George Nauflett, a renowned African American chemist and inventor, died in a fire Friday night in his Oxon Hill, Md., home. He was 84 years old.
Mr. Nauflett grew up in the segregated South in a one-bedroom house with his aunt, and left school after eighth grade. But through a combination of sheer intellect and determination, he went on to work for 42 years in a U.S. Navy government laboratory where he earned more than two dozen patents for his inventions.
When people made the old joke about someone not being a “rocket scientist,” he would get a kick out of saying, “Actually, I am,” his son, Derrick Nauflett, said in an interview Sunday.
Mr. Nauflett and his wife, Minnie, met as teenagers in Mississippi and married in 1964. They had three children; one son died in a car accident in 1984.
When the fire broke out Friday — the exact cause is still under investigation — Mr. Nauflett and his wife tried to escape their smoke-filled home together. Only his wife made it out. Fire crews responded to the call around 11 p.m.
Mr. Nauflett joined the Air Force when he was 19 and it was there that he took advantage of educational opportunities afforded by the post-World War II GI bill.
Derrick Nauflett, 47, remembers a story his father told about an officer who taught him how to play chess. It wasn’t long before Nauflett could beat him. The officer saw something special in the young man and helped him get his GED and enroll at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., where Mr. Nauflett majored in chemistry. He attended Howard University for graduate school.
“He was a brilliant man. His passion was science,” Derrick Nauflett said of his father. “Growing up, it was a lot of fun because he was heavily involved in all of our science projects. He was very engaged with all of his kids early on. He was very in tune to helping us find what our passions were.”
Mr. Nauflett’s work was featured in a 2004 book, “The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity.” He developed a material that was used on a satellite that the Americans and Russians sent into space.
In a Voice of America article about the book, Mr. Nauflett said he faced challenges as a black man in his field.
“People don’t believe you can do the things you do,” he said. “They say you’re just lucky. But when you keep doing it over and over again, you end up proving yourself.”
After Mr. Nauflett retired, his loves were his four grandchildren and a massive garden he tended next to his home. He was always giving fruits and vegetables to neighbors, his son said.
One of the last things he and Minnie did together was vote early in the presidential election.
“It was an absolute must in our family,” Derrick Nauflett said. “He taught us if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain.”
He described his father as a quiet, nonconfrontational man.
“He could have been a millionaire with all the patents that he had and he developed, but he was just happy having food, clothing, shelter,” his daughter, Joyce Bradford, 54, said Sunday. “If you saw him on the street you wouldn’t think he was as brilliant a man as he was. There was no pretense about him.”
Lately he had lost some mobility in his legs and used an electric scooter or walker to get around comfortably. It was difficult for him to not be able to work in his garden or use the stairs without assistance.
“I feel blessed that he had 84 years. He was always so active, and now he has his legs back,” Derrick Nauflett said. “That’s where I get my relief from. That’s where I draw my peace from. He is now whole up in heaven.”