Fred Jackson ’59: From DX to Mars, He Had a Plan

Have an objective and a plan. And live life. This is the advice to brothers — older and younger — from Brother Fred Jackson ’59. In his own words, Fred takes us through his journey from being the first in his family to attend college, to the wise choice to join Delta Chi, to marrying Mary Jo and starting a family and on to an impressive aerospace engineering career:

I was the first in my family to attend college, so I had little understanding of what to expect of either the dorm system or the fraternity system. I was probably talked into visiting Delta Chi by a dorm friend. The rush seemed pretty casual to me and I liked the people I met. I remember that one point of discussion was the apparent bullet hole in the wall of one of the rooms. It was attributed to a member who had come to the U of M after serving in Korea. I decided to join the fraternity because I felt that an intermediate-sized living group was a good compromise.  Dorms were too impersonal with little chance for continuity from year to year.

Apartment dwelling on the other hand could lead to isolation. Delta Chi provided an excellent environment in this respect. The fraternity had members who attended a cross-section of the schools at the University; a good mix of freshmen through seniors, and a good system of communication between the individuals.

Memories include many of the group activities that fostered communication. The size of the group was relatively small, so that most people participated fully. The activities included a constant bridge game underway, parties, bull sessions, chapter meetings, fraternity sings (IFC competitions, pinning ceremonies, and Christmas visits to hospitals), Michigra float building, sports (both football on the yard and intramural team sports). Of course we also attended Michigan varsity football games as a group — garbed in suits, sport coats, ties and even a fancy hat or two. TV was a big deal in those days, so that on one occasion, when someone yelled out “Hurry, come see Jim Quick on television”, many of us suckered in. We ran to the TV room only to find Jim Quick sitting on the TV set. A unifying force was our mascot Henry the dachshund, formally known as Baron Heinrich von Guiterich III (Sp?). His favorite sport (besides licking up spilled beer) was chasing a thrown ball in the living room and then trying to stop on the polished wooden floor of the TV room. You had to be there!

I lived in the fraternity house my sophomore year and then moved to an apartment, still eating meals at the house and participating fully. I don’t remember who my roommates were at the house, other than having a bunk bed in a cold dormitory. In the apartments, roommates at various times included Harry Donald ’58, Gary Brasseur ’59, Gordy Cox ’59, Bob Miller ’59 and Don Trim ’59. The walk past the cemetery each evening was daunting, but was worth the fellowship.

After graduating from Michigan in 1959 with a BSE, I was called to join the Air Force as a 2nd Lt. I was sent to Lackland Air Force Base where I was assigned to be the officer in charge of field training at the Basic Training School. I immediately requested reassignment to an engineering position. In the mean-time, I carried on my relationship with the love of my life, Mary Jo, and we were married in November of 1959. After a honeymoon, including San Francisco, Hawaii and Los Angeles, I returned to my office to find orders transferring me to the Edwards Air Force Base Rocket Propulsion Laboratory. I was in heaven, both maritally and professionally.

During my three years in the Air Force, I interacted with many interesting people, including several astronauts. I was able to manage several programs of a pioneering nature that provided great challenges and technical growth. My wife and I managed to produce our first son, Joseph. The Air Force promoted me to 1st Lt. and ultimately offered me a regular commission to make the military a career. I declined, looking forward to broader vistas.

My civilian career consisted of 30 years at a single company, known variously as Space Technology Laboratories, TRW, and, now, Northrup-Grumman. During that time, my wife and I had two more sons, Jeff and Greg. Our residence for most of the time has been in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. At TRW, I started as a manager of small projects in advanced propulsion. That led to larger projects such as work on the Lunar Module Descent Engine, management of spacecraft propulsion systems, research in electric propulsion and research on radioisotope propulsion systems. Moving on, I became manager of system test for the Viking Lander Biology Instrument, which successfully landed on Mars and transmitted the first data from the surface of the planet. Next, I was involved in managing high-energy laser systems for defense against ICBMs. The first was the cylindrical laser, which was to be space based. It achieved success in ground tests and was instrumental in the Soviet Union’s inability to compete with the US. The second was the Airborne Laser. It was intended to be fitted into a Boeing 747, which would fly picket duty on the borders of countries which threaten to deploy ICBMs. If ICBMs are launched, the laser could destroy them before they cross the borders of their own country. This project was underway when I retired, but ultimately accomplished technical success. In between the two laser programs, I was the manager of the telescope portion of the X-Ray Telescope Program. The telescope spacecraft was successfully launched and is performing as predicted.

My primary relaxation since leaving college has been travel, both foreign and domestic. I believe that my wife and I have visited every state in the union, much of it in long distance driving. We’ve visited Michigan a dozen times or more, but only managed one football game in the big house. We beat Purdue, but it rained the whole game. I’ve never counted the countries that we’ve visited, but it has to be 40 or more — all the continents except Antarctica. One interesting trip was to Papua New Guinea, which we shared with Gordy Cox and Dodie, his wife. PNG is very primitive!

In addition to Gordy, our contact with Delta Chi friends has been limited. When we moved to Los Angeles (actually, on our honeymoon), we visited with Paul Wolcott ’58 and his wife. We socialized for many years thereafter. We had several visits with Don Trim and his wife, Dorothy, in both California and Michigan (often with Paul Menard ’57). We were very sad when Don (and Paul) passed away, but still consider Dorothy a valued friend. Another friend that we’ve seen several times is Gary Brasseur, who was single and in the Army when he first visited us while we were on the desert at Edwards AFB. Charlie Murdoch ’58 and his wife visited us once while on a cross-country trip, and Harry Donald stopped by when on a business trip from Long Island. It must be obvious by my ability to itemize visits that California is near the end of the earth. Of course, anyone who can remember me and/or my wife is welcome to stop by and visit. We have plenty of good California wines, extra rooms and, at least, hot coffee in the morning. However, please call first, because we’re still traveling. (Japan in October.)

I don’t usually reflect on the successes and failures in my life because my reaction to them is to move on to the rest of life. That’s my advice to young people. Have an objective and a plan.  Live life. Accept successes and failures. I haven’t written a book in testimony to this outlook, and I don’t think I specifically said these words to my own sons. Despite that, they have turned out to be outstanding people … probably because of their mother’s influence. I haven’t lived my life in anticipation that I would be judged in 50 years. But I would hope that I would be thought to be a hard worker, a good provider, an honest person and a feeling human being.

Fred invites brothers to connect with him at [email protected].