Richard C. Wolgast

Date of Birth

October 15th, 1923

Date of Death

June 5th, 2012

Memorial Meeting

Berkeley Monthly Meeting


Richard C. Wolgast was born in Rochester New York, the third of five children, to Helen Seifert and William Wolgast. Richard’s father was a history teacher and principal of the largest high school in Rochester. The family had a small non-commercial farm, with a large garden, chickens and pigeons, which Richard always recalled nostalgically. He headed west to go to Deep Springs College, a small liberal arts college on a cattle ranch just east of Bishop, California. In 1940, he received a call from his father that they had received his draft notice, which was being forwarded to him. With that forewarning, he enlisted in the Navy and then transferred to Cornell to study engineering.

On finishing his degree in mechanical engineering, he was sent Navy Officer Candidates School and subsequently assigned to the battleship USS Indiana, bound for Tokyo. It arrived in Japan just after the peace was signed. He then returned to Cornell to get a degree in aeronautical engineering.

In 1949 he married Elizabeth Hankins, a student at Cornell studying philosophy. In 1952, the couple moved to Seattle, where Richard worked for Boeing, while Elizabeth completed her PhD at the University of Washington. Richard became increasingly uncomfortable with defense-related work, and in 1955 they moved to Ann Arbor, MI where he pursued graduate studies in physics at the University of Michigan. In 1956 his son Stephen was born.

While at Michigan, he worked as a research assistant with the 'bubble chamber' group led by Donald Glaser, who later received a Nobel Prize for this work. When the research group relocated to the Radiation Laboratory at U.C. Berkeley (LBL) in 1959, Richard accepted a position to continue working with them and settled in Berkeley. His daughter, Johanna, was born in 1963.

In 1964 he was invited to help build a cyclotron at the Swiss Technical Institute in Zurich. He spent two years there, and enjoyed going skiing in the Alps with his coworkers. He then returned to LBL, where he remained until his retirement, working on the design and construction of several generations of nuclear accelerators.

He continued to enjoy skiing into his 70’s, had a small sailboat that he took out on San Francisco Bay and liked archery.

Dick and Elizabeth became members of Berkeley Friends Meeting on May 14, 1967. Their children were junior members and Steve became an adult member on July 8, 1973. During the Vietnam War, Dick was active in Quaker efforts to assist draftees to avoid military service, and was one of the first regular draft counselors at the Berkeley Friends Meeting He also served on Berkeley Meeting’s environmental committee when it was first established in 2002.

He was deeply interested in the conservation of natural resources and the protection of wildlife. As a member of the Berkeley Waterfront Commission, he researched and predicted the return of wildlife in former landfills. Cesar Chavez, Eastshore and Shorebird Parks, former landfills, are now nature preserve areas.

After retiring, he and Elizabeth travelled the world. In 2006, at the age of 82, he went on a trip with his children and granddaughter to the Minnesota Boundary Waters, climbing in and out of the canoe with a cane and sharing the rowing with his son-in-law. Every year he went cross-country camping with his brother Dave, visiting natural landmarks and camping out of Dave's pop-up.

In 2010 he suffered a stroke which left him weak in his left arm and leg, but he continued to travel abroad, and never missed a camping trip. With both children living in the Bay Area after 2000, the family enjoyed regular get-togethers.

In June 2014, he and Elizabeth went on a much-anticipated tour of Yellowstone National Park. The fourth day of the tour was spent seeing the gyesers, and they were unusually lucky to see several geysers going off in succession. That night, June 5th, he died peacefully in his sleep, within sight of Old Faithful.

He is survived by his wife Elizabeth, son Stephen, his wife Joanne (Willis), daughter Johanna and granddaughter Gillian born in 1994.