William Thaler had both a brilliant mind and a tender heart. He was a renowned physicist whose work enabled radar to sense missiles 5,000 miles away — and a loving father who sang his babies to sleep with Irish lullabies.
SO IT WAS with a deep sadness last week that family and friends bid him goodbye during funeral services at St. John's Episcopal Church in Centreville. Thaler, 79, died after a stroke, June 5, in his home in Centreville Farms where he and his wife Barbara had lived for 40 years.
"He was such a good man — kind, self-motivated and honest as the day is long," she said. "We were married almost 54 years. He died a week short of our anniversary, June 16."
Although Thaler eventually became a scientist, he started out as a Latin and Greek scholar at Loyola College in Baltimore. But then, after 18 months of flight training with the Army Air Corps, he returned to Loyola and focused on physics.
"He didn't go to class, his first semester back," said Barbara. "He just studied and took the test. He got the physics and psychology medal when he graduated from Loyola, and he was only 25 when he got his doctorate in physics [in 1951] at Catholic University."
He and Barbara met there in 1950 when she was finishing her masters in speech and drama, and they married in 1951. "I heard wonderful things about him from my roommate, who was the secretary in the Physics Department," she said. "So I went in to meet him, and he took a look at me and liked what he saw."
"I WAS BORN and raised in California, so I told him I came 3,000 miles to get him," she joked. They also liked each other's intelligence and both wanted a home and children. Besides, added Barbara, "He was certainly going to be a better provider than an actor."
Thaler was also both practical and romantic. Years later, she said, whenever they celebrated a milestone anniversary and she asked him if he wanted to renew their wedding vows, he always refused, saying he meant them the first time he said them and hadn't changed his mind. Yet, said Barbara, "When we were courting, twice he recited the [famous poem] 'The Rubaiyat' of Omar Khayyam, by heart."
She stayed home to raise their six children — five sons and a daughter — and later did substitute teaching at Centreville Elementary and taught English to foreign speakers at NOVA. In the evenings, Thaler helped bathe the children and sing them to sleep, safe and sound. "He had all these Irish songs," said his wife. By day, he turned his attention to the nation's security, working for the Office of Naval Research in nuclear weapons testing.
His brothers were also no slouches, said Barbara. One brother, George, taught post-graduate level thermodynamics in California, and another brother, Lawrence, worked on the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb.
Meanwhile, Bill Thaler encouraged high-schoolers to think about careers in physics, and he taught and did research for 15 years at Georgetown University, where he was the Physics Department chairman. He also vied unsuccessfully for a position on Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors, running twice — in 1967 and 1971 — against Martha Pennino to represent what was then the Centreville District.
"He wanted to do something for the county," said his wife. "The first time, he only lost by 10 votes."
However, in 1975, Thaler made it to the U.S. Capitol, serving three years as chief scientist with the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy. Barbara recalled that experience fondly. "When he took that job at the White House, we went to some really swell affairs there," she said. "I wore long dresses, and we had some lovely, entertaining times."
A WELL-ROUNDED person, Thaler enjoyed going to the theater with his wife, smoking his pipe outdoors and playing tennis. He was a five-time winner of the Maryland doubles tennis tournament and, said Barbara, "He played tennis as long as he could, until his early 60s, when arthritis bothered him too much. He was even Georgetown's tennis coach for a couple years and also coached at some local country clubs."
He also loved gardening on his five-acre lot, growing corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and squash, and he had a berry patch, too. But he was extremely precise about it all.
"When he was about to plant corn, he counted each kernel in the bag and then put two in each hole," said his wife. Watching him be so meticulous made a local farmer burst out laughing. But, said Barbara, "This was a scientist. He figured out how many seeds he needed and then counted them, measured the distances and planted them in straight, even rows."
Thaler also passed on his love of physics to their son Gregory, a physics teacher at South Lakes High. "They used to talk physics together," said Barbara. "After the first half-sentence, they lost me."
Besides Gregory, 46, of Herndon, their other children are Paul, 51, of Rixeyville, a senior engineering inspector with Fairfax County's Department of Public Works; Alice, 50, of Thurmont, Md., a veterinarian who works at the USDA; and Peter, 40, of Gainesville, in quality control for a pet-food manufacturer. Two other sons, Mark, 38, and Geoffrey, 42, died 15 years ago and three years ago, respectively.
Thaler retired in 1996 and enjoyed reading, gardening, going to lunch and movies with his wife and playing with his grandchildren. (They now have nine — eight boys and one girl).
He had his first stroke, six years ago, affecting his sight and hearing and forcing him to use a walker. "But his determination helped him persevere," said Barbara. "I was so proud of him." However, he had another stroke on May 14 and, she said, "He went downhill after that."
She was able to look after him at home, with help from Manassas Hospice and some trained, certified nurse assistants. But he died on June 5. "He was suffering toward the end, so it was a blessing that he's out of his misery," said his wife. However, she added, "His mind was always sharp." He was buried last Thursday, June 9, beside his two sons in the St. John's Episcopal Church cemetery.
DESPITE THE tragic losses she's endured, Barbara somehow found the strength to carry on and never asked, "Why me?" She said the past six years have been almost like a religious retreat for her, allowing her to reflect on her life, "accept what happened, be grateful for what I have and live — day by day, moment by moment — in God's hands."
She's also thankful she could be with her husband at the end. "I hope he could feel my arm around him, and me holding his hand," she said. "He was always my rock and a dear man. He had two loves in life — me and physics."