City Historian for Oak Ridge, TN – WWII’s Manhattan Project Headquarters
Ask anyone in Oak Ridge, Tennessee who the biggest, most vocal champion of historic preservation is, and the response will be unanimous: Bill Wilcox! Bill’s mission, it seems, is to save as many Manhattan Project sites as possible and turn them into exciting centers of learning so the general public can have the opportunity to see first hand where the world’s first atomic bomb was developed. He works tirelessly to bring attention to the heritage tourism potential of the historical sites in Oak Ridge, both the better known Manhattan Project era history as well as the lesser known Cold War history.
Recently, the Oak Ridge City Council unanimously designated Bill as the first official City Historian for Oak Ridge. In this capacity, he provides consultative input on the city’s heritage tourism efforts and supports city council’s efforts to capitalize on Oak Ridge’s unique historical heritage.
“Bill is truly a national treasure,” said Ray Smith, Board Member of the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association. “His detailed historical knowledge, his boundless enthusiasm, and his gentle humor and quick smile have helped folks understand that Oak Ridge’s historical heritage is both wonderfully interesting and well-worth saving. We are so fortunate to have him in East Tennessee.”
Bill first came to Oak Ridge in 1943 as a chemist in the Manhattan Project. His Oak Ridge career began in the Beta Chemistry Division of Y-12, supporting the electromagnetic separation process. This separation process employed alpha and beta calutrons, with 22,000 people working to “separate” U-235 from natural uranium. Uranium-235 was used to create the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945, helping to end World War II. Wilcox’s personal involvement with the Manhattan Project gives him instant credibility with audiences interested in learning how this significant industrial and military achievement was accomplished.
Over the years, Bill worked at both the Y-12 and K-25 plants in various positions ranging from head of the Physics Department to R&D Division.
Bill has since taken on the role of lecturer, presenter, and film star. He played a huge role in the documentary films Secret City: The Oak Ridge Story – The War Years and The Oak Ridge Story Part 2: 1945 – 2006. Wilcox has authored numerous “white papers,” published a history of the Y-12 Plant, and most recently published the book, Opening the Gates of the Secret City. In addition, he has assisted in the History Channel’s Modern Marvels documentary, Manhattan Project, and Atlantic Productions’ Secret Cities of the A-bomb, currently being shown on The History Channel.
One of Bill’s most impressive contributions was his idea for the Secret City Commemorative Walk, a monument enshrining the names of Oak Ridge’s Manhattan Project workers in a lovely garden setting, which tells the history of the Secret City from 1942 – 1949.
Bill’s latest passion is the historic U-shaped building at the K-25 site (at 44 acres, the largest building under one roof in the entire world at the time of its construction). He’s championed an approach that will save a significant portion of the history of the tremendous work done there for over 40 years. While the details are still being worked out, Bill has tirelessly contributed ideas and suggestions as to what can and should be done to obtain the goal of a tourist destination at the K-25 Heritage Center. He sits on the board of directors for the Partnership for K-25 (PKP), the group formed specifically to help save this site and turn it into a heritage tourism destination.
Bill is often a speaker to groups visiting Oak Ridge, as well as to media outlets when Manhattan Project workers are requested for interviews. He is seen every June during the Secret City Festival giving tours of his beloved K-25 site. He asks nothing in return for his hard work, except that the history of this incredible city not be forgotten, but made available for common folks to know and appreciate the unique history of Oak Ridge.
“Bill is not only a friend to tourism, but a friend to this city,” said Oak Ridge Convention & Visitors Bureau President Katy Brown. “He is so willing to take time out of his busy schedule to explain his role in the Manhattan Project to our tour groups and media tours. His enthusiasm for preserving the history and heritage of Oak Ridge is an impressive challenge that the rest of us strive to achieve as well.”
Bill married Eugenia “Jeanie” Holder in 1946 after meeting her in Oak Ridge. They have three children, and have lived in an “F” house on New York Avenue since 1956. He has been a faithful member of the St. Stephens Episcopal Church since its founding in 1945, serving as Senior Warden of the Board of the congregation for six years, singing in the choir for 22 years, working as a Sunday School teacher, serving as head of Christian Education for the congregation, leading several capital project efforts, and assisting in a major renovation in 2000. He has served as the church’s historian and archivist for the past 12 years. In addition, he served as the Tennessee Diocese Chair for Lay Ministry for six years, conducting workshops to educate the church on the effective ministry of lay members.
Bill served two terms on the board of Aid for Distressed Families in Appalachian Counties, an organization that provides for basic needs of the poorest members of our communities. He also helped found the Coalition of Oak Ridge Retired Employees and served on its board for five years. He was also involved in forming the Citizens for National Security in the late 1990’s and served for two years on its board.
Additionally, he served on Oak Ridge’s Human Relations Board in the 1960’s during the most trying time of integration of the city’s facilities. He served on the Oak Ridge Hospital Board of the Methodist Church. Bill also served in 1986-87 as the Oak Ridge School’s Strategic Planning consultant.
Bill’s voluntary efforts have been extensive. His unabashed love for the history of Oak Ridge has caused him to devote untold hours of research and documentation of factual information to support the city’s desire to take advantage of its heritage tourism potential. He is most unassuming and humble. Only his wife, Jeanie, realizes the total dedication to task and devotion to duty that her loving husband, Bill, devotes to his city of choice, Oak Ridge. He is worthy of all the recognition we can provide him. Without Bill, Oak Ridge would not be nearly so able to capitalize on the full potential of heritage tourism. He is our most likely citizen to deserve the recognition for his volunteerism over the years.