26 hour days. There was a lot of dead time waiting for systems to come up to the levels where we could operate a prototype engine for space power. During those dead times and during dinners with our wives and during different projects, I learned about him which I will relate now. Hopefully, I have gotten the majority of this correct but memories evolve over 4 decades.
Tom grew up on Long Island with an older sister. Tom's Dad was also in the engineering profession – he worked with refrigeration systems, I believe. His mother was a very sweet lady who I met when she moved to Phoenix after her husband's death.
As a 12 year old, Tom found a length of pipe and a ball that fit fairly tightly in the pipe. From those parts, an end piece and some propellant, Tom built a cannon and fired a solid ball at the side of his Dad's garage expecting the wooden garage wall to stop it. Unfortunately for Tom, the projectile had much more velocity than he had anticipated. It went through the wall and through at least one of the car windows before exiting the garage, hitting the roof of the house next door and taking off several shingles. He caught more than heck from his Dad. From what I remember, this was earliest exposure to ballistics and projectiles and probably engendered an interest in putting things into space. Perhaps that put Tom on the path to become and engineer. Tom went to the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn – a small but excellent school – and majored in Mechanical Engineering. He commuted from his parents' home on Long Island on the train and subway system. Since his commute was through some of the less safe parts of the city, he put bricks in his bookbag so he could wield it as a weapon. I believe he used it once to protect himself. During summers, he worked in construction in NYC refurbishing the JP Morgan building, I believe, where they were removing ancient safe doors that weighed 12 tons. One was dropped and went through several floors including the sub-basements. He made more hourly than in his first engineering job but the risks were considerably higher. After he graduated from Brooklyn Poly, he worked for Pratt&Whitney Aircraft in E. Hartford Connecticut for two years and then went on to GE in Evandale, Ohio before coming to Garrett AiResearch in Phoenix in 1968. While in Connecticut, Tom had a Sunbeam Alpine that he made race ready and he drove it at Watkins Glen. At one point, he took the engine out of his car and took it into his apartment where he rebuilt and tuned it and then, without a muffler installed, he poured some gas into the carburetor fired up the engine in his living room. That resulted in one horrendous racket. I believe he was kicked out of his apartment or at least threatened with eviction but at least he knew the engine was up to snuff. He also built a seaplane while he lived in Ohio but he sold that before moving either to Arizona.
When Tom came to Arizona for a job interview in 1968, he looked at a map of Phoenix and saw this blue channel on the map called the Salt River. Tom being an avid fisherman, packed his fishing gear hoping to do some fishing during the trip. Alas, the river was dry and Tom didn't get to fish but he did fall in love with the west. Fortunately for those of us who knew him here, he accepted a job offer and moved here with his wife, Gloria. He soon bought an F100 pick up truck and a home in Scottsdale. At some point he rescued either a retriever or setter named Red Dog who was his almost constant companion in the F100 when Tom was out doing errands. Red Dog was a bit crazy, very friendly and could be difficult to control. He was an early member of the long line of affectionate dogs that Tom had through his life.
After a few years in that home, he moved into a new home near 64th St and Cactus where the lot was large enough for horses and he went into the business of raising quarter horses. He built a barn for the horses, unfortunately, out of green lumber. Immediately, the barns began to warp itself out of shape while making a variety of groaning noises. His horses would never use the barn. After a major storm that tore off his roof and destroyed the barn, he was able to build a proper barn with the insurance money.
Red Dog had many exciting escapade at that house. He was forever getting loose after Tom and his wife had gone to work. Tom put a long rope on him so he could only travel the back yard, or so Tom thought. Tom almost had left for work one day but stopped and walked around for no good reason to the front of the house and found Red Dog had jumped the fence but was hanging from his collar at the end of the rope at the top of the fence but and fortunately he was ok. Tom put Red Dog back over the fence and shortened the rope. And thus Red Dog was saved from himself. Another time on a Sunday morning, Tom was in the front of the house and Red Dog was with him. It had rained and there were numerous puddles and muddy areas and Red Dog had walked through all of them. Tom stopped to talk with a neighbor lady who was in her Sunday Church clothes and sitting in her Mercedes. Red Dog, being ever the social animal who loved everyone, jumped in through the window onto the lady's lap. The lady, though muddy, never complained and just let Red Dog out of the car. That dog led a charmed life and he was rewarded with Tom's love and loyalty.
Tom was never much interested in the conventional, especially with respect to automobiles. At that time for his commuting car, he drove a supercharged Corvair, which, though out of favor with the general public, was a really fun car. But one had to be as discriminating as Tom to know that. The car was red at one time. By the time I saw it, the Corvair's paint was heavily oxidized. The car wasn't air conditioned so Tom always left the windows open. His attitude was that any dust storm would blow as much dust out as it blew in.
After a few years in the home near Cactus, he bought a 2 ½ acre property and built a home north of Shea on 96th street. He built, with the help of Rick Robbins, a large sucker rod corral for his horses but they almost blinded themselves with the welding using Tom's home made arc welder. Tom also built a barn. Being an engineer and having learned from his first barn build experience and also having experience with how horses damage virtually anything by leaning or kicking, Tom built the barn to end all barns structurally. It was 1200 sq ft with walls of concrete block with triple the normal rebar and all of the open space in the block filled with concrete. That barn could take a near nuclear miss. I, with some other coworkers, helped Tom roof the barn on a hot day while imbibing on a Coors or two. It was miraculous that none of us were hurt. Tom reciprocated with help on some of my projects. He helped me frame and stucco my carport conversion (and we both had the scars from the lime in the stucco to prove it) as well as installing solar collectors on the roof. He ultimately sold the house when he married Sue in late 1979 and that ended his foray into the horse breeding business.
Tom was my original mentor on closed cycle engines when I came to Garrett. There was nothing in area of science, engineering, development that he could not do nor teach himself to do. He was proficient in structural analysis, thermodynamics, heat transfer, general design both with and without computer finite element analysis. He created models of compressors and turbines based on their geometry for our analysis programs. He learned how to program in machine language and was excellent with Fortran and later Basic. He created an equation for prediction of the performance of a metallic multi-layer insulation that I helped him prove with a computer analysis showing the temperature profile of each layer. Tom's equation agreed within .001% of the computer representation. Tom could learn and operate anything. He was the lead engineer in the design, assembly and operation of our high vacuum facility for testing a power system for space. Tom operated the residual gas analyzer and the gas chromatograph among other equipment after teaching himself to use the equipment. The model he developed for mass transfer and oxidation of Niobium was proved 3 years later after continuous testing at Oak Ridge Laboratory. He as treated as an equal by the Ph.D.s at Oak Ridge, Battelle Institute, ThermoElectron, Department of Energy, NASA and the government consultants. At one meeting with NASA, our supervisor was in one meeting and Tom was in another. Our supervisor cut his meeting as short as possible thinking that Tom might need his help. When he got to the meeting, Tom had the NASA engineers convinced of his approach and really didn't need any help. By the late 70s, Tom and I became each other's alter ego. We could finish each other sentences and could each effectively critiques the others ideas and define better approaches and solutions. After a period of time, we became interchangeable on any analysis we had shared. Although Tom was my leader on most activities, he would always claim if I found an error in his work, that I was then the boss. And then we would revert back when he caught one of my errors. Tom paid me the ultimate complement in my young career when I was drafted away form Closed Cycle Engine Group to work on a compressor design. After being given a replacement contract engineer, he told his supervisor to get me back over there and working with him. And regardless of claims, Tom was always the smarter one.
We had nicknames for each other – Tom was Tashe (tashee), or Tommy, I was H, or HJ or Jimmy. We played bridge sometimes at lunchtimes and I was Hideous Hog and Tom was Rueful Rabbit. One has to play bridge to understand those.
My wife Linda and I did things socially with Tom over the decades but most frequently in the 70s and early 80s. Tom and his wife attended my marriage in 1974 and I was best man at his marriage to Sue in 1979. One time, when we were working 70 hour weeks, we all went to a restaurant call “The Other Place” on Lincoln Drive and Tom and I each ordered the whole fried chicken while our wives both ate something much more reasonable. We both proceeded to down a whole fried chicken. The waitress said she never say anyone do that before.
In the mid 70s, Tom became a Professional Engineer and was doing outside consulting in solar and mechanical systems. He convinced me to pursue that path so that we could go into the solar business. And so I also passed the test with the help of two books that Tom had lent me. We took a course on what it takes to start and run a small business, purchased materials for prototype solar collectors for water heating based on fin design and absorptive coating optimized for cost.
Unfortunately, because of the inflation rate , a fall Tom from a ladder at my house and changes in both of our personal lives we never went down that path. It would have been a wild and exciting ride. Tom remarried in 1979 to Sue and we had a son and daughter in 1981 and 1985. Tom's son Christopher was born to Sue in 1990. At the same time our career paths our social paths diverged but we always remained friends.
Tom and I worked on related projects in the late 80's and again worked together in the mid 90s on the Flight Demonstrator Engine with NASA for the Russian MIR Space station. Tom was responsible for the system performance of a solar engine that circled the earth and would provide power even while in the shadow of the earth. After that program ended, Tom and I worked together on the design of hardware using a very exotic material for a missile interceptor. Tom showed his diverse talents by doing structural analysis of key components.
From 2002 -2004 we worked again together on JIMO (Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter Program) where Tom retrained me on the design models that we had created in the 70s. Fortunately for both myself and for Honeywell, Tom had come back from retirement to work on that project. That task was made even more interesting because each of us was providing our analysis to a competing company. Tom also had to share his working knowledge of the models with me and provide training on the use of the models which I not seen or used for 25 years. We got it done and had a lot of fun working together on space power systems.
During his long career, Tom earned several patents and was admired by anyone who ever had the pleasure of working with him. He was honest but diplomatic and never played games to advance his career. He let his abilities do the talking for him. His self-confidence showed in the many problems he solved. But he was always humble about his achievements. He influenced me in many ways. A relatively trivial way was printing instead of writing in long hand. Tom had beautiful printing and he always use a straight edge to define the bottom of his lettering. I didn't copy the straight edge, but I still print to this day. But most importantly, he taught me than any problem could be solved if broken into small enough parts.
I can remember many of the significant events in his life because Tom was so happy in relating them. The best times include meeting, dating and marrying his now deceased wife Sue, the birth of Chris, his son, Chris' academic success in the school in Utah and his success as a hockey player, his initial meeting with Dee and his marriage to Dee. With both Sue and Dee, he knew right away that they were right for him. I met Dee when Tom was in the hospital in 2005 because his blood pressure had dropped to some ridiculously low level. Bill Harper and I went to visit him one evening after work and fortunately Tom was already recovering from some misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment. It was obvious that Tom and Dee had already bonded with each other just by the way that the looked and spoke to each other. And so it would be Tom and Dee through thick and thin.
After Tom's retirement and the completion of the beautiful home that he and Dee, designed and built, we reconnected socially. It was great so see the pleasure that they took in each other's company whenever we visited or went out to dinner with Tom and Dee. And Tom got to do so much of the fishing that he loved so much.
Tom had many more than the normal bad breaks during his life. He never complained and just fought his way through them. His battle with cancer is a testimonial to that resiliency, his attitude and optimism.
It is a great honor to have worked with him and known him in all of the chapters of his life.
I had the pleasure of working with Tom on the MK50 torpedo program and worked for Tom in my first supervisory position on the Heavyweight Torpedo program back in the 80's. He was a true gentleman with a great sense of humor and professional demeanor that made all of our jobs easier. I believe Tom was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known, or probably ever will know. He was a true technical genius and just a great guy that I'm glad to have known.
I knew Tom from out time working together at Garrett/Honeywell. A better engineer and person I have yet to meet. If there is an engineering problem that needs to be solved behind those pearly gates I am sure that Tom will be the one to do it.
I didn't know Tom well. But I do know that he was kind and good, funny and generous. His face lit up an entire room each time Dee walked into it. How could you not admire a man with that much love in his heart. He was loved so much by so many - his family and an entire community. To Dee, Chris, Whitney and Renee, we send all our love. Rod and Margie Walston, Orinda, CA
It was such an honor to be able to take care of Tom. We will miss him very much. My thoughts and prayers are with Dee and the entire Ash Family.