The Manhattan Project

Dorothy Ritter's Interview

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Dorothy Ritter is the daughter of Manhattan Project veteran Francis Oley. Oley worked at the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, TN. His job required him and his family to move from New York to Oak Ridge. Ritter spent several years of her childhood in Oak Ridge. In this interview she reminisces about the simplicity of her life there, and discusses how living and working at Oak Ridge impacted her family. She recalls the strain her father was under during the project, and the house they lived in. She also explains how the excellent teachers she had at Oak Ridge influenced her to become a teacher.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
May 15, 2016
Location of the Interview: 
Houston
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: It is Sunday, May 15, 2016, and we’re in Houston, Texas. I want to start by asking you to tell me your name and then spell it.

Dorothy Ritter: My name is Dorothy Oley Ritter. D-O-R-O-T-H-Y O-L-E-Y R-I-T-T-E-R.

Kelly: All right. Dorothy, why don’t we begin by having you tell us something about your family, when you were born, your childhood?

Ritter: First, I want to thank you for coming here and carrying on the Atomic Heritage Foundation that you’re in, and interviewing people that have had a connect, to keep the story going about one of the most spectacular events in United States history: the making of the atomic bomb to save Americans. In World War II, we lost many Americans before the atomic bomb. That ended with the atomic bomb, thanks be to God.

We begin this story of my family in Brooklyn, New York. My father was born there out of parents that were from Poland. I was born there. Moved to Long Island. My father had a connection with a couple of energy companies, and one of them was Grumman on Long Island. Then finally he worked for Kellogg, and in M. W. Kellogg, he became interested in being part of saving Americans in World War II. Therefore, he joined the Kellex Company, which is part of the Kellogg Company.

The “Kel” is for Kellogg, but the “X” was for the secret that was going to continue in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Now, he worked on K-25. Now, I’m just not going to go into all the detail, but that will give you an idea of why we wound up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

About my family: at that time I was the oldest daughter. I was age seven. My brother was five and a half, six, and my sister was two years old. We had an exciting time going down to Oak Ridge. We were excited about going.

We went down there, and about six months later we went on a trip to Clinch River, and we were in a rowboat and my sister fell in the lake. My mother saw her, but my father was fishing. She screamed. My father turned around to see why, and my sister had fallen from the rowboat into the river. Well, he dived in. We didn’t see them for a long time, and my mother was screaming. I didn’t, and that’s one of the reasons for that picture there. We did not know why. He came up finally with my sister, and saved her and saved his life. So that was one of the most memorable times I remember in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

As far as our living quarters, we had a small place surrounded by buttercup flowers, which I played with. My father would, on the weekend, take a chicken and wring its neck there, as I remember. Just living simply, with our family. The only thing I remember is, my father was very intense there, as opposed to in Brooklyn when we were living there. I did not really realize the reason then, but I do now. 

My brother, Frank, remembers a letter he wrote to Santa Claus there in Oak Ridge, and he didn’t understand why Santa didn’t write him back. My father told him, “Well, son, you’re going to have to learn to write a better letter to Santa.” So from then on, it gave him an inspiration to work hard. At first, he was very playful, the second child. But for some reason, my brother tells me now that turned his life around, when my father told him that.

He became an electrical engineer. He graduated from VMI Military School. He retired Major, trained for being a pilot. He was turned down because he was the captain of the basketball team at VMI, and he broke his nose. After the pilot school studies, they tested him and they would not accept him as a pilot to go to the Vietnam War, because of his nose being broken. That was a godsend, that he didn’t go. But he was very disappointed. He had prepared to be part of that corps that he was in, from the VMI corps. He also worked at Pentagon. He worked at NATO, and then finally he wound up at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, electrical engineering with batteries and testing of batteries for, again, secret reasons.

My other brother, whose picture is there, he’s an orthopedic surgeon now. He was not born then. And my sister, the youngest sister, is a nurse, the last sister. I have two sisters.

Now, one of the wonderful things that happened in Oak Ridge, in first grade, was that I had a beautiful teacher, and in the second grade, again, a beautiful teacher. I’ll show you the history of what they wrote about my learnings, saying I could read and I did well in school. I became a teacher after that little inspiration from both those teachers, for forty-eight years of teaching. So, you never know what you tell people and how it affects them, and it’s something positive.

When I went back to Brooklyn, there was a teacher who told my father in Open House, “She does not have a good penmanship. She’s so much trouble.” I was adjusting to the school, compared to those two schools. Now, I know why. But I was determined when that third teacher told my dad that, “She wasn’t doing her handwriting right, and she was having some trouble in school,” I decided I was going to find out why.

I graduated from NYU at Oswego in teaching. I went on for my Master’s degree in guidance and counseling at the Jesuit School in California at Los Angeles. Then I decided to work in teaching. I have all these years, these decades and decades, affecting, I hope, people. I see them all the time in this area. They either grab my neck, “Ms. Ritter!” They come and hug me, “Are you Ms. Ritter?” This is after four decades of teaching, over four decades. I know that the inspiration came from those two simple teachers in first and second grade that put in my heart that I was doing so wonderful in school. So, that’s my story.

One of the things that happened in Oak Ridge was, our neighbors next door, because when my mother was in the hospital because of that incident with losing almost my sister, she was in the hospital for a while. Our neighbor, the Craigs, took care of us, and that picture was taken by Mrs. Craig. And that’s Patsy Craig; she was my friend. I’ve never seen her since we left, and I’ve tried to track her many a time and to no avail. But they were very kind. That’s her animals, we loved them dearly. They were very good neighbors to us, the Craig family.

One of the things that I want to mention is the stress that comes with hard work, and I’m sure Mr. Mack [Newsom] there knows what that stress is when working on such an important and deadly project. I saw it in my father. I didn’t know what it was then, but I do now. It taught me when I was teaching, when stress came on, to learn how to deal with it, because I saw my father deal with it with my mother, my family, and his job. It was Oak Ridge that gave us the opportunity to realize that hard work, when it’s very hard and you’re working at your best, produces results.

One of the people that he became familiar with—I don’t know if it was down there or back in the Manhattan Project on Broadway when it began there—was Robin Beach. And, he also influenced my father to become involved in this Manhattan Project, which began in New York, in Manhattan in a garage with Neil Graham—is that right? I don’t remember his name. That was the beginning. And I just want to thank Robin Beach, wherever he is, he may be in heaven for all I know, but he also played a very big instrument in encouraging my father to become involved in this project.

At this time, if you have any questions to ask me, I would appreciate that.

Kelly: So you described going back to Oak Ridge. You described your house as a small house. Was it one of the Alphabet houses, as they called them?

Ritter: I went on to Google and I looked at the homes that they had back then, and they were white little cottages, I guess. That’s all I remember. It was row after row of homes. So that’s all I remember about that.

Kelly: Did you walk to school? How did you get to school?

Ritter: I think I walked to school. That’s a very good question, because I tried to find out where that school was, Glenwood School, and it doesn’t exist anymore, according to Google. But I’m sure if I go down to the history on Google, I will be able to see an image of it and get the history behind it. I did that, but the search didn’t come successfully.

Kelly: Okay. You don’t happen to know the name of the street that you lived on?

Ritter: I don’t. No, I don’t.

Kelly: But, your father’s name was Oley?

Ritter: Oley, O-L-E-Y, yes.

Kelly: And, what was his full name?

Ritter: Francis Anthony Oley.

Kelly: We should be able to track that down for you. So were your younger siblings also in school?

Ritter: The boy was. He’s Frank Jr., Francis Jr. My fourth son is Francis also. My brother’s son is Francis also, and my brother is Francis. We really admired my father and how he nourished us children to grow.

Kelly: That’s great. You mentioned a minute ago how he handled the stress of working on the project, can you elaborate about that?

Ritter: I remember him coming home late. Mom had already made dinner. We ate and he was coming in. Compared to New York, in that picture I showed you in New York, I can remember him coming in and we had dinner, we would talk and just play games, whatever. But when we were down in Oak Ridge, he came in late, he ate, and I just thought, “Well, he’s tired,” and he was tired. But I’m sure there was a lot going on, according to his particular job there.

Kelly: How much did your mother know about what your dad was doing? 

Ritter: As far as I know, Dad did not talk to Mom about his work there at the uranium-235, 238 plant.

Kelly:  What did the children know about this project? You as a child, what were you imagining was going on in this place that was in the middle of nowhere?

Ritter: Well, just that he was going to be working on this particular bomb, and that’s about all I knew. I never knew what it looked like, until I went on Google a while back and saw the picture of the atomic bomb as it was completed.

Kelly: Did you know it was a bomb project?

Ritter: No, just that he was working on becoming involved in the bomb. I didn’t even know what a bomb was back then; I didn’t know what his job was.

Kelly: You knew it was for the war effort?

Ritter: Oh, yeah, yeah. I knew it was for the war effort. I had two uncles—his two brothers were in the war, Uncle John and Uncle Joe.

Kelly: And where were they?

Ritter: I don’t know. I don’t remember.

Kelly: Did they go to Europe?

Ritter: Yeah, they went to Europe, yeah.

Kelly: And did they come back?

Ritter: Oh, yes. We have pictures of them back. Oh, yes, we were celebrating.

Kelly: How about your mother? Did she have brothers also who were fighting?

Ritter: Yes, she had a brother, Uncle Chester. He was also in the war. He did not so much war, but he was working with the soldiers that lost their teeth. He was a dentist, and he took care of the teeth of the guys that had smashed faces and stuff.

Kelly: Was that stateside or abroad, in Europe?

Ritter: In Europe, yeah. He was in the Army.

Kelly: So your family was very aware of the importance of getting this war over and getting your family members home again.

Ritter: Oh, yes, oh, yes. I remember the day when we were going to come back to New York, and that exciting. That was an exciting time, couldn’t wait.

Kelly: Going back to New York, did you say?

Ritter: Yes, yes.

Kelly: That’s what you did as soon as the war was over? Did you leave Oak Ridge?

Ritter: Yes, yes.

Kelly: Did your father think about staying?

Ritter: He wanted to start life new, so we went back to Brooklyn. We stayed there a while, and we moved to a brand new house on Long Island. That’s where he became involved again with Grumman Corporation. Then he went down to Port Arthur here, on petroleum. He was focusing on pipes now in Port Arthur with a petroleum company. He decided to come back to New York and tell us we were going to move to Houston. So here we are. I was not happy, I did not want to leave New York again, but I’m glad we’re here now. The Lord had a plan for me to be here.

Kelly: That’s good. It sounds like first and second grade were the highlights of your elementary school.

Ritter: Yes, it was. And my neighbor, Patsy, she was a very good friend. Even though she was older, I just felt like she was my big sister. 

Kelly: That’s good.

Ritter: And her mother fixed my hair there, because Mom was in the hospital. We were going to go to the hospital and see Mom.

Kelly: So a very frightening experience?

Ritter: Yeah.

Kelly: For her, yeah.

Ritter: It was, for me, for my mother.

Cindy: Yeah, wow. But the little girl, your little sister, turned out to be fine? 

Ritter: Oh, yes. She’s here in Texas. She has four children, eight grandchildren. She’s married a chemical engineer from down over there in Freeport, not New York, Freeport here in Texas. She’s very happy. 

Kelly: What did you do for recreation at Oak Ridge?

Ritter: Play with my brother and sister, play with Patsy, play with her animals. Just outside, just getting outside in the field. There was a field with just buttercups and grass. I can just remember running and just enjoying being free there. 

Kelly: That’s great.

Ritter: Now, even though in these homes, they were like one next to the other, around the side was where this field was. That’s where we would go, my brother and I and Patsy, too. If you can see there, they are in the woods there, in that picture.

Kelly: Do you remember your mother having to stand in line for groceries, or did you sometimes get sent to the store yourself to buy things?

Ritter: Don’t remember that.

Kelly: You don’t remember.

Ritter: They took care of that business, Mom and Dad. 

Kelly: That’s great, too young, that’s great, just a carefree life.

Ritter: Yes.

Kelly: That’s great.

Ritter: We did, we had a very carefree life there. I enjoyed it, except for that experience with my sister, I enjoyed the school and I enjoyed our neighbor, Patsy. Now, that’s, I mean, seven years old.

Kelly: Yeah, nice to be seven. Great. Wow, well, those are great memories.

Let’s see, is there anything else that you can recall, of kind of a personal nature? I know you were only seven and eight years old. Was there a Girl Scout troop or anything else organized for children your age?

Ritter: Well, now, what I’d like to do, is if I could use that and read what those teachers said. Because the people that see this interview, who are involved in education or in your particular area might be able to realize, even though there’s so much negativity and ugliness in the world, just a simple comment about something you see in a person can change that person’s life, as it did mine with that particular.

My father didn’t want me to go into teaching. He wanted me to be a secretary. So to solve that problem from him, I took shorthand in high school and typing. I hated it. I wanted to go on to psychology and to become a teacher, which I did, finally did. 

This teacher took so much time. Teachers don’t do this anymore. How do I know? I’ve worked over four decades with teachers and they don’t take the time to pick out the positive, strong things they see in students. They most of the time give negative things. Why they need special ed, why they don’t do this, and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. And this is important.

“Dorothy works and plays well with others. She enjoys sharing books, materials, and experience with the group. Sometimes, she needs help in taking turns, though, and becoming quiet, a quiet member of an audience. She is courteous, though, and friendly. She participates in all activities cheerfully. She is learning self-control and responsibility, and she listens and follows directions. She has a good attitude towards worthwhile activities. She is learning to care for herself, her clothes, her materials, and still needs some help with that yet.” 

And it goes on and explains other things. But the point that I wanted to make is that she did pull both sides: things that are truthful about the things that I needed to do, and things that were positive. She goes on to different parts of the year. That’s pretty much what I wanted to say.

Kelly: That’s very nice. So, you as a teacher, did you write notes like that to your students?

Ritter: I did. Not only did I write them, I call in their parents, spoke to the parents first, especially those that had situations that needed to be—that the parents needed to be involved, because a lot of the times I noticed that the parents were not involved. In order to give them their report card, I wanted to speak to the parents first and see what was going on at home. Because a lot of the times, the kids are acting the way they do because they have no family, or no father, or no mother, the grandmother was taking care of them, or the older sister was taking care of them.

It helped me to understand some of the situations that teachers didn’t know about at home, and didn’t realize why the kids behaved the way they did. It wasn’t that they were stupid or dumb. They didn’t have the opportunity that those kids that were A students or B students had, these children that were troubled, which is one of the reasons I went into guidance and counseling in my Master’s degree, too. It helped me understand more about humanity. 

Kelly: That’s great. I guess that couple years in Oak Ridge certainly shaped your life.

Ritter: It shaped my life, that’s right, and I hope the work that my father did on the project contributed to the success of that project.

I hope it’s given you some indication of the life that the Oley family had there, and the contribution that my father made. I’m very proud of him and how he influenced my brother, how he influenced my sons, especially the two that served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re very proud of their grandfather. Then, of course, his two brothers that were in World War II. So, as I said, we’re very much patriotic and we love America.

Kelly: Well, we owe you a great debt.

Ritter: Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you and all the Oleys.