Once-in-a-lifetime chance to work at Sandia enticed Dave Douglass out of retirement

By Bill Murphy

Photography By Randy Montoya

Friday, July 21, 2017

Once-in-a-lifetime chance to work at Sandia enticed Dave Douglass out of retirement

Sandia Deputy Labs Director Dave Douglass

Picture this scene: It’s the early 1960s and a boy, a little boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, is at the lake with his family. The visits to the lake, a regular summer rite, become an integral and formative experience, shaping the boy into the man he became.

On this day, the boy stands on the shore and, doing it just the way his dad and grandpa do it, he skips stones across the water, good flat ones, just like his dad showed him. When a stone skips the way it’s supposed to, he sees a big grin light up his dad’s face.

That, in broad strokes is Dave Douglass’s first childhood memory: An early exclamation point on a happy boyhood at Table Rock Lake, Missouri.

Now fast-forward five decades. Dave, after a career of consequence and accomplishment, is happily retired at his home on Beaver Lake in Arkansas, where he and his wife, Tammy, are enjoying life to the fullest, especially savoring the chance to spend quality time with their three grandchildren. Dave, who spent several years as president of the Honeywell-managed Kansas City Plant, now can do the things he really loves: fishing, boating, and crafting furniture in his custom woodworking shop.

As far as Dave is concerned, nothing, but nothing, is going to disrupt this long and carefully planned phase of his married life.

“I was perfectly happy in retirement,” Dave says now. “I’d been retired three years. I’d gotten a lot of phone calls during that period — ‘Would you be interested in this?’ — and pretty much the answer was always ‘No, and don’t call me back.’

‘Let’s do this’

“I had no plans to go back to work. I was at the lake, I was in my woodshop, getting to see my grandkids a lot, but when the folks called about being part of the team to manage Sandia, it didn’t take long, just a quick discussion with my wife, to say, ‘Let’s do this.’ We knew it would disrupt that comfortable lifestyle that we worked for, but I knew the lab well enough [from his time at KCP, which works closely with Sandia] to know how cool a job this was going to be.

"You just can’t say no to being part of something like this.”

“I could easily have stayed fishing; I was very comfortable there, but this was a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity. You just can’t say no to being part of something like this.”

Although the forests and rivers and lakes have beckoned Dave all his life, he’s a city boy, born in and raised in Kansas City. He was a third-generation employee at NNSA’s Kansas City Plant, renamed since Dave retired as the Kansas City National Security Campus. Dave’s father led one of the plant’s electrical engineering groups and his grandfather ran the model shop. Sadly, neither lived long enough to see Dave rise to the top of the plant’s org chart.

Dave was a good, attentive student in high school, but school didn’t consume his whole life. “School was school,” he says. “I liked school and I did well in school, but I wasn’t one of those guys who lived for school. When school was out I was ready for school to be out, ready to go to the lake, get outdoors. In the summertime we were always outdoors.”

During high school, Dave did gymnastics for a while but his true love was basketball, a love that was unrequited. Hard as it is to believe now, Dave, who stands 6’2”, was one of the smallest boys in his class, far too small to play basketball at the competitive level. “During my sophomore year in gym class, there was only one other guy in my class I could wrestle because I was so small,” he says.

GONE FISHIN’ — Dave Douglass and his grandchildren try their luck from the dock at Dave’s home on Beaver Lake, Arkansas. “We go perch fishing off the dock virtually everytime they visit,” Dave says.            (Photo courtesy of Dave Douglass)

During those years, Dave was active in his church and had more friends through the church’s youth group than in high school. Church left its mark and his faith remains a touchstone for Dave. “My wife and I have always tried to make that an important part of our life,” he says.

A co-op student at Caterpillar

Dave’s initiation into the world of work made a mark, too. He lasted just long enough on his first job to know he wanted to do something else. “I wasn’t even 16 and I got a job going door to door trying to arrange appointments for a salesman to come by and sell home siding. I hated it; hated that sales stuff. Hated it so much I quit after one day.”

He had better luck on a subsequent job. During college at Kansas State he was a co-op student employee with Caterpillar Inc., spending every other semester and summer moving between Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, and Peoria, Illinois, Caterpillar’s corporate headquarters, doing different jobs. His first job for the heavy equipment giant was working on the manufacturing line, for which he had to join the United Auto Workers union.

 “During my first week there they had a wildcat strike. As a new hire, I was on probation — I had to either show up to work or I was going to be fired. Well, I couldn’t afford to be fired so I had to figure out how to get across this UAW picket line. Fortunately, there were some leaders on the picket line who understood my predicament and let me through. All in all that was a great job. It allowed me to pay my way through school and it added meaning to the engineering curriculum.”

A wise counselor intervenes

Dave excelled in engineering at college, but engineering wasn’t his first choice of career. He still heard the call of the outdoors when he started thinking about his future. “If I’d had my druthers I’d have gone into forestry,” he says, “but I had a wise counselor through our church group in high school and he sat me down and said, ‘You know, there are 5,000 forestry graduates every year in the United States and there are 100 jobs.’ That’s when I decided to go into engineering.”

‘There are 5,000 forestry graduates every year and 100 jobs.’ That’s when I decided to go into engineering.”

If that decision was a pivotal point in his life, it was nothing compared to a life decision that had its beginnings on the beach at Padre Island during a spring break from school. That’s where he met his future wife. 

“We had mutual friends,” Dave says. “It wasn’t planned at all. We met on the beach. It was casual, almost just a passing hello.” And that was that, or so it seemed.

“I think it was maybe a month or two later that Tammy called me. She was in a sorority and they were having their spring formal. She said, ‘Hey, do you want to go?’ so I thought, ‘Why not, she’s buying the dinner.’ And after that, well, we saw a lot of each other and we were married a year later.” They’ve been married 36 years now.

Dave says the day he was married was the happiest day of his life, along with the births of his three sons and his grandchildren.

“Those memories stick in my mind. And being there to see my son become a father — that was a very rewarding and happy moment.”

The pleasures of woodworking

As Dave’s career has advanced he has inevitably moved away from hands-on engineering and he misses that. He makes up for it, though, through one of his great passions: woodworking.

“I’ve always loved working with wood, ever since I was in 7th grade and took my first shop class. Now I have a very comprehensive woodworking shop back at my home at the lake.” He builds furniture and has done a lot of the cabinets for a remodel of the house.

“By having my own woodshop I can design my own furniture and at the end of the day I can look at what I’ve done and say, ‘That’s progress. I’ve made progress today.’ I do love doing that.”

Between the woodworking and the fishing and an occasional round of golf, Dave finds plenty to occupy his free time. He’s not much for TV or movies, but enjoys reading a good action thriller in the Tom Clancy style or anything about history; author David McCullough is a favorite. And his musical preferences run to country of the classic kind: Waylon, Willie, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard. “I’ll occasionally listen to a bit of jazz or get a little retro and go back to the 1970s rock, but country music is my favorite,” he says. In fact, if Dave could crank back the clock, he wishes he could make his own music.

“One of my biggest regrets is not learning a musical instrument as a kid,” he says. “Back then I was into sports — I didn’t have time for that music stuff. I regret that now. When the grandkids come visit us at the lake, we always have a campfire. It would be nice to be able to play the guitar and have some family sing-alongs there.”

“I can be outgoing, but at the end of the day I need my time alone."

Dave might like the idea playing the guitar with his family, but chances are he wouldn’t play for a wider audience. The people who know him best, Dave says, would describe him as quiet and he describes himself as reserved, “an introvert by nature.” He says he finds the more public aspects of his job to be the most challenging.

“I can be outgoing, but at the end of the day I need my time alone,” he says.

Being Deputy Labs Director at an organization as complex as Sandia is a job with many dimensions. Dave says his favorite part is “getting out and meeting the people and seeing all the different things we do here. I think I have the best job at the Labs because I get to go out and see virtually everything and talk to virtually everybody.” But then again, he notes, “I talk to a lot of people who think they have the best job at the Laboratories; that’s one of the great things about Sandia.”

If Dave ever had any doubts about taking on the job at Sandia, that ambivalence was quickly dispelled once he started meeting with members of the staff.

“What’s impressed me the most,” he says, “is the passion of the people who work here for what they do. I’ve worked in a lot of different organizations over the years but I have never worked in a place where virtually everybody cares and loves what they do the way they do here. That in and of itself makes this a very unique place.”

Accessibility a priority

Dave says he and the rest of the new leadership team want to be accessible to the staff. “That’s one of our priorities — to get out and meet the people,” he says. “That’s very important to us. We understand that given our leadership positions, sometimes the role itself can intimidate people. We want folks to know that we put our pants on the same way as everybody else.”

It is early yet to start talking about legacies, but Dave says that when he leaves Sandia, “I hope people will say, ‘The Labs is better off because he was here.’

“Steve and I and all of us in leadership have been pretty explicit with folks that one of our objectives is ‘Don’t break Sandia.’

“Steve and I and all of us in leadership have been pretty explicit with folks that one of our objectives is ‘Don’t break Sandia.’ There are so many things that make this place special and we don’t want to break it. But at the end of the day, I hope we can make it better.

“We know we have to deal with things like the Trusted Microsystems capability or a MESA replacement. We have to deal with foundational capabilities like what are we going to do with Z in the next 15 years. Those would be the kinds of things that, if we get them right, people will say, the Laboratory is better because they were successful at those things.”

Having spent 10 years in Phoenix earlier in his career, Dave and his wife Tammy are familiar with desert living and enjoy their new home in Albuquerque. But when they get the chance, they will continue to take weekend trips and vacations back to their home on Beaver Lake. And there, you’ll almost surely find Dave standing on the shore, his grandkids at his side, showing them how to find the best flat rocks for skipping out across the water.