Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 16
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
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John A. Wheeler

John S. Flower

Brian Gage

Mary Larkin Griep

Thomas C. Myers

Margaret Pirone

G.K. Ratliff

Kathryn P. Vaurio

Bernhard W. Anderson

John A. Wheeler

John A. Wheeler

John Archibald Wheeler, a legend in physics who coined the term “black hole” and whose myriad scientific contributions figured in many of the research advances of the 20th century, has died at 96. The Joseph Henry Professor of Physics Emeritus at Princeton University succumbed to pneumonia on Sunday, April 13, at his home in Hightstown.

Over a long, productive scientific life, he was known for his drive to address big, overarching questions in physics, subjects which he liked to say merged with philosophical questions about the origin of matter, information, and the universe. He was a young contemporary of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, and a driving force in the development of both the atomic and hydrogen bombs. In later years, he became the father of modern general relativity.

“Johnny Wheeler probed far beyond the frontiers of human knowledge, asking questions that later generations of physicists would take up and solve,” said Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology, and one of Wheeler’s best-known students. “And he was the most influential mentor of young scientists whom I have known.”

According to James Peebles, Princeton’s Albert Einstein Professor of Science Emeritus, he was “something approaching a wonder of nature in the world of physics.”

Throughout his lengthy career as a working scientist — he maintained an office in Jadwin Hall until 2006 — he concerned himself with what he termed “deep, happy mysteries.” These were the laws of nature on which all else is built.

He also helped launch the careers of many prominent modern theoretical physicists, among them the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. He learned best by teaching. “Universities have students,” he often said, “to teach the professors.”

“Johnny,” which is what he was called by everyone, including his children, was born in Jacksonville, Fla., on July 9, 1911, the first of four children, to Joseph and Mabel (“Archie”) Wheeler, a librarian and a homemaker, respectively. The family moved when Joseph changed jobs, which happened frequently. Over the years, they lived in Florida, California, Ohio, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Vermont. Mr. Wheeler discovered science through books his father brought home for the family to help him judge whether they were worth purchasing for the library. He devoured Sir John Arthur Thomson’s Introduction to Science and Franklin Jones’s Mechanisms and Mechanical Movements, and was guided by the second book to build a combination lock, a repeating pistol, and an adding machine — all from wood.

The first in his family to become a scientist, he headed to Johns Hopkins University at 16 on a scholarship, finishing in 1933, at age 21, with a doctoral degree in physics. He went on to work at the University of Copenhagen with the physicist Niels Bohr, with whom he co-wrote the original paper on the mechanism of nuclear fission that helped lead to the development of the atomic bomb. After World War II, he joined the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory Project for a year, playing a central role in developing the hydrogen bomb and serving as a mentor to Mr. Feynman. In 1951, he set up Project Matterhorn at Princeton’s new Forrestal Research Center.

He served as a member of the Princeton faculty from 1938 until his retirement in 1976, after which he served as director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at the University of Texas-Austin until 1986.

Looking back over his career, he divided it into three parts. Until the 1950s, a phase he called “Everything Is Particles,” he was looking for ways to build all basic entities, such as neutrons and protons, out of the lightest, most fundamental particles. The second part, which he termed “Everything Is Fields,” was when he viewed the world as one made out of fields in which particles were mere manifestations of electrical, magnetic and gravitational fields, and space-time itself. More recently, in a period he viewed as “Everything Is Information,” he focused on the idea that logic and information form the bedrock of physical theory.

In the fall of 1967, he was invited to give a talk on pulsars, then-mysterious deep-space objects, at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York. As he spoke, he argued that something strange might be at the center, what he called a gravitationally completely collapsed object. But such a phrase was a mouthful, he said, wishing aloud for a better name. “How about black hole?” someone shouted from the audience.

That was it. “I had been searching for just the right term for months, mulling it over in bed, in the bathtub, in my car, wherever I had quiet moments,” he later said. “Suddenly this name seemed exactly right.” He kept using the term, in lectures and papers, and it stuck.

He received numerous honors over the years, including the National Medal of Science, the Albert Einstein Prize, the Enrico Fermi Award, the Franklin Medal, the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal and the Wolf Foundation Prize. In 2001, the University used a $3 million gift to establish a new professorship, the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professorship in Physics, in honor of his research and service.

What drove him is expressed in his autobiography, Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam: “I like to say, when asked why I pursue science, that it is to satisfy my curiosity, that I am by nature a searcher, trying to understand. Now, in my 80s, I am still searching. Yet I know that the pursuit of science is more than the pursuit of understanding. It is driven by the creative urge, the urge to construct a vision, a map, a picture of the world that gives the world a little more beauty and coherence than it had before.”

“He had a wonderful life, and we’re all celebrating it,” said his eldest daughter Letitia Wheeler Ufford of Princeton. “He was a wonderful, loving father.”

Despite his sunny disposition, said Ms. Ufford, he carried with him a secret sadness. “He was devoted to the memory of his younger brother, Joe, a Ph.D. in American history with a wife and child, who was killed in the bitter fighting against the Germans in northern Italy.”

Pre-deceased by his wife, Janette Hegner Wheeler, who died last October, he is survived by his three children: Ms. Ufford; James English Wheeler of Ardmore, Pa.; and Alison Wheeler Lahnston of Princeton. He is also survived by eight grandchildren, six step-grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and 11 step-great-grandchildren.

Burial will be private at his family’s gravesite in Benson, Vt. There will be a memorial service at 10 a.m. Monday, May 12, at the Princeton University Chapel. The family asks that gifts be made to Princeton University, the University of Texas-Austin for the John Archibald Wheeler Graduate Fellowship, or to Johns Hopkins University.

John S. Flower

John Sebastian Flower, 87, of Princeton, died April 6 at home.

He was born in Denver, Colorado, to Ludlow and Mary Maroney Flower. His grandparents were John Sebastian and Nellie Ludlow Flower and Lawrence and Catherine Boland Maroney. His paternal grandfather moved to Denver in 1880 from St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where his family had lived since the 17th century.

Mr. Flower attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he played varsity football. On the day after Pearl Harbor, he decided to enlist and joined the Merchant Marine, serving as a navigator with the equivalent rank of a 2nd Lieutenant. His active service took him to all the major theaters of war: the Pacific, Atlantic, and Mediterranean.

After the war, he moved to California. He achieved his greatest success working for Bechtel Corporation, which sent him to Saudi Arabia as a troubleshooter. His last position before retirement was as a project procurement manager in Bechtel’s Phoenix office. In October 2005 he moved to Princeton to be closer to family members.

He was predeceased by a daughter, Franci Peterson, and an older brother, Ludlow Flower Jr. He is survived by his wife, Helen; two children, Stephen Flower of Hayden, Idaho, and Michael Flower of Princeton; a brother, Lawrence of Evergreen, Colo.; a sister, Mary Virginia LaMay of Reno, Nev.; and four grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Skillman. Interment will be at the Flower Family Mausoleum in Denver.

Arrangements are by The Mather-Hodge Funeral Home, 40 Vandeventer Avenue.

Brian Gage

Brian Gage, 59, of Hopewell, died April 11. He was a leading dealer in art and antiques and the owner of Brian Gage Antiques in Hopewell.

He will be remembered for the passion he had for both his business and his family.

He is survived by his wife, Maria; a daughter, Alexandra; and a brother, Allan. Friends are invited to meet at the Cromwell-Immordino Memorial Home, 71 East Prospect Street, Hopewell, today, April 16 from 6 to 9 p.m. and Thursday, April 17 from 10 a.m. until the 11 a.m. service.

For directions to the funeral home, visit

Mary Larkin Griep

Mary Larkin Griep, 91, of Wynbrook West Apartments in East Windsor, died April 5 at University Medical Center at Princeton.

Born in Princeton, she had been a resident of East Windsor since 1965. She was retired from RCA Laboratories in Princeton, where she had been employed for 42 years as a library assistant.

She was a communicant at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Hightstown, a member of the Anthonian Seniors, and a member of the Autumn Club in Hightstown. An avid bird watcher, she was fond of all animals and was a staunch defender of wildlife rights.

Daughter of the late Anna and James Larkin and wife of the late Leonard R. Griep, she is survived by her godchildren, Susan and Stephen Zorochin of Manasquan.

A Mass of Christian burial was celebrated April 11 at St. Paul’s Church. Burial followed in St. Paul’s Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to either A.P.A.W. or SAVE. Arrangements were under the direction of the Kimble Funeral Home.

Thomas C. Myers

Thomas Cooper Myers, 54, of Northampton, Mass., died March 11 with his family by his side and Beatles music playing in the background, after liver transplant surgery.

He grew up in Princeton. After graduating from Princeton High School in 1972, he attended Berklee School of Music in Boston. He then pursued a career in music, becoming known in the Northampton area during the late 1970s and early ’80s for his talent as a keyboard player, songwriter, and singer with the Elevators, a group that signed with Arista Records. When the group disbanded, he moved to New York City, then to Minneapolis before settling back in Northampton in the late ’90s. Throughout that time he continued to write, play, and record, creating music for several films, commercials, and music libraries.

He was predeceased by his father, John Myers of Savannah, Ga. He is survived by his beloved Cheryl Dellecese of Northampton; his mother, Margaret Wellington of Princeton; a brother, John of Arcata, Calif.; two sisters, Sally of South Dartmouth, Mass. and Fairlie of Waltham, Mass., his living donor for the transplant; and brothers by his father’s second marriage, David of Wellfleet, Mass. and Rob of Martha’s Vineyard.

A private memorial is planned. Memorial donations may be sent to Amnesty International.

Margaret Pirone

Margaret Pirone, 97, a former resident of Princeton, died April 9 in Jacksonville, Florida.

She was pre-deceased by her husband, Nick Pirone Sr.; a daughter, Jeanette Baker; a son, Nick Pirone Jr.; and a granddaughter, Linda Baker. She is survived by a son, Vincent Pirone of Sun City Center, Fla.; a daughter, Elinor Hall of Jacksonville, Fla.; a sister, Alice Pullen; six grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

A graveside service was held Monday, April 14 at St. Paul’s Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to St. Paul’s Church, 214 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542.

Arrangements were by the Kimble Funeral Home.

G.K. Ratliff

G.K. Ratliff, 63, of Ewing Township, died April 3 at Waters Edge Nursing Home in Trenton.

Born in Wadesboro, North Carolina, he had been a Ewing resident for 36 years.

He was a graduate of McRae High School in Morven, N.C., and Mercer County Community College. He served in the United States Army.

He was employed by Business Supply Company, where he worked as a pressman; Questior Distribution Company; Avery Label; Phillip Lighting; Marriot Distribution; and C.C.L. Labors.

A former member of Deep Creek Baptist Church in Wadesboro, he was a member of the First Baptist Church in Princeton at the time of his death.

Son of the late Levi and Bertha Ratliff, he was predeceased also by his siblings Leroy Ratliff, Mary Huntley, Eulah Huntley, and Margie Ratliff. He is survived by his wife, Betty L. Ratliff; a son, Theodis A. Ratliff Sr.; four brothers, Claude Ratliff, Edward Ratliff, John C. Ratliff, and Robert Ratliff; a sister, Hester Phox; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

The funeral service was April 11 at First Baptist Church in Princeton. Interment was at Ewing Cemetery.

Arrangements were by the Hughes Funeral Home.

Kathryn P. Vaurio

Kathryn Poor Vaurio, 94, of Princeton, died April 7 at Acorn Glen. A longtime resident of Swarthmore, Pa., she had moved to Acorn Glen in 2002.

Born and raised in Etna Green, Indiana, she graduated from Ohio Northern University and received a master’s in speech pathology from Purdue University. She taught school in Etna Green, South Haven, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., and helped introduce and develop clinical speech programs in the Neenah, Wisconsin and Princeton school systems. From 1963 until her retirement in 1984 she worked as a clinical speech therapist in the Pennsylvania public schools through the Delaware County Intermediate Unit in Media, Pa. After her retirement from the public schools, she received further training at Temple University and worked for another ten years, helping stroke victims with speech rehabilitation. She was a lifetime member of the American Speech and Hearing Association.

Her marriage to Arvo E. Vaurio ended in divorce in 1976. She is survived by two daughters, Ann Marie Vaurio of Princeton and Elaine Lee Vaurio of Takoma Park, Md; a sister, Eleanor Moseley of Deerfield, Ill.; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at the Swarthmore Presbyterian Church, where she had been an active member for many years, on Saturday, May 24 at 2 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Swarthmore Presbyterian Church, 727 Harvard Avenue, Swarthmore, Pa. 19081, for the purposes of its Hunger Task Force. Arrangements are under the direction of The Mather-Hodge Funeral Home.

Bernhard W. Anderson

A memorial service for Bernhard Word Anderson will be held in the Miller Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary on Saturday, April 19, at 11 a.m. Memorial contributions may be made to the Princeton Theological Seminary, the Society for Biblical Literature, or the National Council on Values in Higher Education.

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