Herman Postma, 1933-2004

Herman Postma, 1933-2004

Former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Herman Postma, former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a community leader since his arrival in Oak Ridge in 1954, died late Saturday, November 7, while vacationing with his wife and friends in Hawaii.

Postma, 71, who suffered with a rare form of muscular dystrophy for years, died suddenly, according to his wife, Pat.

Postma will be remembered in Oak Ridge for far more than his career in science and industry. He was a leader in education, economic development, supported area health care institutions, led international study exchanges, and took tremendous pride in his family and young people in general.

Herman Postma
Herman Postma

He was also a tremendous advocate for science and technology in political and industrial circles. Just last year Postma testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on ways to improve the Department of Energy's national laboratory system at the request of Senator Lamar Alexander.

"I am so saddened to learn of Herman's death," says Homer Fisher, retired senior vice president for the University of Tennessee. "We have lost a wonderful friend who enriched our community and added a special touch to every meeting and every conversation. We will miss him dearly and often, but he left a special legacy that will never be forgotten."

Born of Dutch parents in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1933, Herman Postma attended Duke University and earned graduate degrees at Harvard University in 1959. He spent the summers from 1954 to 1957 working in ORNL's Electronuclear and Physics divisions and joined the Laboratory staff in 1959, later spending time in the Netherlands as a visiting scientist at the Dutch institute for plasma physics.

He married his wife Pat, just retired from the College of Business at the University of Tennessee, in 1960.

As a scientist, he is credited with developing neutral beam injection and stochastic heating methods to heat plasmas in fusion devices and with devising solutions to plasma stability problems standing in the way of achieving fusion goals.

Only 40 years old when appointed Laboratory director in 1974, he was the first director without Manhattan Project experience. His background, moreover, was in fusion energy, not nuclear fission energy on which the Laboratory had traditionally focused. Coinciding with the creation of the Energy Research and Development Administration and the oil embargo crisis, his appointment marked a sweeping change of direction for the Laboratory.

During his 14 years as director, Postma applied professional management techniques to Laboratory administration and presided over the broad expansion of its programs to cover all forms of energy. He provided stability during the turbulent transitions from the AEC to ERDA to DOE and beyond and diversified the research through work for government agencies other than DOE. A significant push to transfer technology to American industry began during this time. He helped forge closer ties between ORNL and regional institutions, especially through the Distinguished Scientist program jointly sponsored by the Laboratory and the University of Tennessee.

"Herman always said being the director of ORNL was the best job in the world," Pat Postma said Sunday morning. "He really loves the lab."

Postma became a senior vice president of Martin Marietta Energy Systems when he left the Lab directorship in 1988, and retired in 1992.

"What a terrible shame; Herman was a wonderful man, and the legacy he leaves is a great one," says ORNL Director Jeffery Wadsworth. "He was so very kind to Jerre and myself upon our arrival in Oak Ridge, and his presence at the various community activities will be hugely missed. He was a unique character, with a special way of seeing the essence of an issue."

Postma took particular pride in his ongoing relationship with Duke University. He, his wife and two children all graduated from Duke, and Postma was a member of the Board of Trustees there from 1987 to 1999.

But his interest in education transcended just roles on boards. Just within the past month, Herman and Pat Postma agreed to serve as fund raising co-chairs for the Oak Ridge Education Foundation's efforts to raise $12 million to support the construction of a new Oak Ridge High School facility and other activities. Half of that goal has been reached, and a formal campaign is set to begin in January.

Herman Postma was also a member of the Tennessee High Education Commission from 1984 to 1992, and served on the advisory committee for the University of Tennessee College of Business.

Herman Postma and Alvin Weinberg
Herman Postma (l) and Alvin Weinberg,
who he succeeded as ORNL
director, at ORNL's 60th anniversary
celebration in 2003

Postma, in his role as Laboratory director, had a particular fondness of working to help people start new businesses. He started the technology transfer group at ORNL, was a founding member and later chairman of the East Tennessee Economic Council (then the Roane Anderson Economic Council), and chaired the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

"Herman (Postma) is one of those people that I will always cherish—both professionally and personally," said Jim Campbell, president of the East Tennessee Economic Council. "He always asked the right questions, the questions most people are afraid to ask. He always challenged us to do better, to think bigger. We'll miss his humor, his intellect, and his wit."

Postma served as mentor, advisor to a number of start-up businesses in Oak Ridge, and truly loved spending time with young people with new ideas, said Pat Postma.

Traveling the world was also one of Postma's true joys, and again he turned that love into benefit for the Oak Ridge community. Herman was one of the founders of the Oak Ridge Sister City Support Organization 12 years ago. He joined with Dr. Alvin Weinberg and Shegeko Uppuluri in spearheading the effort to create the International Friendship Bell in A.K. Bissell Park.

On his retirement from Martin Marietta in 1992, he led a group of young business people for an extended study in South Africa for Rotary International, and also participated in exchange programs with Obninsk, Russia, and Naka, Japan.

Herman Postma even used his deteriorating physical condition as a learning and teaching experience, said Pat Postma. He used the Internet to better understand what was happening to his body and track the ongoing research in the area, and he shared that information with doctors and medical researchers looking for a cure.

Herman was one of the first people in America to purchase a Segway, a personal mobility device, and delighted in teaching people how to ride the two-wheeled device. On his way to testify before a U.S. Senate committee on national laboratory reform, Postma attracted a growing crowd of young Senate staffers as he traveled through the hallways of the Hart Senate Office Building.

Herman's greatest pride, though, was in his family, especially his two grandchildren.

He is survived by his mother, Sophia, who lives in North Carolina; wife, Pat Postma; son and daughter-in-law Peter and Jeannette Postma; daughter and son-in-law, Pamela and Philip Khinda, who both live in the Washington D.C. area; and two grandchildren, Matthew Khinda, 9, and Tommy Khinda, 6. —Jim Campbell