Henry Loomis, 89; Physicist Led VOA and Public Broadcasting

Henry Loomis quit in protest as director of the Voice of America when President Lyndon B. Johnson demanded VOA not report a story.
Henry Loomis quit in protest as director of the Voice of America when President Lyndon B. Johnson demanded VOA not report a story. (Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 8, 2008

Henry Loomis, who died Nov. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla., at age 89, was director of the Voice of America during the Eisenhower administration, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting during the Nixon administration and a physicist who served as board chairman of the MIT-affiliated defense contractor, Mitre.

Mr. Loomis, who died of complications from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Pick's disease, also was the brilliant son of one of the most extraordinary, if now obscure, Americans of the 20th century.

Mr. Loomis's father, Alfred Lee Loomis, was a fabulously wealthy Wall Street tycoon who survived the Depression years in high style and then, at the height of his influence, quit Wall Street and devoted himself to science.

In Tuxedo Park, N.Y., the tony village 40 miles northwest of Manhattan where the Loomis family lived, he created a magnificent private laboratory in a massive stone castle and hosted the great scientific minds of his day.

As World War II approached, he personally bankrolled pioneering research into radar detection systems and nuclear physics. At his Tuxedo Park mansion, he conferred with the leading scientists of his time, including Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr.

Alfred Loomis gave each of his three sons $1 million with which to experiment as teenagers. He also bequeathed his scientific brilliance.

In 1940, realizing that World War II was imminent, Henry Loomis dropped out of Harvard University during his senior year and enlisted in the Navy. (Harvard awarded him his undergraduate degree in physics in 1946, giving him credit for his Navy radar teaching.)

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he became an instructor at the Navy's Oahu radar training school, teaching senior officers how to use an air-to-surface-vessel radar system that had been developed at his father's laboratory.

Toward the end of the war, when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, were trying to decide which Japanese cities to bomb, a chance visit by Mr. Loomis helped persuade the two men to spare the ancient city of Kyoto. Mr. Loomis had studied Japanese history at Harvard and was passionate about the ancient city's art treasures.

"I said 'No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I don't want that,' " he told the Florida Times-Union in 2002.

Stimson, a former secretary of state and war, was a Loomis family cousin and something of a surrogate father to Mr. Loomis. He "used to tell us that we'd been kind of lucky in life and that we owed the country a duty," Mr. Loomis told his father's biographer.

Henry Loomis was born April 19, 1919, in Tuxedo Park, where he played an active role in many of his father's scientific experiments.

In the Florida Times-Union interview, he recalled being 17 and sleeping peacefully in a dark, soundproof room, with electrodes attached to his head, while his father hovered over a nearby microphone.

The elder Loomis knew that his son's great love was the boat Land's End, which Henry and his brother owned. Through the microphone, Alfred Loomis whispered, "Land's End is on fire!"

Young Henry bolted out of bed, wires flying from his head. Still half asleep, he attempted to climb the wall, as if it were the boat's companionway ladder. From the experiment, his father deduced that emotional disturbance altered human brain waves.

Mr. Loomis graduated first in his naval training class and, in addition to teaching radar, served as a radar officer with carriers, air squadrons and battleships. He received the Bronze Star.

After the war, he did graduate work in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was an assistant to radiation laboratory director Ernest Lawrence.

He served on the board of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-affiliated Mitre Corp. for 13 years and worked with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department before being named Voice of America director in 1958.

Mr. Loomis realized that English was becoming an international language and was eager for it to be more accessible to VOA's international audience. He pushed for the development of Special English, for listeners learning the language. The news was delivered at a slower pace of nine lines a minute, spoken accurately, and with a vocabulary limited to 1,500 words.

Mr. Loomis quit as VOA director in 1965 after a falling-out with President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War. Johnson demanded that VOA keep quiet about American planes flying over Laos. Believing that VOA had an obligation to report the news, Mr. Loomis resigned in protest.

From 1972 to 1978, he was president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A Middleburg resident during his days in government, he moved to Jacksonville in 1987.

His marriage to Paulie Loomis ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Jacqueline Chalmers Loomis of Jacksonville; four children from his first marriage, Henry Stimson Loomis of Denver, Mary Paul Loomis of Hyde Park, Vt., Lucy Loomis of Aiken, S.C., and Gordon Loomis of Waxahachie, Tex.; and four stepsons, Charles Williams IV of Orlando, John Williams and David Williams, both of Jacksonville, and Robert Williams of Cary, N.C.; 17 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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