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From San Juan Island to Los Alamos; Fleming's connection to Oppenheimer

San Juan Historical Museum shared this condensed story about a connection between Robert Oppenheimer and San Juan Island on its Facebook page. The full  version will be posted in an upcoming Museum newsletter. Please become a member if you would like to receive the newsletter.

With the Academy Awards coming up soon, you might be wondering if there’s any connection from J. Robert Oppenheimer to San Juan Island, there is…Glenn Fleming is that connection.

 

Glenn Fleming at Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1944

His grandparents Thomas Fleming and Mary Jane Matier met on a ship while emigrating to Australia. They didn’t like Australia, then tried California and finally came to San Juan Island in search of farmland to homestead.

They chose land in the San Juan Valley that also included Little Mountain, then called Bob’s Mountain. Son Robert homesteaded the south side of Little Mountain north of what is now Bailer Hill Rd. (Then it was just called “The County Road”). Son James homesteaded from Kanaka Bay to the County Rd. Son Archie homesteaded the Northeast part of Little Mountain and the land below it. The Bailer brothers were to the South of Archie and Victor Erickson was to the North. The Archie Fleming homestead is at the end of what is now called Valley Farms Road.

Born in 1908 to Archie and Maria Erickson Fleming, Glenn was the youngest of eleven children. He loved school and ended up the Valedictorian of his class at Friday Harbor High School in 1926. He went to the University of Washington and studied science and education, graduated and then went to New Whatcom State Normal School, now Western Washington University, to get his teaching credential. His first job was at Edison High School teaching physics and chemistry. After a few years Glenn moved to Cashmere High School, in the apple orchards near Wenatchee.

Friday Harbor Biological Station students 1939. Arrow points at Glenn.

During the summers at Edison and Cashmere he attended classes at the UW Friday Harbor Biological Station, known today as the UW Friday Harbor Labs. His goal was a Masters degree combining biology and chemistry. His research examined the digestive systems of salmon, what did salmon eat and how did it fuel them. He was able to get research materials by going to the cannery in Friday Harbor and filling a bucket with leftover fish guts.

In 1943 the US Army contacted Glenn about joining something called the Army Specialized Training Program. He thought that was a good idea as it would allow him to do his part in the war effort. He was immediately sent to the University of Pennsylvania to study physics, chemistry and thermodynamics without being told why.

Once he completed his classes in March of 1944 he found out why. His group was sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico to join the Manhattan Project under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The U.S. effort to create a nuclear weapon was underway but they were using uranium as fuel and they only had a small amount. If they could make a synthetic version called Plutonium everything would be easier. Glenn was part of the team brought together to create high purity plutonium. When the first test was conducted, 175 miles to the South of them, the team went onto the roof of their lab to watch. Glenn later said, “It lit up the sky, you cannot imagine how bright it was”. Later Glenn received a letter of recommendation from Oppenheimer saying “he should be commended for the high quality of his work”.

Once the Manhattan project was completed Glenn returned to teaching at Cashmere High School. When the principal retired in 1946, he took over and stayed until he retired in 1966. After moving to Florida and traveling the world, when he turned 86 he returned to San Juan Island to live with his niece.

Glenn passed in 1998 at 90 years old and is buried in the San Juan Valley Cemetery overlooking the place of his birth.


COMMENTS:

I knew Glenn Fleming. He was Principal of Cashmere High School which I attended from Autumn 1965 - Spring 1969. From my Annual (Ka Hi Wa '68), I show that he retired in 1968, not 1966. The Dedication (as it were) states: From Active Teaching to Continued Learning . . . A home in Florida with a chance to spend many hours on their hobbies - this is the "dream come true" for Mr. Glenn Fleming and Mr. Pierre Genell, who are retiring at the end of the year. Over a score of years, dedicated to teaching, is now a book of memories for these two.

Mr. Fleming and Mr. Genelle were long-time companions who lived about 1 block from the high school. I often (and I mean often) think of people whom I've respected in my lifetime (several), but without fail, Mr. Fleming is on my short list of 10, maybe even of only 5. I have a vivid memory of Mr. Fleming and how efficiently and effectively he ran our high school. No fuss, no muss, no public posturing. He handled all kinds of matters in a most professional way. He was just so good at what he did. I believe he arrived at the high school (building) each morning around 6:30 am. (I never had him as a teacher. I did have Mr. Genelle as my biology teacher for freshman and sophomore years.)


I knew that he had worked at Los Alamos, but not all the details nor the preparatory education in Pennsylvania. This article was most information and enjoyable to me. I am now 73 and live in Menlo Park, California.

 Ann Coulthard

 

 

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