Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
OCC Clock Tower
Home > News
Dec 07
Jim Carnett
By Jim Carnett

(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 36th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)

Henry Rhodes

Henry Rhodes

Henry Rhodes was an Orange Coast College student for 13 years.

In no way, however, could he be categorized a “typical student.” He began taking classes in 1992, at the age of 73. He continued to do so until his death, at the age of 86, in April of 2005. Earlier, the Laguna Beach physicist earned B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from UC Berkeley, and worked on the celebrated Manhattan Project during World War II.

“I usually take two OCC courses a a variety of disciplines,” Rhodes told me during a 1999 interview. “I’ve probably completed 25 Orange Coast classes since first enrolling. I’ve remained a student long after my retirement because I possess a curious mind and I enjoy learning.”

An OCC professor once accused Rhodes – albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek – of “only continuing your studies because you’re trying to attain omniscience!”

“He loved the academic environment,” says Rhodes’ close friend, Nicholas Contopoulos, an Orange Coast College associate professor of astronomy and physical science. “He grew up in it, and felt very comfortable there.”

For 13 years, Rhodes visited OCC’s campus several days a week. When not in class – and particularly during the noon-hour – he could be seen holding court in the Student Center. Seated at a table populated by as many as a dozen students and faculty members, Rhodes was the star attraction. Typically, he sat discussing a scientific matter or telling one of his innumerable stories pulled from an extensive backlog of personal experiences.

“I heard all of his stories dozens of times, but I loved listening to them,” Contopoulos says. “I would sometimes intentionally steer a conversation so that Henry would tell one of my favorites.”

In addition to being an Orange Coast College student, Rhodes also occasionally lectured to OCC classes. Many Coast professors – if pressed on the issue – would have confessed that they knew less about their subject than he did. In September of 2004, he delivered a scientific lecture to OCC’s chapter of Phi Delta Kappa.

Rhodes’ curriculum vitae read like a John Grisham thriller. He worked with the legendary Ernest O. Lawrence, and equally legendary J. Robert Oppenheimer, for nearly five years on the Manhattan Project – which produced the world’s first atomic bomb; he sat in a seminar at Princeton University taught by Albert Einstein; he taught for many years at UC Berkeley; after selling patents on several of his discoveries, he quit teaching and sailed the world aboard his 53-foot yacht, “Senta,” competing in a host of boat races from the Caribbean to the north Atlantic and throughout the Mediterranean; he was an avid bicyclist; he was an advocate for equal rights, introducing the first African-American into the San Francisco Yacht Club; he was a musicologist and critic, and for a time was associated with the Aspen Music Festival; he was a lover of literature who discovered Shakespeare as a high school student, and read more literary works than virtually any collection of a dozen people you can name; and, for 13 years, he was a student extraordinaire at Orange Coast College.

“Henry was truly a Renaissance man,” Contopoulos says. “He had an encyclopedic knowledge...of virtually everything.”

Contopoulos, who, coincidentally, grew up in Berkeley, was Rhodes’ first OCC teacher. They soon developed a close – almost father-son – bond.

“I enjoyed Henry tremendously,” Contopoulos told me. “He had a fresh mind. And his mind was always working.”

When Rhodes’ first started taking Coast classes, in his early and mid 70s, he and Contopoulos would go biking three times a week, sometimes logging as many as 150 miles during the three-day stint. In his late 70s and 80s he was plagued by an inner ear problem that affected his balance, and Rhodes was forced to walk with a cane.

He regularly escorted Contopoulos to concerts and theatrical productions.

“I’m a scientist, not a lover of the arts,” Nick admitted to me with a shy smile during a 1999 interview. “Without Henry, I’d never go to a concert on my own. He has broadened my horizons.”

Though Contopoulos lauded Rhodes’ enormous brainpower, the former Berkeley physicist confessed in 1999 to having slowed down...slightly.

“I sometimes get myself into awkward situations when I chat with students and faculty at lunch,” he admitted to me. “Names and adjectives don’t always come forth when I summon them. I know they’re tucked away in my cerebrum, but reaching them isn’t easy. I sometimes can’t pull them out.

“I’ll stop and think for a moment – hoping something will appear ­– but, when it doesn’t, I’ll alter my sentence accordingly. Then, a few minutes later when I’m 25 steps outside the cafeteria – and in the bright sunshine – a neon sign will light up in my brain as the word I was looking for flashes brilliantly. Why didn’t it show up earlier when I needed it?”

Rhodes wasn’t alone in his frustration. Untold millions, decades from reaching their 80th birthday, regularly experience the same “lost-word” phenomena.

When the physicist left UC Berkeley in 1969 to depart on what was planned to be a two-year voyage – but ended up taking 11 – he sold his vast collection of books. He had no room for the heavy volumes aboard the restricted confines of Senta.

“I was just a kid,” Contopoulos says, “but I clearly remember a man selling stacks of books every day for several weeks at the Berkeley Cooperative. I’ve since discovered that that man was Henry.”

Rhodes admitted in our ’99 conversation to viewing his OCC classes somewhat differently than a traditional college student might.

“I don’t approach things as a novice – I’m not concerned about getting grades, obviously – and I already know a lot of the material going in. But knowledge has changed dramatically in virtually every scientific field in recent decades, and I’m always eager to learn something new.

“I took my first astronomy class at UC Berkeley 60 years ago. I’ve always been fascinated by astronomy and, over the years, have read countless articles and journals on the subject. I love taking astronomy at Coast because there’s so much new for me to discover.”

OCC’s students enjoyed Rhodes. Frequently, on an informal basis, he could be found in the Student Center, or sitting on a campus bench, tutoring a student or students.

“I have a good relationship with students,” he told me. “Some – particularly the young ones – might be a bit overly-impressed by me. Perhaps they think I know more than I actually do. But, I’m affable – and I enjoy talking with them – so they seem to like my company. It’s a nice situation.”

Students regularly approached Rhodes after class sessions.

“Typically, a student will say, ‘I don’t get this, can you explain it to me, Henry?’ I’ll then invite the person to the Student Center for lunch – or we’ll arrange for a meeting the next afternoon – and we’ll discuss whatever topic they raise. Word-of-mouth gets around. Students tell their friends and frequently I’m working with a number of students at the same time.”

Born in Denver in 1919 of Russian-immigrant parents, Rhodes and his family moved to Southern California a year later. He was raised in Los Angeles.

“I was the youngest of four children, and all of my siblings were at least 20 years older than me,” he told me. “So I grew up on my own. My parents, to be frank, were ignorant Russian peasants – though my father was a darned good tailor. I was the best-dressed kid at Los Angeles High School…but not because we were wealthy.

“My parents barely learned English and never became Americanized. They had little interest in my education, and didn’t even attend my high school graduation. My mother and I weren’t close at all. She was 42 when she became pregnant with me, and showed me little attention after I was born.”

Rhodes poured all of his energy – and considerable native intelligence – into school. At the age of 12, while walking home from classes with a friend, he was introduced to a public library.

“I had no notion as to what a library was. When I walked in, I realized it was a wonderful treasure-trove of books. That discovery changed my life.”

The library became his second home.

By the age of 18, he’d read all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. He read novels by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and was fascinated by the works of Bertrand Russell. For his entire life he shared Russell’s atheism.

“Somewhere between ages 12 and 15 I jettisoned religion,” he once told me with a modicum of self-satisfaction. “It didn’t make sense. Too much evil has come about because of religion, and I would have none of it.”

During his 13 years at Coast, when he shared his religious views with OCC students some invariably tried to win him over.

“We always have wonderful discussions,” he said with a smile in 1999. “The students aren’t hostile toward me at all. Some look at me with genuine pity and are concerned about the condition of my soul, but I’m not persuaded. They like to tell me about their imagined deity, but they don’t convince me. I don’t convince them, either, but we have a marvelous talk.”

Rhodes graduated from high school with exceptional grades and was admitted into Berkeley as…an English literature major.

“That caused great consternation and surprise later in my career,” he said with a laugh. “No one I was associated with knew of a physicist who’d been an English lit major in college. I worked with hundreds of physicists – including 15 Nobel Prize winners – and during my career I encountered only one who had an interest in literature.”

That person was theoretical physicist, and director of the Los Alamos, N.M. Lab, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

“Oppy loved literature,” Rhodes said. “He had a literature background, and his expertise was in Indian and Oriental works.”

Rhodes earned his B.A. from Berkeley in 1940 and was a graduate student the year that the U.S. entered the war, in 1941.

“Americans were all very much aware of what Mr. Hitler was doing in Europe in ‘40 and ‘41. I knew it was only a matter of time before the U.S. would become enmeshed. As a healthy 22-year-old, I was ripe for the plucking. I confided to a Berkeley friend that I was resigned to dying on some European field.”

Rhodes made friends with a young Berkeley physicist and Ph.D. candidate by the name of Carl Barber. Through Barber, he met Lawrence and Oppenheimer during stimulating noontime discussions in Berkeley’s faculty dining lounge.

In 1933, Lawrence invented his 11-inch cyclotron that would prove to be a most important tool in high-energy physics. He received the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for his work, and was director of Berkeley’s famed Radiation Laboratory.

Oppenheimer, in 1941, was a 37-year-old Berkeley physics professor who was exploring the energy processes of subatomic particles and quantum theory. The 22-year-old Rhodes was duly impressed by Berkeley’s scientific heavyweights.

“Carl (Barber) looked at me one day and said, ‘you’re intelligent, Henry, but you don’t know a thing about physics. You need to take more physics classes. You have potential.’ I followed his advice.”

In early 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rhodes visited Dr. Lawrence’s office. He was looking for a way to serve his country away from the battlefield.

“Something very secretive was going on at the Berkeley Rad Lab, of that I was certain. Something was being hatched that had never before been created. I went to Oppy first. He was quite considerate, not aloof – as he’s often portrayed – and he suggested that I talk with EOL (Ernest O. Lawrence).

“I dropped by EOL’s office one afternoon and his secretary ushered me in. I told him I was interested in working for the lab. Two weeks later I was on the staff.”

When Rhodes was hired, the lab consisted of just 48 employees. By the end of the war it employed more than 7,000.

“When I talked with EOL during the meeting in his office, he told me that things at the lab were about to explode – and he wasn’t talking about the bomb. He knew the direction the research was headed. The lab grew enormously in the months ahead.”

In 1938, a pair of German scientists, Hahn and Stassman, wrote a paper arguing that fission wasn’t just an abstraction but could actually be achieved.

“They said fission could create a chain reaction that would release a horrendous amount of energy,” Rhodes said. “The discovery of fission would give the Germans the capacity to create a uranium bomb. American physicists knew very well that whoever came up with the bomb first would win the war. Unfortunately, almost no one in government at that time was the least bit enlightened about it.”

No less a personage than Albert Einstein went to President Roosevelt in 1942 to convince him of the need for developing a uranium bomb.

“Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt saying, in essence, that current research on chain reactions utilizing uranium made it probable that large amounts of energy could be produced, and that this power could aid in the construction of ‘extremely powerful bombs.’

“Einstein believed Germany was actively supporting research in this area. His letter urged the U.S. Government to do likewise. We didn’t want Mr. Hitler to get it first. The Russians had also started working on a bomb. Japan thought it over, but said, ‘We’ll never do it.’”

Roosevelt gave approval to the greatest expenditure of talent and treasure in the world’s history – dubbed the “Manhattan Project.” At its height, the project employed 200,000 people in 40 laboratories and factories around the country.

“No other project has ever expanded so abruptly,” Rhodes said.

The young Californian became a vacuum technology specialist at the Berkeley Lab. Vacuum chambers were employed to speed up uranium research. The chambers were used in the spectrograph, which played a crucial role in electromagnetically separating uranium-235 from uranium-237 and 238.

“We didn’t know how this bomb would be contained, or how big – physically – it would actually be...but we knew it would be large,” Rhodes said. “The B-29 – which was a monstrous plane – had not yet rolled out in 1942, and Einstein didn’t know how the bomb could be delivered. The B-17 and B-24 – which were dropping conventional bombs on Germany later in the war – clearly were not big enough for such a payload. He concluded that it would probably have to be delivered by boat, and parked in a harbor prior to detonation.”

Ultimately, of course, the bomb was delivered by B-29, and exploded nearly 2,000 feet above the target.

“If it were to have been dropped to the ground, half of its energy would have been directed into the earth,” Rhodes says. “It had to be exploded above the target – triggered by atmospheric pressure.”

In September of 1942, Col. Leslie R. Groves – who’d overseen construction of the colossal Pentagon building in Washington D.C. – was named manager of the Manhattan Project. He led the construction of the massive 52,000-acre Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico. It was at Los Alamos where early research on the gun and implosion techniques for assembling a critical mass was conducted.

Rhodes was transferred from the University of California Radiation Lab to work at both facilities. For a time, he also worked at the New York Lab, located in the former Nash Automotive Building in Manhattan. That lab was the only direct link to the project’s namesake, “Manhattan.”

“At Los Alamos, they turned a tiny ranch school into a small community,” Rhodes recalled. “When Oppy got ready to leave Berkeley to start up Los Alamos, I asked him if I could keep his car for him. He asked me why. ‘Oppy,’ I said, ‘this is rural New Mexico. They aren’t going to have any roads down there.’ ‘They soon will,’ he predicted, and they did.”

Rhodes lived in Oppenheimer’s Berkeley home for a time before Lawrence transferred him to Oak Ridge and Los Alamos.

“My expertise was high vacuum technology, and they were having difficulty maintaining a vacuum in their tubes. It’s not easy to take a chamber and get rid of every particle in it. But everything must go, or you’ll have collisions that you don’t want. I’ve often joked that I was an expert at creating nothing.

“Leaks – not the espionage kind – at Oak Ridge were a problem. There was a desperation factor, and Lawrence sent me down there to work on the situation.”

By the summer of 1945, America’s huge corps of scientists had created their first bomb. Code named “Trinity,” the bomb was exploded on July 16 at the remote Alamagordo Bombing Range, 200 miles south of Los Alamos. The Atomic Age was ushered in at 5:30 a.m. that morning.

“Trinity” vaporized the steel tower on which it rested, and turned the sand beneath the tower into green glass. The successful test had a sobering impact upon the scientists.

“I must admit that this was an exceedingly interesting project to work on,” Rhodes said. “Nothing like it had ever been attempted before. As scientists, we were fascinated by its many challenges. But, following the successful test, we had to take stock of what we’d created. We all possessed moral convictions.”

The scientists decided that the bomb should not be dropped.

“We suggested that the weapon be used to intimidate the Japanese into surrendering. We could give them a demonstration of its awesome power. Their own physicists – many of whom had been educated at Berkeley – would tell the Japanese leadership that you can’t resist this sort of thing. There isn’t a facile answer for survival.”

A total of 617 scientists signed a letter addressed to President Truman. The letter encouraged him to first demonstrate the power of the new bomb, before dropping it. The request was denied.

On Aug. 6, 1945, the B-29, Enola Gay, took off from the Pacific island of Tinian, located in the Marianas group, on its way toward the Japanese home islands. At 8:15 a.m. local time America’s 9,700-pound uranium bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” was released over its primary target, the city of Hiroshima. It exploded at 1,900 feet.

The bomb killed 70,000 people instantly, and injured another 70,000.

Truman called for Japan’s unconditional surrender, but a response was not forthcoming.

Three days later, a second B-29, Box Car, dropped a 10,000-pound bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” over the city of Nagasaki. The bomb – the equivalent of 21,000 tons of TNT – exploded at 1,600 feet and killed 40,000 people. An additional 60,000 were injured.

Three weeks later the documents of surrender were signed in Tokyo Bay on the veranda deck of the USS Missouri.

Rhodes completed his education after the war, and began teaching at Berkeley. He admitted to suffering bouts of depression following the war, but later came to terms with what had occurred.

“Did we scientists know what the bomb would do?” he asked me. “Not completely. But all of the people working on the project, with the possible exception of the janitors, understood what the project was about. We were creating a bomb that would cause a huge dissemination of energy and destruction. It was going to be horrendous.

“But, what were we to do? Let the Germans get it? We couldn’t live with that possibility. In hindsight, the bomb worked. It ended a terrible war that killed nearly 30 million people, and it hasn’t been used since. For that I’m grateful.”

Rhodes taught at Berkeley for two decades, and then sold several laser patents in 1969. With the proceeds from his patents, he left his teaching post, at the age of 50, and jumped aboard “Senta” with his second wife, Fiona, for a scheduled two-year journey. They ended up staying at sea for 11 years, visiting 55 countries.

Senta was a beautiful teak-interior boat, built for racing.

“Henry loved to sail and he used his skill as a physicist to win many races,” Contopoulos said. “He understood the dynamics of sail surfaces and shape, and how to get the maximum benefit out of what you have. He wouldn’t just beat other boats by a slight margin, he’d kill them. He was a very intense competitor.”

Rhodes enrolled in his first OCC class in 1992. It was Contopoulos’ cosmology course.

“During the first class session there were just a dozen people in attendance, and Nick informed us that he’d have to cancel because college regulations require that a class have a minimum enrollment of 18,” Rhodes said. “I tend to be rather loquacious and argumentative, and I said aloud that in all my years in higher education I’d never heard of such a thing.

“After listening to my argument for continuing the class, Nick asked me if I’d like to make my case to the division dean, Stan Johnson. I said certainly.”

Contopoulos left the classroom and returned with Johnson, a chemist, at his side.

“He brought Stan back, and Stan asked if there were a question regarding the fate of the class. Being dogmatically assertive, I told him I was astounded by the school’s policy. I told him I’d been in classes much smaller than 12.”

Johnson asked Rhodes if he’d ever been in an OCC class that small.

“Well, no,” Rhodes admitted. “It was a theoretical physics class at Princeton University, taught by Albert Einstein – but there were only four people in it!”

Johnson turned and walked out of the class.

“I knew I was beaten,” Johnson told me in 1999 with a chuckle. “Henry Rhodes was not your average college student. I was bending the rules, but we had to keep the class going.”

“I ran into Stan a few days later on campus, walking down a hallway,” Rhodes recalled. “I figured he would give me the cold-shoulder. Instead, he smiled and walked over. He said, ‘Nick tells me you’re a very interesting student.’”

Rhodes and Johnson become fast friends.

“Henry brings a wonderful dynamic into our classrooms,” Johnson told me. “The students adore him, and he raises questions that stimulate thinking. Some faculty members, frankly, may be a bit intimidated by him, but most love him.”

“Henry has taken virtually every one of my astronomy classes,” Contopoulos said. “I love having him in class. He makes for a lively discussion. He both asks and answers questions. Our students respect and admire him.”

During one semester in the late ‘90s, Rhodes took OCC’s six-unit natural science class that meets six hours per week and presents an overview of natural history from the origin of the universe through the appearance of Homo sapiens and the development of science and technology. It was team-taught by professor of anatomy and physiology, Nancy K. Kryder; professor of astronomy, Stephen P. Lattanzio; and professor of geology, Jay R. Yett.

“Basically, I took the class because I was interested to see how three instructors would handle such a massive undertaking,” Rhodes said. “I’d already taken several geology classes from Jay.”

During the 10th week of the semester, Yett was scheduled to deliver a lecture on the oceans.

“He asked me to give that lecture, because of my background as a sailor and scientist,” Rhodes said. “I complied, and enjoyed it very much.”

A couple of weeks after that, Lattanzio was to give a lecture on the character of light.

“‘You know more about that than I do, Henry,’ Steve told me,” Rhodes said. “He asked me to deliver the lecture, and I did so, quite happily. No one knows it all – certainly not me – and many OCC professors are not afraid to admit that fact. I admire them for that.

“I must say, I still enjoy getting up in front of a class of students and lecturing. It gets my blood pumping.”

Dr. Rhodes encountered lots of blood-pumping opportunities on Orange Coast College’s campus. He was provocative and stimulating!

“Henry’s an invaluable resource for our students and professors,” Contopoulos told me in 1999. “We love him!”

Henry died of heart failure in the spring of 2005, at 86. OCC students and staff members were heartbroken. A memorial in his honor was held in the Horticulture Garden on campus. A scholarship in his name was established through the OCC Foundation.

Dr. Henry Rhodes will never be forgotten at Orange Coast College. He’s one of the most complex and interesting personalities ever to have set foot on this campus!