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Robert E. Kemelhor dies: Engineer was 91

By Emma Brown
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 7:26 PM

Robert E. Kemelhor, who helped develop the Navy's Polaris submarine missile program before retiring in 1991 as a chief engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, died March 4 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. He was 91 and had congestive heart failure.

Mr. Kemelhor had worked at the lab since 1958, first at its Silver Spring facility and later at its site in Howard County. He helped develop aerospace and submarine projects, including Polaris.

On July 18, 1960, Mr. Kemelhor served as a technical adviser to the launch officer aboard a submarine at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Their goal was to conduct the Navy's first underwater firing of a nuclear missile, a success that would boost the nation's deterrence during the Cold War.

A bevy of high-ranking Navy officers and reporters gathered to witness the launch. But with seven seconds left in the countdown, Mr. Kemelhor noticed something amiss with a set of indicator lights, according to an account he published in a George Washington University engineering journal in 1997.

The launch was aborted on his orders. Some brushed aside the problem as merely the failure of a light bulb. But later that day, according to Mr. Kemelhor's account, he and his team discovered evidence of a serious malfunction that could have resulted in the missile exploding in the submarine's launch tube.

"Since we were underwater," Mr. Kemelhor wrote, "this would not have been a very joyful experience."

He and others worked through the night and the next day to fix the problem before the next launch attempt July 20. It was successful.

Robert Elias Kemelhor was born May 19, 1919, in the Bronx to immigrants from Eastern Europe. After briefly attending Brooklyn College, he joined the Navy during World War II and served in Washington, where he designed and modified bomb-release mechanisms for Allied aircraft.

After the war, he earned a bachelor's degree in engineering from GWU. He was a chief engineer for McLean Development Laboratories on Long Island, N.Y., before joining the Applied Physics Laboratory.

Mr. Kemelhor held patents on a number of high-tech devices related to his work but also took on simpler tasks. To help his children practice for the television quiz show "It's Academic," he built a portable light-and-buzzer system using doorbells and Christmas lights. Forty years later, the system still works.

In retirement, Mr. Kemelhor served for more than a decade on the board of GWU's Engineering Alumni Association. He received the university's 2004 award for outstanding alumni service.

A lifelong athlete, Mr. Kemelhor boxed and played baseball and football at Brooklyn College. As a young man, he had an extended tryout with the New York Giants Major League Baseball team. Later in life, he played competitive tennis.

Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Shirley P. Tennen Kemelhor of Bethesda; three children, Joel Kemelhor of Washington, Barry Kemelhor of Rockville and Judy Bielecki of Belgrade, Maine; a sister, Lillian Goldberg of Wheaton; and two grandchildren.

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