Robert Walp (1927 - 2017)

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Alaska lost a true visionary with the passing of Robert Bob McNally Walp on Jan. 26, 2017. Walp, a legendary figure in Alaska telecommunications, was 89 years old. In 1979, Walp and Ron Duncan founded General Communication Inc. (GCI) with the vision of providing innovative technology and telecommunications competition to Alaskans. As president of the company until 1989, Walp guided GCI's growth as a competitive telecommunications carrier to become one of the states largest private employers. Walp was born on Nov. 3, 1927, in Charlottesville, Va. At an early age, he earned the nickname "Tinker," since he enjoyed taking apart and reassembling mechanical objects and inventing and designing various contraptions for his family. He began his career in 1943, as a junior engineer with the Tennessee Eastman Corporation, designing and testing regulators used in the separation of uranium isotopes. Later, he helped develop the communication network used for the atomic bomb tests at the Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. He was a consultant to the Canadian Navy in the development of its Anti-Submarine Warfare torpedo program. In 1953, Walp earned a Master of Science in physics from the California Institute of Technology. In the late 1950s, Walp participated in the conceptual design of the mobile telephone system developed by BellCore. In the 1960s, while working at Hughes Aircraft Company, Walp pioneered the use of satellite telecommunications for lesser-developed regions, including rural Alaska. He married Virginia Morton (1916-2006) in 1963, and later came to Alaska, in the early 1970s, as a consultant on a NASA project, demonstrating medical and education applications on satellite-delivered telephone and television services. During the 1970s, Walp helped guide the development of commercial satellite communication in Alaska as a consultant to the Governors Office of Telecommunications. He was instrumental in establishing the Alaska small earth station system that delivered telephone, data and television services to rural Alaska. In 1975, Gov. Jay Hammond appointed Walp director of that office. In 1979, Walp founded GCI with Ron Duncan from his Bootlegger Cove apartment in Anchorage, Alaska, aiming to provide telephone service to every village in Alaska. Walp's wife, Virginia, would later name the company while dining with Walp at Crows Nest restaurant downtown. Under Walp's leadership, GCI pioneered telemedicine and online education in challenging Arctic conditions, connecting remote communities that previously had no communication with the Outside except for weekly mail drops. Walp initially focused on creating competition for Alascom, the sole long-distance telephone service in the state at the time. By forming GCI, Walp championed and continued to promote a competitive telecom marketplace in Alaska. Walp retired from GCI in 1989, but remained active in the industry and the state. He was a member of the Alaska Board of Education and was on the boards of several educational, telecommunication and arts organizations. He chaired the Visual Arts Center of Alaska and was a member of the board for the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association. He was a founding member of the Pacific Telecommunication Council (PTC) and was conference chair of two PTC annual conferences. In 1998, Walp was named an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow for his leadership in the development of small earth station satellite systems for telecommunications. At the time, he was the second Alaskan to ever receive such recognition, which is the highest status in the largest professional engineering society in the world. Walp enjoyed the outdoors, leading his family on many hiking, rock-climbing and backpacking trips. A longtime supporter of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he was interested in the distinction between that and which and enjoyed martinis, good food and good wine. He leaves behind five children from his marriage to Maria McNamee: Bernie, Susan, Bob, Pat and Mary Cay Walp; grandchildren, Catherine, Paul, David, Zoe, Ethan and Milo; and great-grandchild, Emmett. He was preceded in death by his wife, Virginia. GCI will remember Walp at a memorial service planned for this spring. In lieu of flowers, the family prefers donations to be made in Walp's memory to the following organizations: IEEE Foundation, Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Huntington Library & Gardens and California Institute of Technology.
Published in Anchorage Daily News on Feb. 2, 2017