Octave DuTemple
Octave DuTemple — Photo by Adam Johnson '98
“We were five or six thousand feet over the Atlantic, and suddenly all four engines went dead.”

Octave DuTemple

by Marcia Goodrich

If Octave DuTemple were to tell you everything he knew, he'd have to kill you. Fortunately, he's so accustomed to keeping secrets that he'd be hard-pressed to break his silence now.

DuTemple's circuitous and covert career is characterized by second chances, near misses, and ultimata veiled as polite requests. Born in 1920, he was swept from a working-class childhood to Michigan Tech, to the inner reaches of the US nuclear weapons program, and finally to leadership of the American Nuclear Society. In the meantime, he became an accomplished commercial pilot and flight instructor.

DuTemple was born and raised in the small town of Hubbell, where local mining operations processed their ore. "My father worked in the smelter and then the reprocessing plant for C&H," he says. Closed since 1970, the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company was once the region's largest copper mining operation.

His father wasn't the only wage earner in the family. DuTemple pitched in when he was in grade school, working for 10 cents an hour helping a neighbor roof his house. "I used to haul the shingles up to the roof," he says. "I tried to work ten hours to make a dollar a day, but I never quite made it."

He excelled in high school and was awarded the thousand-dollar, no-strings-attached C. H. Benedict Scholarship, a fabulous sum for 1937. C. Harry Benedict, who funded the scholarship, was the head metallurgist at C&H and lectured at what was then the Michigan College of Mining and Technology. After his death in 1963, the University renamed the Ores Research Building the Benedict Laboratory in his memory.

While he could have gone almost anywhere, DuTemple opted to enroll at Michigan Tech. Thanks to the scholarship, he was also able to bring along his friend Paul Hainault, who later taught at the University. "I gave him money to start his first year, and then his family got together and helped put him through," DuTemple says.

Before enrolling in college, however, the 16-year-old DuTemple joined the Army Reserve, a decision that would come back to bite him, albeit lightly. "I fudged my age," he remembers.

He majored in chemical engineering but drifted away from his studies. "I should have graduated in '41, but I had so many incompletes. I goofed off, I guess," he says. "The main reason was that I lost my mother; she died when I was a freshman, and I didn't have her to prompt me."

After leaving school, DuTemple learned to fly at Tech's pilot school, eventually becoming an instructor and earning a commercial license. Pan American hired him as a pilot in January 1942, and he studied celestial navigation and again was asked to serve as an instructor. It was a pretty good life, says DuTemple. Unfortunately, his considerable skills and reserve status finally attracted the attention of the army, which gave him the choice of teaching wartime pilots at the Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation voluntarily—or involuntarily.

DuTemple pondered the matter deeply for a second or two and graciously opted to volunteer. He taught both flight and ground school at Roscoe Turner, in Indianapolis, then navigation at Ball State University, before finally being called to active duty in 1945 as an aviation cadet. "I had to go through all the training again," DuTemple said, still awed by logic that would require a commercial flight instructor to take flying lessons. Meanwhile, he helped out his instructors by signing their logbooks so they could get their commercial pilot licenses.

Though technically a cadet, DuTemple sometimes got to fly. There were a few harrowing moments, even though he never saw combat. "I remember the first time I landed a Sikorsky flying boat. It was at Coral Gables, Florida, and I thought I was a submarine," he said. "Another time, we were about five or six thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean, and suddenly all four engines went dead. The pilot threw a switch behind my head. And threw it again. And finally, the engines all started. By then we'd dropped about two thousand feet."

After his discharge, DuTemple was tapped to deliver a PT19 aircraft to Argentina. Footloose and adventuresome, he ended up flying around Latin America for a year. "That was really fun," he remembers. "In Brazil, we wouldn't drink the water, so we'd buy beer. After we'd get up in the air, we'd drink it. We flew about three hours; by that time we were sober, and we'd land. We got by all right."

In the spring of 1947, he returned to Michigan Tech, ready to put his goofing-off days behind him. However, reentry into the chemical engineering program was far from certain. "[Department head] Dr. Cole said the faculty was split on whether to let me in or not, and he cast the deciding vote in my favor," DuTemple said.

Cole's trust was vindicated. DuTemple completed his bachelor's and master's degrees in 1948 and 1949, even as he filled in at his other alma mater, Lake Linden–Hubbell High School, teaching physics and chemistry for an instructor who was out sick with tuberculosis. After graduation, DuTemple took Cole's advice and agreed to interview with Argonne National Lab. He was given directions that could have come from a John Le Carré novel: proceed to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and walk around. "I did, and after I got there, someone came up to me and asked, ‘Are you Mr. DuTemple?' I said yes, the next thing I knew we went behind an exhibit, though a plywood door, and down the steps. In the bottom of the museum was a whole group of people working."

He earned his security clearance and was assigned to the atomic weapons program. "When I left Argonne, the head of our operation said I was never to discuss what I did with anyone, and of course, I never have," he says.

However, he does reveal that he was once given the chance to maneuver a nuclear sub. "There was a guy who sat next to me and told me what to do. He said, ‘You are either a pilot or you've done this before,'" DuTemple remembers with some satisfaction. "We are out in the North Atlantic, about a fathom above the sea bottom. It was nerve-racking, so I brought her up. That was my experience with a nuclear sub."

After ten years at Argonne, he was recruited for a newly created position: executive director of the fledgling American Nuclear Society. "I turned them down about three times, and finally Dr. Norman Hilberry of Argonne said I should go." So he did. "I'd been in the army long enough to know that if a superior officer tells you to do something, you do it."

Hilberry's advice proved sound, both for the society and for DuTemple. During his thirty-two-year tenure, the American Nuclear Society grew from about 2,000 members to 17,000. He launched Nuclear News, which grew to be the most important journal in the nuclear industry. In 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara invited him to join the Defense Orientation Conference Association, which allowed him to keep abreast of programs and policies relating to national security. He traveled the world, making fifteen trips to China alone. His efforts on behalf of the peaceful use of nuclear energy gained him international recognition, and he was named an honorary member of the Chinese Nuclear Society. His only regret, he says, was that never learned to speak Mandarin.

Retired since 1990, DuTemple remains a staunch advocate of nuclear energy. Eventually, the United States will have to restore its nuclear power program, he cautions, "or we'll freeze in the dark."

Among his awards and recognitions, DuTemple has received the University's highest honor, the Melvin Calvin Medal of Distinction, the Board of Control Silver Medal, and an honorary Doctorate in Engineering from Michigan Tech. The American Nuclear Society renamed its headquarters in his honor. But perhaps the most distinctive monument to his career is an unlikely object of outdoor art, just outside the Lake Linden Village Hall.

The huge propeller caught DuTemple's eye during his travels, when he was visiting a soon-to-close American air base in northern Africa. "We were going to be kicked out of Libya, and I wanted that propeller," he explains. "I used whatever influence I had through the air force. They asked how I'd get it to Lake Linden, and I said, ‘You guys are going to fly it up there.' And they did."

When pumped for more stories about his career, however, DuTemple graciously demurs. "I did lots of interesting things in my job, but I don't think we'd better talk about them," he says. "A lot of that material is still secret, and I've forgotten most of it anyway."