The Rickover EffectSpeed grads remember working with 'Father of the Nuclear Navy'
by Kevin Rayburn
Here was Charles Brown Jr., his heart pounding and his pores "sweating bullets," wondering just what the hell he was getting himself into.
In February 1965, the University of Louisville senior majoring in electrical engineering at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering was a young midshipman and soon-to-be ensign in the U.S. Navy. He had come to Washington, D.C., to be interviewed for assignment as an engineer in the headquarters of the Navy's elite nuclear propulsion program—where atomic-powered submarines and ships were designed and maintained.
Here he sat, facing a Spartan desk and—4 feet away—the glaring eyes of the legendary and feared "father" of America's nuclear navy, four-star admiral Hyman G. Rickover.
Rickover, who oversaw development of nuclear power in both the Navy and civilian atomic-power industry from the late 1940s to early 1980s, would determine if Brown got the elite assignment or was sent to sea for more mundane duties.
Every single one of the thousands of officers assigned to work in the nuclear naval program, whether aboard ship or off, was interviewed by Rickover. The admiral's short, terse, challenging job interviews were famous, and Brown knew it. The interviews were filled with logical "traps" that pushed emotional buttons and tested reactions under stress.
Recently several Speed graduates who worked under Rickover—many retired or near the end of their careers—reminisced about their service in the naval and civilian nuclear programs in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Surviving Rickover's interviews was among their most vivid memories.
It is not known how many Speed graduates served under Rickover, but there were many. The names of nearly 20 were verified in researching this story. Attending Speed School, as it happened, helped a prospect's chances to work for Rickover, who saw UofL's engineering school as a place that instilled in its students values he respected: rigorous discipline, hard work and a solid knowledge base.
"Rickover respected the Speed School program; I heard many people say that," says Ray Kulbitskas, Brown's 1965 classmate and a chemical engineering graduate. "He figured if you were passing your courses and doing well in Speed School then you were eligible to be interviewed."
Both Brown and Kulbitskas passed their interviews with Rickover and won their posts as engineers at headquarters. Many other hopefuls did not.
Interview From Hell
Typically, three senior Rickover staffers would pre-screen job candidates, looking over their academic and leadership history and testing their nuts-and-bolts engineering knowledge. The results went into a report given to Rickover to mull over before the final interview.
Candidates were warned to answer the admiral's questions directly.
"If he asked you how old you were, you told him your age, not what year you were born. He expected your answers to be precise," Brown says.
Rickover's interviews could last from two to 20 minutes. For many, those minutes seemed like hours.
"Rickover stared at me, rocking back and forth in an old rocking chair that must have been built in 1910," Brown recalls. "He was chewing a ham and cheese sandwich on a hamburger bun."
Looking up from his report, Rickover began: "I see that you only study 20 hours a week."
"I said, 'Yes sir,' " Brown recalls.
Asked to elaborate why, Brown told Rickover that he also spent time on extracurricular activities.
"But he was deaf to extracurricular activities," Brown explains. "Then he asked me, 'OK, just what do you think is the purpose of a university?'
"I gave the standard answer: to get an education and so on. He stares at me, still rocking in the chair and rolling the sandwich around in his cheeks, and he tells me, 'The purpose of an education is to put your nose to the grindstone and acquire knowledge, and nothing else. Do you understand?'
"I said, 'Yes sir.'
"He was soft-spoken and polite, but here he was setting up his trap."
Rickover continued, " 'Now that we understand each other and based on what we discussed, if you had your college to do all over again would you do it differently?'
"I said, 'No sir, I wouldn't do it any differently.' "
Without a pause, Rickover asked Brown if he planned to marry after graduation.
"After I told him yes," Brown says, "the officer behind me indicated the interview was over and I was escorted out. There was no handshake or acknowledgment, it was just over and the officer knew it. After waiting awhile I was told I had the assignment.
"It was only after working for Rickover for many years that I later came to understand what he was looking for in those interviews. He was looking for integrity and character, someone who could act on initiative and think independently, not be a yes-man."
That same year Kulbitskas, who had a B average at Speed, remembers Rickover fixating on his grades during his interview.
"Right off the bat Rickover barks, 'How come you get so many goddamned C's?' " says Kulbitskas, who was active in Speed's student council among other things. He knew that explaining his extracurricular activities to Rickover would be useless.
"I just told him that I made C's because I didn't study enough. Then he asked me what my father did, and I told him he was a barber."
Rickover countered: " 'Do you want to be a barber, too? Get the hell out of here!' "
Kulbitskas was escorted to a small room known as "the box" to sweat it out for 45 minutes.
He was accepted.
Capt. George LaChance, a 1958 Speed graduate in chemical engineering, served seven years in the Navy before seeking a position at headquarters with Rickover in 1965. LaChance had an exemplary academic record, graduating summa cum laude from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., in 1964.
"The first thing Rickover said to me was, 'What makes you think you're so smart? I have people working here who are smarter than you are!'
"I told him I didn't doubt that, and then he asked me if I was married and had children. I told him yes and he said, 'What are you, a goddamned nest builder? Get out!' "
Confounded, LaChance was told moments later he was accepted and ordered to report for duty in July.
Brothers Carl and William Schmitt, both Speed graduates, also were accepted for duty under Rickover. William remembers his 1974 interview.
"Rickover asked me why I wanted to work at headquarters and I started off with something like, 'I have a sincere desire to …' and there he cuts me off and says to me, 'You damn well better be sincere about what you're doing!'
"Then he asks me if I can lose 15 pounds in 15 weeks! I had a weight problem, so I just answered him, 'Yes sir, I believe I can do that.' Then he made me promise to write a letter to him, the admiral, every single week reporting on my progress. I did that. I got the post and lost the weight!"
A Flat Organization
Rickover was no believer in middle management, the Speed alumni say.
"There were 20 section heads running various parts of the nuclear propulsion program, and they answered directly to Rickover. I answered to a section head, so basically there was just one management layer between me and Rickover," says LaChance, who worked in ship design and repair and as a project officer for commissioned submarines. "I was responsible for anything to do with nuclear reactor plants on those subs."
Rickover was hands-on and not prone to delegate many duties.
"He was the epitome of the micromanager," LaChance recalls. "Secretaries were under orders to put anything and everything that was typed, and I mean everything, including the first uncorrected and unproofed carbon copies, into his in-box. Those copies would be returned filled with comments—good and bad—before the originators ever had a chance to correct them.
"He stayed on top of everything," LaChance continues. "It's not my style of management, but it worked for him, and he was very successful."
And he knew everyone and called each person by name.
"But it was always your last name, never your first," LaChance recalls. "He would say, 'Hello, LaChance. What are you working on, LaChance?' "
Often the section heads bore the brunt of his yelling and screaming.
"But you couldn't take it personally," says Brown, who had been promoted to a section director. "If there was a problem, he wanted it fixed and expected you to take responsibility for it."
Kulbitskas elaborates, "He might get upset but it was OK as long as you told him about a problem right away and how you would fix it. But if you didn't tell him about a problem and he found out about it, he would fire you the next day."
Rickover's brusque, demanding taskmaster style and precise training and operational procedures served a higher purpose, say the Speed graduates.
"The U.S. naval nuclear fleet has never had a nuclear accident, unlike the Russian navy which has had several," LaChance notes. "His legacy is that he got nuclear power into U.S. subs and ships years ahead of what would be expected. Probably nobody else could have done as much as he did in the timeframe he had."
Rickover believed small mistakes caught early would prevent bigger ones later—thus, his sterling safety record. "He believed that people who didn't make some mistakes weren't really doing anything," Kulbitskas says.
William Schmitt remembers a story about Rickover told to him by his brother Carl that illustrates the admiral's respect for those who showed personal initiative and held their ground.
"Rickover told Carl that he really liked his tie and told Carl to give it to him. Carl told him no."
Silently, Rickover led Carl to a cabinet, opened it and flashed a sly smile. Inside were dozens of ties.
" 'You see how many damn fools were willing to give me their ties?' "
(Special thanks to Dr. John Herweg with the Naval Reactors program in Washington, D.C., for providing photos and insight into Admiral Hyman Rickover.)