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John W. Firor (1927–2007)

Published onDec 01, 2009
John W. Firor (1927–2007)

John W. Firor, a former Director of the High Altitude Observatory and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and a founder of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society, died of Alzheimer's disease in Pullman, Washington on November 5, 2007, he was 80. He was born in Athens Georgia on October 18, 1927, where his father was a professor of agricultural economics.

John had an unusually diverse scientific career. His interest in physics and astrophysics began while serving in the army, during which time he was assigned to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he guarded highly radioactive materials (many have heard him describe how informal the protections were compared to later times). After his service he returned to college and graduated in physics from Georgia Tech in 1949. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1954, writing his thesis on cosmic rays under John Simpson. John Firor would later remark that: "If you needed cosmic rays to actually do anything, you are sunk." That thought, partly in jest, may help explain his motivation for moving to so many new scientific and management pursuits.

John moved from cosmic ray physics to radio astronomy (particularly of the Sun) when he began work at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, where he remained until 1961. During this time, he met Walter Orr Roberts, then the Director of the High Altitude Observatory (HAO) in Boulder, Colorado. HAO was then affiliated with the University of Colorado. In 1959, a movement began to upgrade the atmospheric sciences in the United States by establishing a National Center, where the largest, most important atmospheric research problems could be addressed. Roberts became the first Director of NCAR, as well as the first president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the consortium of universities that was commissioned to manage and staff the new Center. HAO became a scientific division of NCAR (Roberts made it a requirement if he was to be NCAR Director). He chose John to be the new HAO Director. John was 33 then; his leadership potential was recognized very early.

While Director of HAO, John presided over a very active scientific program that focused on non-equilibrium thermodynamics, radiative transfer, plasma physics, coronal spectroscopy, geomagnetism, physics of the Earth's upper atmosphere, and solar activity. Prominent scientists such as Jack Evans, Sydney Chapman, Gene Parker, Leo Goldberg and Donald Menzel visited to share their insights and enthusiasm with the HAO staff. John was also an active participant in HAO's well-known solar eclipse expeditions, traveling to New Guinea and to Lake Chad in Africa. Late in his tenure as HAO Director, he took the lead in helping to improve the involvement of the AAS in solar physics, and solar physicists in the AAS. Having led the AAS committee that planned its birth, he was the founding chair of the new Solar Physics Division. Much less importantly, he gave me a summer position in 1966 when I was joining the faculty at CU--that is when I first met John.

In 1968, John became the Director of NCAR when Walter Roberts decided to split the directorship from the Presidency of UCAR. As NCAR Director, John had responsibility for a vastly broadened program compared to his HAO days. NCAR, the largest NSF supported research center, conducted research covering all of atmospheric sciences, as well as oceanography and solar-terrestrial physics. It also provided major observational and computational facilities to the atmospheric sciences community. John showed very quickly he understood and could guide all of it. I came to know John best during this period, because in 1971 he chose me to head the Advanced Study Program, which supported (and still supports) postdoctoral and graduate education.

In that time, budgets were good, and NCAR was a relatively collegial, informal place. But in December 1973, that all changed suddenly. NCAR management was reviewed by an NSF-appointed Joint Evaluation Committee (JEC), whose report raised many questions. Walter Roberts resigned as UCAR President, and John had the task of working with the UCAR Board to make major changes. During this time, John asked me to put aside my ASP duties to assist him. Over the next 18 months, NCAR was restructured, several Division Directors replaced, a new, more rigorous scientific appointment system was developed, and a major budget cut was absorbed. John did all of this; in my view, it was heroic. Then the UCAR Board appointed a new UCAR President and NCAR Director, Francis Bretherton, and John became the NCAR Executive Director. John used to say that many people asked him how he felt about being 'demoted'--always gracious, he said he never saw it that way. In fact, he was mentoring Bretherton, who was very junior to John in experience, never having held a major management position. The Bretherton-Firor 'team' managed UCAR until 1980.

Then a new UCAR and NCAR management was chosen, and John had to decide what to do next. He took a sabbatical and became more deeply involved in environmental issues. But this interest had been kindled much before. As early as 1970, he was writing and speaking about environmental questions while NCAR Director. When he returned to NCAR, he became the Director of the Advanced Study Program (ASP), what I had been a decade before. He served NCAR in that role until 1996. When he stepped down, he remarked that he had been a member of the NCAR Directors Committee for 34 years; a record that he judged should never be broken.

While John was attentive to the needs of the post-docs and graduate students his program supported, ASP was a platform for him to pursue his environmental interests. He spoke and wrote clearly and influentially on environmental issues. He served on the Boards of several important environmental organizations and wrote two well received environmental books: "The Changing Atmosphere: A Global Challenge" (1990), and, with his wife Judith Jacobsen "The Crowded Greenhouse: Population, Climate Change and Creating a Sustainable World" (2002). After ASP, he continued his focus on environmental issues as a member of the Environmental and Societal Impacts group at NCAR. John retired from NCAR in 2005.

John had many active pursuits beyond his professional work. He was an accomplished pilot, with licenses for flying single and multiengine aircraft, sailplanes, and balloons. He piloted a sailplane in at least one meteorological field program. He also was an avid river rafter.

John faced the disease that took his life as he did all events in his life, with grace and dignity. He endured the loss of two spouses to cancer, Merle Jenkins Firor in 1979, and Judith Jacobsen in 2004.

John is survived by his four children with his first wife, Daniel Firor of Seattle, Washington; Kay Firor of Cove, Oregon; James Firor of Hotchkiss, Colorado, and Susan Firor of Moscow, Idaho; a sister; a brother; and three grandchildren. His children and his many friends in Boulder and elsewhere gave him loving support during his days battling Alzheimer's.

John used to define a 'southern gentleman' as a man dressed in white linen suit on a hot dusty summer day in a small Georgia town who could cross the street without breaking a sweat. John and his intellect and his management ability were like that; he could deal gracefully and successfully with almost anything that came his way. A man of great accomplishment, he rarely showed an ego to match. In the darkest days following the JEC Report, he almost single-handedly invented a new NCAR scientific appointment system. He chose the first cadre of 'senior scientists' to populate the top rank. There were about eighteen members in this group, but there was one name conspicuously absent - his own. This 'error' was quietly corrected by the UCAR Board.

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