Life lessons from the farm: responsibility, shared fate, effectiveness
Steve Girrens, Associate Labs Director for Nuclear Deterrence Div. 2000, discusses his Kansas roots, how he found Los Alamos, and what being at Sandia means to him.
Growing up on a wheat and dairy farm in Schulte, Kansas (near Wichita), Steve Girrens was driving a tractor when some kids were learning to ride a bike.
His grandfather owned a farm that grew and grew, due in large part to his family’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“Half the farm was taken by eminent domain when they built the Wichita airport and my dad and grandfather saw an opportunity (circa 1954),” he recalls. “To make a living, my dad was working at the airport and he made a deal with them to farm a portion of the unused land. That deal lasted for decades.”
The farm expanded along with the airport and the Girrens family was farming close to 1,500 acres of airport land during its peak in the 1970s.
“There is always so much to do on a farm,” says Steve. “It presents you with as much responsibility as you can handle, as early as capable.”
Steve’s dad inherited the farm from his grandfather and as the eldest son, Steve became a partner in high school.
“My dad said, ‘This is your field,’ he recalls. “What a responsibility, but it’s the only life I knew. I enjoyed it.”
One of the first lessons instilled in the wheat fields, was that of a shared fate.
All for one and one for all
“If there’s no crop, no one eats,” says Steve. “It becomes an intrinsic all for one and one for all. I think that mentality applies to all of us at Sandia and across the enterprise as well. In order to get the work done for the good of the nation, of the world, it means all forces working together.”
At 19, Steve moved into his own home on the farm — the original farmhouse — and attended college full time at Wichita State University.
“I remember the first few tests during fall semester were always the hardest,” he says. “The end of September, early October was wheat planting season and we had much to do. Once I got through that, the school year would become easier.”
Farming also taught Steve lessons in efficiency and how to optimize.
“We would never buy a new tractor or equipment if we didn’t absolutely need it — only when we had to, not because we wanted to. It didn’t have to be excellent, it had to be effective. My parents didn’t have much and they stretched everything.”
That pragmatism led Steve into the engineering field. After scoring well on the math ACT, an engineering professor presented Steve with some numbers.
“He showed me what an engineer made right out of the gate and talked about the exciting, hands-on work I could do and I said, ‘I’m in.’ I was ready to work and make a living right away.”
After college, Steve left the family farm in the hands of his father and younger brother to look for the next opportunity. He sent cover letters to Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, and to several private engineering companies.
“I had never heard of the labs, but my professor told me about the work and I thought they sounded like the coolest places on earth.”
In 1979, he accepted an offer at Los Alamos National Lab. In addition to believing in the mission and thinking the work was “so cool” he was immediately drawn to the outdoor amenities on the hill.
“I didn’t have any city life to miss. Outside of work, I was consumed by recreational activities. My friends and I loved skiing Pajarito and we built softball fields in White Rock.”
It was there in a field of a different kind where Steve met Sharon, his wife of 34 years. She was working in Parks and Recreation for Los Alamos County while he was building his softball “legacy.” For decades, he played softball and coached baseball on those fields. He coached University of New Mexico standout Alex Kirk, who played basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers, along with many kids who went on to work at Los Alamos and Sandia national labs.
One such kid, Ken Hernandez (2276), would later welcome him to Sandia.
“On my second day here, I get this email with the subject, ‘welcome coach,’ and Ken sent a nice note welcoming me and sharing a photo of when I coached him back in 1983!” he says. “People have been welcoming and accepting and I appreciate that.”
Sharon and Steve married in April 1983 and he began his PhD program in August 1983 at Colorado State University.
“Sharon had her community in Los Alamos and I had mine and we left to move to Fort Collins,” he says. “That’s when it became our life. I think starting a life together in a new place was the best way to become a stronger couple. We loved our time there.”
Sharon’s father was also a Kansas farm boy, who was sent to Los Alamos during World War II. Her mother is from the Pojoaque area and her side is rich with histories of working at LANL.
Apart from two assignments in Washington, D.C., one where he worked in NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs, Steve and Sharon raised their two children in Los Alamos. The family’s free time was spent skiing, hiking, golfing, and volunteering in the community.
“My kids had a very different upbringing than mine,” he says. “It was important to us that they see life outside Los Alamos.” Steve and his family made seven trips to Mexico over the years to help build homes in poverty-stricken areas.
Today, the couple’s children both live in Denver, which means it’s just a short trip to reunite.
“Though they’re grown and making families of their own, our master plan is to schedule family trips so we can still see them as much as possible,” he says. Daughter, Quinn, was married last year and his son, Craig, is heading down the aisle this October.
Career highlights and looking ahead
During his tenure at LANL, Steve spent more than 35 years working in many facets of engineering, including design, computational analysis, prototype testing, and transition to manufacturing.
“The biggest impacts in my career and my greatest technical contribution is the talented people I’ve hired. My satisfaction has been seeing the success of those people through the years. They’re now hiring and bringing in that talent to the enterprise.”
In full-circle fashion, four decades after he originally applied to Sandia, Steve joined the NTESS contract as the Associate Laboratories Director for Nuclear Deterrence. He and Sharon are once again using the outdoors to acclimate to Albuquerque.
“We bought a home in an area where we could hike and mountain bike on the weekends.”
Though much of his time in recent months has been consumed by the transition, Steve says he’s trying to restore balance in his life and he thinks it’s important for all of us.
“It’s a work in progress,” he says. “The job can eat up as much time as you can give. It’s true in any position. Sandia is a living organism — our people have great minds sitting atop living bodies. I’m always worried about balance, mentors, succession, the health of the organism. It’s got to relax, breathe, think, learn, exercise; it ebbs and flows. The organization evolves, adapts over time.”
Between learning the ins and outs of Sandia, meeting with sponsors in D.C., visiting Sandia/ California and the Kansas City plant, working on his first annual assessment review at Sandia, and helping to oversee the Labs’ largest nuclear weapons workload in more than 30 years, Steve says he is humbled by what he’s seen in his first four months.
“This is the job of a lifetime for me,” he says. “I want to add value here. When I see the talent involved in performing our mission, I think, ‘How did I get this lucky?’ It is such an honor to be here. I take that honor and responsibility very seriously.”