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1926 George 2019

George Kalemkarian

March 29, 1926 — October 26, 2019

George Kalemkarian went home to be with the Lord on Saturday, October 26, 2019. Dad was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 28, 1926 to Charles Garabed Kalemkarian and Nuver Grace Shanlian Kalemkarian. He had two younger siblings, Steven and Gracie. Steven, age 88, currently lives in Fresno with his family.
At age 93 ½ Dad had lived a full life, yet his passing was a surprise and saddens our hearts. However you knew him, Dad was a rancher, rocket scientist, engineer, husband, dad, granddad, great-granddad, and comrade. He was dependable, considerate and kind to everyone. He was structured, methodical and meticulous in his work. He was a gentle soul, an intellectual genius, and yet he was a strong Christian.
Below is the life story he shared with Bernice, his wife of 56 years and their six children.
A longtime resident of Simi Valley, California, George lived most of his life in California, particularly in Fresno, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
Born of immigrant parents whom were well educated, faithful, yet ambitious Dad was the oldest child. His father Charles was a full gospel minister and preached across a regional church circuit in the New Jersey and New York area in the early 1920’s. Charles and many of the family had escaped or survived the Armenian genocide in Turkey from 1914 until the end of WWI, and worked hard to find their way to America through the 1920’s. In 1936 the family packed up and drove cross country in a 1929 Model A Ford, to Pasadena, California to join Charles’s brother and other family. When a call to ministry came from Fresno for Charles, the family moved north. Grandpa Charles taught Dad how to tithe, how to be a great mechanic (by dropping him at the local gas station and making him take a job), how to work with his hands by working with a carpenter as an apprentice, and requiring him to do daily chores such as milk the family cow and care for the chickens. Dad did all these things in addition to going to high school, and being in the theater group, the Cadet Corps and National Youth Administration.
With his high school completed in June 1943, Dad started college at age 17 where he was active in the Christian Students Association. Initially he was granted a deferment from the draft since he was in college. Uncle Sam eventually came calling and he was drafted into the US Army in October 1944. Dad was sent to Camp Wolters, TX where he trained as an infantryman and was slotted to be sent to Europe. But the troops in the Pacific theater were shorthanded, his basic training was shortened and they immediately sailed to the Philippines. He eventually joined the 32nd Division in May 1945 on Luzon where they were part of the liberation of the Philippines. One of his extra duties was as the unit bugler. The 32nd was planning to be a part of the invasion of Japan, but deactivated after the war ended. At that time Dad was assigned to the 19th Infantry in Beppeu, Japan as the Communications SGT and camp bugler. He returned to the US in September 1946 on the USS Frederick from Japan to San Francisco.
After his discharge in November 1946, Dad returned to college on the GI Bill, and graduated from Fresno State College in Fresno, CA, with a degree in Physics in June of 1951. He took the Civil Service Exam so he could get a Scientist or engineering job. In the meantime Dad taught classes at Clovis High School for a teacher that was ill. A short while after, he was accepted as a GS-5 and got a job working at Point Mugu, CA as a Physicist in the Missile Test Center. He worked there from 1951-1954 where he was assigned to Dr. Hollmann, a German scientist who had been smuggled out of Germany at the end of the war. He was fluent in the new technology of solid state physics and transistors so Dad was learning on the cutting edge of the rocket industry. At this point it was wonderful that Dad had taken several years of German in high school so that communication was possible. Dad served as Dr. Hollmann’s assistant ‘with a focus on the design and build of instruments for missile testing, and as a translator.
In 1954 Dad took a job with Rocketdyne (a division of North American Aviation, later changed to North American Rockwell, then Boeing) as a test engineer. Rocketdyne had received 5 V1 rockets after the war to study and initially testing was done in a parking lot at the El Segundo facility, but it was clear this was not a safe place to test rockets. A search for suitable location identified the Santa Susana “hill” was a perfect location and all equipment was moved there. Dad’s first day on the job was at Santa Susana when Test Stand 2 had just burned to the ground due to a rocket failure – what a first day jolt! Two years later he transferred to the Canoga Park Rocketdyne location and supported work all over Southern California. In 1956 specifically he asked to be part of the initial start up team for engine build and testing in Missouri as the lead test engineer. The facility would produce the Jupiter, Thor and Atlas engines. It was to be a brand new site in the heart of farming country in the Ozarks.
My Mom, Bernice, born August 10, 1922 was raised in Buffalo, NY to Albert Grace and Viola Adams Grace. She had an older sister, Dorthea and a younger brother, Eugene. Eugene, now 93 resides in Webster, NY. Mom was an athlete, wife, mother, sister, grandmother, nurse, broker, and rancher. Her competitiveness, drive and tenacity allowed her to multitask with her work and family. Her artistic nature and outgoing personality had her active and reaching out to continually help others. She too was a woman of great faith in the Lord. My Dad wrote this about my Mom: “She worked with me, and I worked with her, in serving God by being helpful to those around us. Many people owe much to her kind and giving heart and spirit… She even conned me into helping her quite often. Thank you Bernice, for the memories.”
After graduating from Deaconess Hospital Nursing School as a Registered Nurse, and working briefly as an industrial nurse at Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo, she joined the US Army Nurse Corps in November 1944 as a 2nd Lieutenant. After basic training at Atlantic City, NJ she was assigned to Camp Upton on Long Island, NY where she cared for soldiers returning from Europe. She then trained as an Operating Nurse with the 186th Mash Unit at Camp Bowie, Texas. Her unit was scheduled to depart for the Pacific Theater in May 1944. Just before the deployment, while returning from leave to visit her brother at Tinker Field, OK, the military aircraft she was on crashed on takeoff. Mom was one of 9 survivors of the twin engine, 14 passenger, Lockheed Lodestar C60, in which 5 perished. After a year in the hospital recuperating with a broken back and other injuries, she was assigned to Ft. Sam Houston, and discharged in Sep 1947.
Once out of the Army, she called her mom and asked if she had to come home. Grandma Grace responded that she hadn’t been home for 7 years, so she was free to do what she wanted to. At that, she moved to Los Angeles, CA where her Uncle Ed Grace lived and she continued working in nursing, went to Woodbury College for a degree in Interior Design, sold real estate and got a job in advertising for an interior design firm. Now the parallel lines of George and Bernice, crossed on the day she knocked on Dad’s door.
In November of 1956, with his house in Van Nuys “for sale by owner” in preparation for his move to Neosho, Bernice Grace knocked on his door and asked if she could list his house. He listed it with her and began a courtship with Mom. In March 1957 Dad was ready to move to Missouri, the house was sold and the whirlwind courtship needed a next step. Mom had sold Dad’s home and they went to the bank and were standing in the line so Mom could cash her commission check. Dad told her, “you know you can’t go to Missouri with me unless we’re married.” Although it wasn’t the most romantic of settings, she said yes, they married in March of 1957 and immediately moved across country where Dad was part of the initial team to set up the Neosho, Missouri Rocketdyne test site.
Dad and Mom used Dad’s GI Bill financing to purchase their first 80 acres of the farm in 1957, Dad’s dream and a main purpose in the move to the Ozarks. By the time they left Missouri for good in 1973, they had accumulated 1077 acres to raise Hereford cattle. Since Dad was employed full time at Rocketdyne, his status among the local farmers was as a “gentleman” farmer. But he essentially worked two jobs, rocket scientist and rancher.
A little over a year later, Mom went into the hospital in labor. Dad was anxiously waiting the birth, and was relieved when the doctor came out and said everything was fine, and by the way, you have twin boys. Dad laughed and said, “sure I do” and laughed some more. What the delivery doctor didn’t know was that there was a running joke between Mom, Dad and her doctor. She was so big that they joked she was having twins. In 1958 sonograms weren’t around to verify the baby’s condition, so Dad really thought the doctor was still joking about the delivery. But no joke, Tim and Tom were born and named after their grandfathers. By 1961 there were two more daughters, Betty and Gretchen.
Bernice, continued to work as a Registered Nurse in the local hospitals and nursing homes in Newton and McDonald Counties, while becoming a full-time farm wife. Dad sent her to her first farm sale to see how it was done on the farm. Mom came home with “Shep” a shepard mix dog and “Jenny” a loveable donkey. These animals became the first of many cows, horses, dogs, cats and pigs we raised and loved throughout the years. We grew cattle, bailed hay, rode horses, dug a pond, and became real ranchers.
When the Neosho plant was closed in 1968 the family eventually moved back to California, ending up in Simi Valley as Dad was once again working at the Santa Susana site on the “hill”.
In 1969 while working at Rocketdyne, Dad worked on the LM (Lunar Module) “mini rockets” which were smaller thrust modules and nozzles which were needed to push the LM from the moon’s surface into orbit and back to Apollo 11. In the 8 weeks prior to the launch of Apollo 11, the lift off process wasn’t functional and Dad worked with a small team in Reno, NV to simulate the test launch liftoff which had special atmospheric and pressure requirements for the ascent engine.
In addition to the multiple Apollo rocket missions, Dad worked on the Peacekeeper missile needed for the “Star Wars” system, supported work on the Space Shuttle Saturn rocket engines, and the testing of laser guidance at the Sandia Labs in Albuquerque, NM. He retired from Rocketdyne (then Boeing) in 1986 and did some contract work for them through the early 1990’s. Mom and Dad worked hard in their church, traveled the world and stayed close to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Some things you may not have known about Dad:
• One of Dad’s greatest loves was the outdoors, personified by the “ranch” and the “farm”. After he returned from WWII, Dad and Grandpa Charles bought 160 acres on Black Mountain east of Clovis, CA. It had a natural spring and an old cabin. My sister Gretchen and her family continue the tradition of enjoying the great outdoors and “ranch” life on Black Mountain.
• And, in a twist of fate, my sister Betty now resides in Black Mountain, NC with her husband’s family.
• Dad has had two birthdays for his entire life. Although he was born on Sunday, March 28, 1926, the doctor put the 29th on his birth certificate which caused numerous mix ups with the US Army, Social Security and IRS over the years. He finally gave up and just listed the fake birthday as his official one.
• Dad was dyslexic. In-spite of this handicap he succeeded at almost everything he pursued due to his drive and tenacity.
• When Dad was 15 he decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps for 4 years to learn how to fly once he graduated from high school. He planned to stay in the AAC for several years to get some experience and then go to work for the airlines as a pilot. After December 7, 1941 with the Army training pilots as fast as they could get them in the door, he decided that there would be a “zillion” pilots looking for jobs. Not wanting to be in the unemployment lines, he decided to pursue Physics and Engineering instead of flying. He then waited to be drafted instead of volunteering for the military.
• In the early 1950’s while living in Ventura County, he and another friend began to open a radio station.
• In the early 1960’s, Dad and Mom inquired about joining the Peace Corps and even filled out the paperwork. I wonder if by then the six of us kids were beginning to be a bit much, and they wanted to get away from it all and see the world! In reality it might have been one step away from being a missionary while still helping people.
• Dad took a 90 day sabbatical from his job (without pay) in the early 1960’s to help build the new sanctuary building for Sweetwater Baptist Church. He drove his bulldozer from our farm to the church site and dug the foundation. He then spent the next few months building the church. Mom almost had a heart attack when she found out he volunteered to do this, as by that time they had 6 children.
• Dad was passionate about supportingthe USO due to his experiences in them during the war. Dad and Mom were lifetime members of the Simi Valley Chapter 55 DAV, working tirelessly to support other Veterans and their needs. Dad also served in multiple officer roles and mentored other leaders.
• Dad’s first great-grandchild was born on March 28, 2017, on Dad’s real birthday.
In April 2013, my Mom, Bernice Kalemkarian passed away. Dad lived in their home until November 2017 when he decided to move to Sunrise at Wood Ranch in Simi Valley. The family home of 50 years was sold, Dad got a new dog, Charlie, and “finally retired”. Dad was active in the Garden Club and Poetry Club. Additionally, he sat on the Food Council and the Residence Council, always speaking up to make things better for the residents. He always had time to stop and talk to everyone, ask about their families and offer advice and encouragement. His love of music and God transpired to his sharing of gospel songs several times a week in piano meditation for the residents. Dad could not read music and played by ear. It wasn’t perfect, but the joy in his faith came through.
Dad is survived by:
• His children and their spouses: Chris Escobedo (Ruben Gutierrez), Sandy Anderson (Bob), Tim Kalemkarian (Dorothy), Tom Kalemkarian (Yoko), Betty Collins (Steve), and Gretchen Burnett (Brian)
• His Grandchildren: Manuel Escobedo, Danielle Gutierrez, Ian Anderson, Michaela Anderson, Hitomi Kalemkarian, Ken Kalemkarian, Erin Collins, Morgan Collins, John Burnett, Ben Burnett, Joe Burnett, Steve Burnett, Josh Burnett, Sam Burnett, Hannah Burnett.
• His Great-Grandchildren: Roselyn Burnett, Meredith Burnett
Dad was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, but he was humble, patient and compassionate. May we all strive to be as kind, strong and courageous in our everyday lives.
--Sandy Anderson (Daughter) on behalf of the Kalemkarian Family
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Saturday, November 2, 2019

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