Feb. 9, 2001

Kuckuck finally ready 'to play'

By Lynda Seaver
Newsline staff writer

With his retirement barely a reality, Bob Kuckuck says he is beginning to feel a little awkward. Since making his announcement in November, he has attracted the attention of the local newspapers, along with ongoing reminders in Newsline and NewsOnLine.

He also knows the staff in his office is planning some sort of event, but he’s not sure what. They’re keeping it a surprise.

So as he sits down to reflect on his career, he wonders out loud, "Is this really worth all the fuss? It’s not like I’m dying."

This modesty is typical of Kuckuck, the deputy director for Operations whose almost 38 years at the Lab comes to an unofficial close this afternoon. That’s when the Lab will throw a special reception in honor of his service as well as his career achievements. The reception begins at 3:30 p.m. and continues until 6:30 p.m. in the West Café; all employees have been invited.

It’s not that Kuckuck minds the spotlight. He’s not above calling attention to himself during a little clowning around. In fact, this is the same guy who dresses in boxer shorts, cowboy boots and tuxedo coat, then affixes a hobby horse’s head to a scooter so he can escort runners in the HOME Campaign.

It’s the reason for the attention that has Kuckuck feeling a little humble. "I’m finally acclimated to my retirement, but it took two years to get this far," he said. While other scientists have retired with careers that have notched more years than Kuckuck put in, the caliber of his dedication is without argument. He is fiercely proud of the Lab, and works to protect its image much like a parent raising his kids.

"Bob has always been extremely proud of the Lab," said Wayne Kennedy, the recently retired senior vice president for the University of California. Kennedy has worked closely with Kuckuck since 1992, when Kuckuck went to UC as special assistant to the senior vice president for Laboratory Administration. Kuckuck and Kennedy worked together to help negotiate the UC-DOE contract in 1997, as well as the modification that was signed in January.

"Bob has really come up through the ranks," Kennedy said. "He invested his life in the Lab, and the place means a lot to him.

"For a guy like Bob, making the decision to retire doesn’t come easily. Once you make that decision, it takes some getting used to. Of course, as someone who has recently been in the same boat, I can safely tell Bob that he will enjoy the decision he made. Immensely."
"There is so much that I will miss," Kuckuck said. "I will miss the intensity, I will miss the interactions and the team building, and I will miss the people. It is hard not to get attached to a group like this," he says of his office staff. "Right now I feel like I am parting with family."

Since arriving at the Lab’s gates in 1963, Kuckuck has worn virtually every hat, changing from graduate student working toward a Ph.D., to nuclear physicist, to test director, senior manager and finally deputy director. He has seen monumental changes at the Lab, from the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program, to complete overhauls in Laboratory operations and administration. He helped the Lab as it immersed itself in laser research to become the world’s leader, spearheaded a cost-cutting initiative that would save the Lab tens of millions of dollars in operating costs, and he’s watched the surrounding valley grow from cow-towns and farmlands with little interest in the Lab, to suburban hubs that question every move.

"When I came here the Lab was much smaller. There was a very clear mission for the Lab and everyone understood it as something important. There was a tremendous amount of energy and it was easy to get caught up in it.

"Today things are very formal. There are more rules, more processes, and less public tolerance for mistakes. Anyone working on a project has to become more involved in public matters. The spirit is still there, but the energy levels and focus have changed."

Ask Kuckuck which part of his career he enjoyed most and he will give the diplomatic answer — all of it. But his eyes light up when he talks about his tenure as AD for nuclear testing, from 1984-91. Kuckuck oversaw about 50 tests and he turns animated when he talks about the way the ground would swell and shake during each test, much like an earthquake.

"If I had any wish I would still be doing that fun job," he said. "It had everything, but particularly a camaraderie unmatched anywhere else I’ve worked." To the uninitiated, such an assignment would sound grueling. There were the long, bone-rattling flights over desert mountains in an unpressurized DC-3 or F27 — one time the F27 even slid off the runway when its landing gear broke. There was also an emergency landing in a damaged military helicopter.

Then there were the months of long stays in a remote desert.

"You drank beer at night and you stressed during the day," he said, laughing. "There were long hours leading to any test and it really brought people together. It was a real team sport. We were combining good science with important work for the benefit of the country. When the test was complete we knew we had done something extraordinary."

"Bob’s career has always been extraordinary, and under his leadership, our operations have thrived," said Lab Director Bruce Tarter. "His role in our relationships with the University of California and with the Department of Energy have been crucial. His departure will be felt by all elements of the Laboratory."

"Bob has been a resource for all us to default to," added Jeff Wadsworth, the deputy director of Science & Technology. "With his scientific background as well as his operations expertise, he has a very broad understanding of all the issues, and he wants to make sure everyone’s concerns have been addressed. Sustaining the science and technology base is a huge challenge. I will truly miss the uniqueness of character Bob has brought to his position."

In addition to the expertise Kuckuck brings, Wadsworth says he will miss the sense of humor. Kuckuck and Wadsworth have been playing off each other since they began working together in 1995, always trying to make the other the target of a good oneliner. It’s not unusual for them to break into a "roast" persona at awards gatherings, birthday celebrations, and the like — sometimes even donning special costumes.

"Bob’s ability to joke around, laugh at himself and make people laugh is a tremendous asset," Wadsworth said. "When he’s around you’ve really got to protect yourself — at all costs."

"Bob doesn’t suffer from the little bit of arrogance I often see in other scientists," Kennedy said. "He has always been very approachable and very direct."

In discussing Kuckuck’s career, Kennedy said he is aware of recent organizational changes made to the Operations side of the Lab, in which line management functions have been removed from the deputy director’s office and assigned to their own directorates. "That’s the biggest compliment anyone can pay Bob," Kennedy said. "He leaves and the Lab acknowledges that they cannot find one person to fill his shoes."

Kuckuck sees the changes to his side of the Lab house as a "great opportunity. This is a chance for real team building." He admits he still has occasional apprehension about leaving — for example, he’d like to come back to see NIF when it is up and running.

"The Lab has always been an exciting place to work. In all the time I have been here, there has not been one assignment, one project someone has taken on where I thought ‘that cannot be done.’ The creative energy here, the sense of dedication — all of this makes me extremely proud to have spent such a big part of life here. How can anyone not miss that?"

Kuckuck literally took two years to convince himself to retire. His final argument was nothing out of the ordinary — "the time just felt right." However, he does add that when his wife Marilyn, his high school sweetheart from West Virginia, retired last August, "it started getting easier to make the decision."

Though he will continue on at the Lab in a reduced capacity –- he is staying on to assist in the upcoming employee survey and he will continue to work a few contract issues — he already has a long list of things he is ready to take on.

For starters, he plans to do some horseback riding and learn cattle roping – something he immediately liked after participating in a "celebrity" cattle penning competition five years ago at the Livermore Rodeo, which he won. He wants to paint, play tennis, continue piano lessons, scuba dive, travel and fly light aircraft (he is a licensed pilot), and even bungee jump on occasion.

He’s also going to play a "requisite amount" of golf, write some fiction and family history for his grandchildren and he wants to become an accomplished chef. He has signed on for a number of cooking courses, with the eventual goal of traveling to France with Kennedy someday for specialized training. "I can’t even boil a pot of water," Kuckuck laughed, "so this should be interesting."

It’s a renaissance retirement for what has been a renaissance career. "But I don’t really think of it as retiring," he said. "I just want to do some different things. Those renaissance types — they’re the ones who are quite accomplished at all those things they do. I don’t want to spend that much time on any one thing. I just want to play."