In memoriam
Ralph Chatham, Ph.D. Oct 15, 1948 - May 18, 2013

Ralph Ernest Chatham

How do you sum up someone like Ralph Chatham? A straight obituary would note that he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 15, 1948, the third & youngest child of Ernest & Elinore Chatham of Chagrin Falls. Through elementary & high school, he felt he benefited from his siblings' reputation for academic achievement. At the University of Kansas, he stood on his own feet. He served as battalion commander of the Navy ROTC, and graduated with highest distinction in engineering physics in 1970. Almost simultaneously, he was commissioned Ensign in the US Navy & married Margaret Laidig of Chatham, NJ. Selection for the Burke Scholar program (designed to create some naval officers with Ph.D.s) allowed him to become a submariner without volunteering for the nuclear power program. His first tour of duty was on USS Barbel, SS 580, out of Pearl Harbor: the cream of the diesel submarine fleet, able to do anything a nuke could do for half an hour - then its batteries would need recharging.

Next came 4 years at the State University of NY at Stony Brook, earning that Ph.D. in laser physics, and ending with an interview with Admiral Rickover, because no one in the nuclear power program could believe Ralph hadn't volunteered for it. He managed to be rejected by Rickover, & a good thing, too: just as he arrived for his next tour as Operations & Navigation Officer on USS George C. Marshall, SSBN 654 Blue, his essay on "Leadership and Nuclear Power" which contrasted practices on nuclear subs unfavorably with diesel subs, won the Vincent Astor Memorial Junior Officer Leadership Essay Contest, & was printed in the Naval Institute Proceedings. (This is what Tom Clancy was talking about when he dedicated The Hunt for Red October to Ralph Chatham "who spoke the truth...") Ralph lucked out in serving with a good captain & executive officer on Marshall, and did not pay a high price for his foolishness.

Ralph had always loved science fiction & dreamed of going into space. He applied for the mission specialist astronaut program & was one of 120 finalists vying for 18 slots in 1980. He was deemed "too susceptible to motion sickness" for the astronaut program, but the detailer remembered his application when looking for someone to be military assistant to the Defense Science Board. ("I don't know what it is, but it's a great job & you were selected for it!") Once in Washington, he went on to be a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, trying to create blue-green lasers to send messages to submarines underwater from satellites in space; and then what he termed "internal exile" at Naval Sea Systems Command, studying Survivability in the Theater Nuclear Warfare Program.

After retiring as a Commander after 20 years in the Navy, Ralph worked for Global Associates and then Dynamics Technology, as a technical bs detector & problem solver, sometimes solving other people's problems, sometimes defining problems people didn't recognize that they had.

In 2001, he went back to DARPA as a program manager for a 4-year appointment that lasted 6 wonderful years, reveling in the job of being creative, focusing mainly on training, having seen that the most wonderful new technology is useless if troops don't fully know how to use it.

After his second time as a DARPA program manager, Ralph could not go back to corporate time sheets and instead worked as a consultant until brain cancer intervened. Ralph died at home in Falls Church, VA, on May 18, 2013. He is survived by his wife Margaret, daughter Ann (Kevin) Baun & granddaughter Maggie of Linthicum, MD, son John of Mountain View, CA, brother Howard (Cathy) of Vienna, VA, and sister Joan Bailey of Afton, VA.

But this account leaves out things like deciding to build an addition onto our small house in Groton, CT, to make room for new baby Ann, justifying purchase of new tools on the basis of the money they would save by doing things himself, which set him off on a career as a tool-aholic. And his working into the storytelling world, from being the submariner with a sea story for every occasion to earning (jointly with Margaret) the National Storytelling Network's 2003 Oracle Award for Leadership and Service in the MidAtlantic Region. It omits his humor, influenced by Pogo, WS Gilbert, Bullwinkle, The Goon Show, Monty Python, and Willie Claflin; his wide-ranging interest in things scientific; the joy he took in watching "official intelligence" develop in Ann & John as they grew while he studied artificial intelligence; the swimming he did that dropped his heart rate down to where sitting put him to sleep, so that he took up carving whistles to stay awake while listening at National Storytelling Festivals: first birds, then dinosaurs. His insightful listening ability, which connected him with so many people in so many ways. His discovery that he enjoyed splitting wood for the wood stove. Camping trips, visiting caves, seeking dinosaur trackways, playing the "Gilbert & Sullivan game," taking up the trombone again 30 years after leaving high school band to join the City of Falls Church Concert Band, his enjoyment in repairing tiny "snorkel" pens after having overseen a submarine snorkel. The books he intended to write: No Stranger Than You Are, Jack as a collection of his told stories, Engineering Disasters in which "engineering" is both a noun and a verb, and The Wrong Stuff, his view of his own history. Thanks to daughter Ann & her husband Kevin, some of his writings will eventually appear on, so stay tuned. Ann's goal is to have many things up by Oct. 15, but before that, you can contribute your own Ralph stories by sending to, or clicking on the link on the website.

I've been asked if there is any particular place to send donations in Ralph's memory. I asked Ralph about this, & got "no" answers to everything I suggested. But I didn't think to suggest the classical public radio stations in DC & Baltimore, that he made particularly heavy use of in his last months, so that's my best suggestion: WETA-90.9FM, PO Box 96100, Washington, DC 20090 or 91.5FM, WBJC, PO Box 22342, Baltimore, MD 21203.

Photo by Susan Singer