Ben Charlson, a pioneering engineer in the nuclear power industry who was part of an elite team tapped to design early reactor systems that powered the U.S. Navy into the nuclear age, died Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, in St. Augustine, Florida. Charlson, who had been battling a long illness, died peacefully surrounded by his two daughters, who had cared for him in his final months. He was 83.
Charlson rose through the ranks of Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory to lead key aspects of that company's Navy nuclear program. Early in his career, he served on a small team that designed the nuclear reactors that power the USS Enterprise, the nation's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
He went on to manage the design and construction of propulsion systems for numerous Polaris-class nuclear-powered submarines and oversee critical special projects, including the refueling of the Enterprise in 1968 with a nuclear fuel array that obviated the need for further refueling for more than a decade.
Known for his ability to meet the exacting requirements of the nuclear Navy's chief military officer, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Charlson was tasked to oversee the Naval Reactors Facility, then located at a government installation in eastern Idaho.
After more than a quarter-century with Westinghouse, Charlson was recruited to Stone & Webster Engineering Corp. in Boston to advance its civilian nuclear power program. Charlson managed some of the nation's most challenging nuclear power plant design and construction projects, including projects at Nine Mile Point in New York and the Sequoyah plants for the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Charlson also managed an early project to extract oil from the tar sands in northern Alberta, Canada. Again, he rose through the executive ranks and ultimately served as the company's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. He retired from Stone & Webster in 1995.
A self-made man in every sense of the word, Charlson was born on the eve of the Great Depression on June 18, 1929. His father, William, was a Railway Express worker. His mother, Molly, was a retail clerk. Charlson often attributed his underprivileged upbringing as a major motivation for his drive and work ethic.
An imposing figure at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, Charlson was a star athlete at Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was All-State center on the basketball team and played wide receiver for the football team, lettering also in track and volleyball. He was the first member of his family ever to attend college -- the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a degree in Electrical Engineering and played football.
His college career was interrupted by the Korean War. Charlson enlisted in the Air Force, and was assigned to military intelligence, where he served as a code-breaker and analyst.
As he was completing his degree at Pitt, he was recruited by Westinghouse to join the Bettis team supporting the nascent nuclear Navy. It was in that role that he developed a reputation for exacting standards, creative problem solving and highly effective team management.
Until his final illness, Charlson spent the summer months of his retirement in Arco, Idaho, and his winters in St. Augustine, Florida.
Charlson's death comes less than four months after the death of Edith Charlson, his wife of 32 years.
He is survived by his sister, Elaine Weisberg of Monroeville, Pennsylvania; as well as three children from his prior marriage, Michael (wife Susan Austin) of Oakland, California, Frances (husband Harold Fethe) of Half Moon Bay, California and St. Augustine, Florida, and Diane McQueen of St. Augustine, Florida. Survivors also include Edith's children, James Barnhart of Idaho Falls and Bonny MacDaniels (husband Greg) of Ladson, South Carolina. Charlson and Edith were also grandparents and great-grandparents many times over.
Edith's daughter, Sherry Bingham of Arco, Idaho, preceded Charlson in death.
A viewing is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday, November 2, at the Anderson Family Funeral Home in Arco, Idaho. The funeral will follow at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, November 3, at Lost River Cemetery in Moore, Idaho.
In lieu of flowers, please send contributions to Ayla's Acres No-Kill Animal Rescue, Inc., PO Box 1634, St. Augustine, FL 32085.