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SLAC veteran William Telfer "Bill" Kirk dies

William "Bill" Kirk, a 37-year veteran of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and the founding editor of the innovative particle physics magazine Beam Line, died at his home on Feb. 14 after a battle with cancer. He was 76 and had been retired since 1993.

Kirk received his bachelor's degree in history from Cornell University in 1952. In 1956, he began working at what would become SLAC, when a year before the laboratory was even proposed -- he answered a job advertisement and was hired as assistant to Edward Ginzton, then director of the Microwave Laboratory at Stanford University. It was there that, as SLAC's then-director, W. K. H. "Pief" Panofsky recalled, "Bill was captured in the high-energy physics orbit and never left."

Within that orbit, Kirk enjoyed a long career as a technical writer and high-ranking administrator at the right hand of three successive SLAC lab directors. He largely wrote the official "Stanford Proposal for a Two-Mile Linear Accelerator" of April 1957. This was the document that garnered the support of President Dwight Eisenhower, the Atomic Energy Commission and Congress, and led to the establishment of SLAC. His sotto voce capabilities as an administrator also left indelible memories on those who have led SLAC through the decades.

"Bill was a remarkable man. He didn't have any technical training, but he really caught on to the spirit of SLAC and built his life around being of service and helping communicate high-energy physics," Panofsky recalled. "He did a very good job of presenting the subject to the scientifically unsophisticated but intellectually curious reader and his Beam Lines are masterpieces." The Beam Line, as conceived and executed -- from writing through layout and font selection by Kirk, was a true innovation in science communication and became a popular science journal of high tutorial value. Kirk also became internationally known as a particularly good editor of conference proceedings and became an itinerate editor loaned out by SLAC to labs around the world.

"Bill was very good at making physics accessible to the general public because he was an excellent writer and people admired him for how well he was able to explain technical material in a non-mathematical way. He also had a good sense of humor and deep insight into people," said Greg Loew, SLAC deputy director.

"Bill was one of my trouble-shooters in that Bill had contacts all over the lab, and because people trusted him, they would talk to him, and trouble would surface so it could be dealt with before it became really serious," said Burton Richter, SLAC director emeritus. "Bill was very important to me for that. I missed him and never was able to replace him after he retired. I miss him now."

Recalled Dick Taylor, former SLAC research director: "Bill was an important figure at SLAC in that he was a good bridge between the technical side and the administrative side. He was accepted all the way up and down the ladder and also accepted sideways across all the working groups. Everybody could talk to him and he was sort of a resident psychologist."

Kirk's legacy at SLAC is likely to be memorialized each year through his beloved Experiment/Theory softball game. He organized, presided over and played in that annual slugfest where, as Panofsky recalls, "He was a really good slugger!"

A memorial for Kirk will be held at 3 p.m. March 4 in the cafeteria breezeway at SLAC. A commemorative plaque also will be placed at the foot of the now 30-foot redwood tree that was planted as a sapling adjacent to the Central Laboratory building on the occasion of his retirement.


By Tom Mead

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