The Manhattan Project

Nancy Greenewalt Frederick's Interview (2006)

Printer-friendly version
Nancy Greenewalt Frederick is the oldest child of Crawford Greenewalt, a chemical engineer for the DuPont Company. He was assigned to act as a liaison between the physicists at the Chicago Met Lab and the engineers at Hanford, who were constructing the B Reactor. He went on to become the President of DuPont, and was renowned for his interest in photography, birds, and other scientific endeavors. Frederick discusses her father’s wide-ranging interests, his passion for his job, and the activities he enjoyed pursuing with his wife, family, and friends.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
July 5, 2006
Location of the Interview: 
Wilmington
Transcript: 

Nancy Greenewalt Frederick: My father, Crawford Greenewalt, was the only child of Dr. Frank Lindsay Greenewalt and Mary Hallock Greenewalt. Dr. Greenewalt was a physician at Gerard College in Philadelphia, and my father grew up there most of his young life. He went to a German school, what we would call a preschool, run by German monks when he was a child. He says he spoke German before he spoke English. But when he was grown up he could do some German, but he couldn’t speak it. He went to Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, and then MIT, where he got a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. Then he went to work for the DuPont Company.

This is my grandfather, Dr. Frank Lindsay Greenewalt. A wonderful man. He grew up around Carlisle, Pennsylvania—actually, Fayetteville, Pennsylvania. Loved farming and the farming people out there. He and his brother both were physicians. His brother went with the Army and was in the Philippines with the Army. But he stayed home. 

In those days, you apprenticed yourself to a doctor after you got out of medical school, and when the doctor said you were ready to hang up your shingle, you did! There wasn’t the residency and what goes on now. He was a marvelous guy. After he died, my father got a lot of letters from Gerard College students who remembered him so well, with great affection. Very nice man.

My grandmother was a concert pianist. She was born in Syria, well, what is now Lebanon, the daughter of Sara Tabet, who married her father, Homan Hallock, who was in the consular service there. She had all her children there, seven children, and then they came back here. When she married my great-grandfather, she was one month short of her fifteenth birthday. When she produced my grandmother, her first child, she was one month short of her sixteenth birthday. 

She was one of a large family. My father went back to Syria with his mother to meet some of the family there when he was about twenty. He said he was going to be met with a boat at the dock by Uncle Constantine. He envisaged someone with a turban, very swarthy and whatnot. Well, Uncle Constantine was blond and blue-eyed and, as Dad said, spoke better English than he did. It was a very erudite family, and I think he enjoyed it there, but it was quite different.

Margaretta, my mother, was the second of actually ten children, eight of whom survived, and the last one was a boy. So they were all girls playing together. There’s a story about a guinea pig—I’m not sure that I should tell it—about when children were visiting.

My mother and her sisters had guinea pigs, everybody had a guinea pig. They would sit down on the floor and play with it and sit in a circle with their legs sticking out almost at right angles and their feet touching. They would d put the guinea pigs in the circle, like a corral, and play with them. They had a visiting friend who joined the circle, and someone came into the room and frightened the very largest guinea pig, a boar guinea pig. Guinea pigs like dark places, that’s where they go to if there is anything wrong. So this guinea pig rushed up the skirts of the visiting child, and right up her bloomers. She let out a shriek, and stood up, and the guinea pig was hanging in the crotch of the bloomers. And she was screaming, and of course the other girls were roaring on the floor. I’m not sure I’d have liked to have been a visitor in that house.

Kelly: That’s very funny. Why don’t you talk about Irenée, as the youngest?

Frederick: My uncle, Irenée Jr., was the only boy and the tenth child in that family. I think he really did not grow up with his sisters. One of his mother’s brothers had six sons, and he really grew up with them. They played with motorcycles and engines and airplanes, and were always taking things apart in the middle of the living room and dripping oil all over the floor. I think he reveled in that. That’s really where he got his companionship. It must have been lonely to be the only boy in that family.

The picture of my parents in the garden with a bunch of their friends. The garden was the garden of the second house that they owned, which they moved to from a little half-house in the same—what we would call “development” now but nobody called it that in those days. They moved into a larger house when I was born. They’re in the garden of this house with friends with whom they did a great many activities: picnics and parties, and they made a home movie with most of the people in that photograph. It’s a silly murder mystery in which the butler did it. One of the men in the picture was the butler, who managed to fall off a cliff and break his neck in the end. It was a lot of fun. I think they enjoyed each other very much.

Kelly: Did he die, or is that just the movie? Falling off the cliff and breaking his neck? 

Frederick: The last picture in the movie, the last shot, is of him lying all crumpled up at the bottom of the cliff. I’m still trying to figure out where the cliff is. Most of it was shot in the house that they lived in. 

Kelly: That isn’t the scrambled eggs one?

Frederick: No. That’s “Prince Charlie’s Dirk.” 

Kelly: Oh, so we can show that! That’s terrific!

Frederick: Well, yeah, if you get it back to me. 

Kelly: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s amazing. That would be fun. And your dad would be what part?

Frederick: My father was not in that one, because he was the cameraman. There’s a very brief shot of my mother, who was the secretary to the lawyer, who comes out to draw up the new will, on account of which the old lady is murdered with Prince Charlie’s dirk by the butler, who got cut out of the will.

Kelly: This is good. Interesting. Now tell us about the “Scrambled Eggs.”  

Frederick: “A Scramble of Eggs” is a movie made by a group of slightly younger cousins than my mother. They called themselves the Paddleameow Company, the letters being made up of the first letters of the names of all the people who were in the group. W. W. Laird, Chick Laird, was the instigator of the whole thing, and I think wrote most of the script.  

The very first one was called “A Scramble of Eggs.” My father, Crawford, features as the villain, complete with top hat and gnashing teeth when he’s been frustrated, and all the rest of that. My mother does not appear in the movie, but a whole bunch of other people do, and it’s full of excitement. An electric car gets pushed over a cliff at the end of it. There’s no one in it, but there’s supposed to be someone in it, in the movie.

Kelly: Goodness. Talking about cars, do you remember the Model T with a hole in the roof?

Frederick: I do not remember the Model T – for good reason. I wasn’t there.

Kelly: Maybe they pushed it over the cliff. Well, let’s see. What about his working at home? That one photo, can you describe it?

Frederick: Oh yes, the photo of my father in the armchair, with his feet up on the footstool. To me this is a very evocative photo, because every weeknight he brought work home – reports to read, things to do – and he sat in that chair with a pile of things on the table and his briefcase next to him and “did his homework.” Every night. I remember him so well; it was the same chair – it got recovered every now and then, but it was still the same chair – and the same footstool. 

Kelly: That’s great. Let’s see. Playing the violin. Do you mention that your mother played the violin, and your father clarinet?

Frederick: My mother played the violin from the time she was quite young. Every kid in that family played something, and she played violin. When she and my father married, my father, I believe, played the clarinet. She got him a special clarinet in the right key to play with her violin. I don’t understand how that works, but ask an orchestra musician and they could tell you.

Every day he had very long lunch hours, because in those days, the Experimental Station was really out in the boondocks, away from Wilmington. So everyone got a two-hour lunch hour. But he lived right on the edge of town, so he would be home very quickly, and they would have lunch together and play duets together. 

Later on, I believe, he took up the cello, and they used to play string quartets with two other friends who played violin. My mother also played viola. So she would play viola, the two friends the violin, and my father the cello. 

I owe my entrance into this world to a bad string quartet. One night, they were playing together. Of the two other people, the man could do anything with his fingers, but his ear was lousy, and they said his wife had a lousy ear and couldn’t do much with her fingers either. So they were always messing things up, and this night they got into hysterical giggles at all the mistakes they were making. They laughed and laughed and laughed. And later that night, I began to make my appearance. So, brought into the world by a bad string quartet. 

Kelly: That’s a good story. You’ve told us one of the stories about the purple witch last time. I will take this and look at the notes to make sure I got things accurately.

Frederick: It’s at the time of the year of the Atomic bomb project, because it was during his travels out West that the purple witch got brought out, so it’ll be somewhere towards the end.

Kelly: You don’t have pictures of the purple witch, do you?

Frederick: Heavens no! The purple witch was a construct of my father’s imagination, and it was up to your imagination to think what she really looked like. All he would say was that she was a purple witch and her name was Binabee. 

She really was a gremlin, brought up to explain all the problems he had, traveling back and forth across the country to Hanford and Richland for the atomic bomb project. The trains ran very undependably. There was always something happening; it was the middle of the war and everything was going overseas. There was always some horrible occurrence with the train. Then he would tell us all about it when he got home. He would say, “Well, I was on my way back from Chicago, thought everything was fine, but as the train rounded a curve, I looked ahead and I could see the engine. And guess who was sitting on the engine?  Binabee. I knew we were in for trouble, and sure enough, there was a breakdown.”

Kelly: That’s great. How old were you when he told you these stories?

Frederick: Oh let’s see. ’42, ’43, ’44. I would have been—I can’t do my arithmetic—fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.

Throughout his entire life, my father always had hobbies and interests that he got involved in on the weekends, even when he was working. Even though he would bring work home at night, then on the weekends he seemed to know how to turn it off, stop worrying about the job and do what he was interested in or another thing. He was interested in his job. But he would do something else. 

He did time-lapse photography when I was quite small, in the days when the electronic gizmos just didn’t exist. He had a funny kind of mechanical timer that would turn the lights on, day and night, to take a photograph of a plant, and it would take one frame of a movie film at a time. Sometimes at night it was eerie, because you’d be walking down the hall and you’d suddenly hear “Click!” The lights would go on and “Zzt click!” again, and the lights would go off and it was taking a picture. He did quite a lot of that. 

He built a boat. He built a steam engine that had to be machined. All the parts had to be machined, and he did some machine work in the cellar. He built the boat to put the steam engine in. Then found out the boat was really too small for the steam engine, especially when you put the boiler in, which he had not thought about. It was a beautiful little engine. 

Then he got interested in birds, because my mother was looking at birds and feeding them out on the terrace outside their bedroom. Of course, it was a challenge to take a picture of them. So then he started photographing birds, and figuring out how to stop their flight fast enough to take a picture, and he spent a lot of time doing that.  

Then looking at hummingbirds, which was an even bigger challenge. Couldn’t even take a picture of a hummingbird. How could you take a movie of a hummingbird when the wings moved so fast an ordinary film didn’t go fast enough to stop it? At that point, he was President of the DuPont Company, and he could get some of the Experimental Station people to do work for him on their time off, which they did. They built this incredible movie camera to take pictures of hummingbirds in flight. 

Then he got interested in birdsong. One thing always led to another. He would work with one set of gizmos, and that would lead to something else. So then he got interested in birdsong, wondered how they did it and how they made that noise and the fact that, if you take a flute or any wind instrument, you have to have a given length to produce a given note. If you want it lower, it has to be longer. But nothing in the bird is long enough to make the notes that they give out. So he got interested in how they did it, and got into sound recording and how to take apart the sound with an oscilloscope. He then wrote a monograph on that, which I think the Smithsonian published. 

Kelly: Amazing. How much of this interest did he try to explain or impart to you as children? 

Frederick: He would explain anything if you asked him, and he was extremely good at explaining things. He understood where the person was in their knowledge, so that he didn’t just snow them with things they couldn’t possibly pick up on. He would start where he thought you were starting, and explain things very clearly that way. He just had a gift for it. 

I’ll never forget one time when he had shown some of his hummingbird pictures to the volunteer guides at the nature society where I was a guide, and one of them asked him how much a hummingbird weighed. And instead of saying it in grams, which wouldn’t mean anything, he said “a dime,” and immediately everybody knew how much a hummingbird weighed. I mean, he was just very good at that. He would start at the beginning for the person he was talking to, and make it very clear.

Kelly: That’s great. Let’s see, one of the things that Dick Heckert talked about was \, what a humble person he was. Despite all of his huge accomplishments, it never kind of puffed up his head to make him think that he was—

Frederick: Well, I think my father was well aware of his own worth, but he didn’t believe in talking about it or boasting about it. He did not believe in boasting, of any sort. But he knew what his abilities were, and he understood that quite clearly. He just didn’t make a noise about it.

Kelly: He also had a knack for kindness. He would run meetings and be attuned to things that didn’t make sense to him, and he would ask questions to try to probe further whoever made a comment that didn’t seem quite right. But he never did it in a way that was embarrassing to people or seemed to be a putdown. 

Frederick: Yes, well, I think he was definitely an extremely able leader of meetings. He could manage to get things out of people. The people who were silent and didn’t speak up, he would manage to get them to speak. The people who talked too much, he was somehow able to quell them without squashing them and making a scene about it, or making them feel badly. I don’t know how he did it. He was very clever at that. 

Well, my mother was beautiful, and was always thin and shapely. Gorgeous. I wish I could say the same for myself. She was always beautiful. Wonderful carriage, marvelous posture. Always stood up very straight. She was very shy, and really had to make a tremendous effort to be talkative at parties and to speak to people. She would really have rather not, but she did it, because she knew that was what was required of her. 

She was a lovely musician, and my father said she was wonderful violinist. She did give it up—they just quit playing, which was a shame. He also said that she was a lovely rider, when she rode horseback. She had a light touch on the reins. Very sensitive person. Very perceptive. She was really a spectator, an observer of life, a very keen observer. Was not fooled by peoples’ shenanigans, but was amused by them, saw what was going on with no trouble at all. Very amusing person, which she shared with my brother David, who was much the same way. Both very sharp, very clearheaded about other people, but they didn’t talk a lot about it, and they were both quite quiet. 

Kelly: So are you and Crawford Jr. more like your dad, then?

Frederick: Yes. I certainly am. My brother, Crawford Jr., is a little of both. Although his looks are so much like my father, it’s uncanny sometimes. When I see pictures of Daddy when he was younger, I think, “Oh that looks like Tus—my brother’s nickname—looks like Crawford.” He talks like him. I remember hearing him—my brother Crawford—playing the bad Bart in Ruddigore in high school, and his singing voice was so much like my father’s singing voice. They’re both good singers, good baritones. It was uncanny. 

Kelly: Is there anything in the movie where your dad—we talked about your dad’s playing the villain. I’m just trying to think what footage we have of him that you might describe here.

Frederick: I’m afraid I haven’t looked at that thing recently enough to describe it. 

Kelly: That’s okay. 

Frederick: I mean, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes joking about his being that villain. Because the villain’s name was Ollie Peters Count No Account. It was supposed to be a fake Hungarian count or something like that. Well, there was a man, named Ollie Peters, who was pursuing my mother or had pursued my mother, only my father won out. Apparently some of the people who were making the movie didn’t have much time for Ollie Peters, so they used his name as the villain, and had my father playing it, which is sort of ironic. But I don’t remember the footage well enough. 

Kelly: Did your father talk much about Ruth Patrick?

Frederick: Oh yes, he knew her and was very admiring of her. She admired him also. She was a marvelous women. She is a marvelous women. 

Ruth Patrick, of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, was a friend of my father. My father admired her. She admired him. She was really the mother of freshwater stream study. Her specialty is diatoms. She realized that when streams got polluted or something went wrong, if you looked at the microscopic and macroscopic creatures in the stream, you could tell there was a problem by what was missing. She realized that there were indicator organisms that disappeared right away, as soon as there was any pollution. And then on down, as it got worse and worse and worse, you began to lose more and more other types of organisms. She figured this out, therefore knowing how to test a stream, to see what was wrong with it. 

She came one day to help me with a class I was teaching. She offered to come tell them about streams. It was a class in natural history, and I was delighted! No one could tell them about a stream like her. She said, “Well I want to come see the stream first, so I’ll come down a couple of weeks before so that we can look at the stream.” 

We went down to the stream and she put her hip boots on. She put one boot in the stream. She reached down and picked up one rock from the bottom of the stream, turned it over, looked and it, and said, “Well, this is a pretty healthy stream, but there is a little pollution upstream. It’s probably cattle, or it might be a little bit of escaped sewage.” Amazing woman. 

Kelly: Great. How about William Golden? 

Frederick: Now, I didn’t really know William Golden. I met him, and that’s all. When I think they went down to see the new telescope in Chile, William Golden went with them. My son-in-law was going to go and then my daughter produced a child rather earlier than expected and he couldn’t go, so my son went instead. He was really entranced with William Golden, thought he was a marvelous guy, and talked about him a lot when he came back.

Kelly: Interesting. We’re interviewing him next week.

Frederick: Oh, good.

Kelly: Yes. I’m really pleased. Dick Heckert. We talked about him. Did we talk about him? On camera? Maybe you can talk about Dick Heckert and his relationship with your dad.

Frederick: Dick Heckert was president of the DuPont Company considerably after my father. A really delightful guy. Big man, loves the West, loves the outdoors. Very kind, generous, lots of fun to be with. He was introducing his successor as president of the Longwood board at one point, and he said, “This is so-and-so. I’d like to introduce you, he’s going to speak for a few minutes. He’s much more pleasant than he looks!” And stepped away from the microphone. It’s true. He is more pleasant than he looks. Looks sort of dour, but he’s not.

Kelly: Can you tell us a little bit about the Longwood Gardens and what Crawford Greenewalt’s association was with it?

Frederick: My father, Crawford Greenewalt, was on the board of Longwood Gardens from the beginning almost, I think. After Pierre du Pont died, the board was formed to run it, because it was endowed to go on forever. So he was on that board. Then when the tax laws were changed, it was a foundation that not only took care of the gardens but ran the gardens and also gave money away, because there was a lot of money in that foundation. Then they were forced to split the foundation in half. One half to give away money and the other half to take care of the gardens, because the new tax laws made that mandatory. At that point, my father, I believe, was on the Longwood Gardens board, rather than the foundation board. But he faithfully served that board for years. 

To come back to the uncommon man idea, my father, Crawford Greenewalt, was indeed an uncommon man. He had so many interests and so many abilities, and he used them all. He used to say, “Well, anybody can do something if they just want to. All they have to do is put their mind to it.”  Well, he could, but not everybody else can. 

I remember, I think it was his 90th birthday, when we all gave speeches. My brother David spoke and said, “Charles Darwin’s children probably thought that all fathers did their barnacles every morning, just as theirs did.” So he said, “I guess we thought that all people’s fathers did time-lapse photography on weekends and played music and took pictures of birds and did all these other things,” which I thought was an interesting remark. He was a very unusual man and enjoyed life all the way, to the fullest. He always had something he was interested in and enjoying.

Kelly: I agree. The fact that he was able to carve out time for his own interests and pursuits—personal interests because, as you said before, it wasn’t that he was disinterested in his job. He liked his job.

Frederick: He was interested in his job; it’s interesting that he did. He really loved it. But I’ve often thought whatever he did, he would have gone at it the same way.