The Secret History of Jim Stoms

Dateline: Florida Tech 1964

Early in 1958 a few weeks after going to work at the Missile Test Project, Jerry Keuper approached his old friend Jim Stoms with an idea. Keuper asked Stoms to join him in launching a college in Melbourne. Madge Stoms overheard the conversation. “Oh, no, you don’t, Jerry Keuper!!!” Madge Stoms declared, “You’re not going to get Jim in any more of your nefarious schemes.” Keuper responded that it was too late. He planned to make her husband the college’s first dean. “How about president,” Jim Stoms quipped. Keuper responded, “No, that job has already been taken. Too late.”

Jim Stoms and Jerry Keuper
Jerry Keuper and Jim Stoms in China

The childhood friendship between Jerry Keuper and Jim Stoms played a critical role in the founding of Florida Institute of Technology. Keuper and Stoms met as school boys growing up in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, where they went on double dates, caused considerable mischief, and dreamed of pursuing their passion for science and engineering. World War II intervened. Keuper served as an Army officer. Stoms enlisted in the Marine Corps. When the war ended they found their way to M.I.T. Keuper earned his degree in physics. Stoms graduated with a double major in economics and engineering. Their paths parted at this point. Keuper went off to Stanford for his Master’s degree and on to the University of Virginia for his Ph.D. Stoms took a position with a newly formed company, EG & G, which drew its name from the last names of its three founders (Harold Edgerton, Kenneth Germeshausen, and Herbert Grier). In 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission charged EG & G with conducting a series of nuclear tests in the South Pacific.

Edgerton, the inventor of the strobe light, hired Stoms and dispatched him to Eniwetok Atoll to monitor the first H-Bomb test. Years later Stoms recounted the episode. “We evacuated all the atolls. We didn’t know the yield of (the bomb) because it was brand new. It was such a powerful bomb…They asked for volunteers to go by helicopter and retrieve the test equipment, so I volunteered. We talked the pilot into flying over the crater left by the H-Bomb. The water was milky colored…the island was gone.” The helicopter deposited Stoms at the crater’s edge where he was left to take samples. Later he asked the project’s radiation officer “why did you leave me down there?” His boss responded, “It was too hot.”

Vanguard Satellite Sketch
Sketch of Vanguard Satellite

Working on the H-bomb project convinced Stoms to seek less perilous work. In 1954 he accepted a position with the Northrop Corporation to work at the Missile Test Project in an out of the way place called Brevard County. “They gave us,” Stoms explained, “swamp pay.” The remoteness of the location, the swarms of mosquitoes, and the absence of air conditioning earned the formerly radioactive engineer an extra $250 a month. Stoms talent earned him a series of promotions and ultimately a position as a senior test conductor for Martin Marietta. Sixty years ago on March 17, 1958, Stoms celebrated St. Patrick’s Day overseeing the launch of Vanguard I which lifted a 3.2 pound into orbit. Vanguard I was the fourth human made object sent into space. It was preceded by Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2, and Explorer 1.

Six months before that launch Stoms had contacted Jerry Keuper and told him he should consider joining the Missile Test Project. Exciting things were happening in Florida. Keuper should not miss out on the fun. Late in 1957 Keuper came down for an interview with RCA and accepted a position in RCA’s Systems Analysis Division. A few weeks after Keuper’s arrival, Madge Stoms overheard her husband and Keuper talking about an idea that Keuper had hatched. Madge Stoms told her husband he should stick to launching rockets.

Friends, however, can be persuasive; and, wives can change their minds. In 1964 after serving as the test conductor for Titan I, II, and III as well as the Gemini Project, Jim Stoms left the Cape and joined the cadre of scientists and engineers who formed the core of what was to become Florida Institute of Technology. Stoms interest in economics and connections in the space program made him a natural for designing the college’s first business courses. Stoms had an eye for talent, and he recruited a young woman named Joan Bixby to help him organize the business curriculum. During the next decade Stoms, Bixby, and Ed Gudgel, a retired U.S. Army general, launched Florida Tech’s off-campus program. In 1980 the business program became the School of Management and Humanities (SMH). Jerry Keuper named Stoms the SMH’s first dean. In 1988 the School of Management and Humanities became the College of Business (later the Bisk College of Business) and the university’s humanities and communication courses were made part of the College of Science and Liberal Arts. In 2005, the humanities and communication department became part of the College of Psychology and Liberal Arts.

Jim had a passion for adventures. He rode a camel across Algeria, rafted in Ethiopia, and pedaled a bicycle across China. Years after his career as a test conductor had ended, news came to the Cape that one of Jim’s errant missiles that had gone off course had landed somewhere on the upper stretches of the Amazon. Jim proposed to Keuper that they should survey the site. The trip entailed a harrowing flight into the back country. When they deplaned they were met by a military officer and a band. Somehow the local commander had gotten the impression that Keuper and Stoms were astronauts. The two Fort Thomas schoolboys may have grown up, launched rockets, and started a college. They had, however, lost none of their passion for mischief. They accepted the colonel’s accolades and signed autographs.

Jim Stoms and Roger Manley
Jim Stoms and Roger Manley

Jim Stoms was a remarkable man. He brought talent, energy, and discipline to everything he undertook. Roger Manley, who succeeded Stoms as dean of the college’s business school, defined Jim Stom’s character when he observed, “I can’t recall him ever speaking ill of anyone…we called him ‘Sunny Jim.”

Friendships matter at Florida Tech. We are a university that was built by characters like Jim Stoms and Jerry Keuper. “Sunny Jim” was my friend. Forty years ago Jim Stoms convinced a somewhat skeptical Jerry Keuper, John Miller, and Harry Weber to take a chance and hire me. I recall John Miller, then the university’s executive vice-president and the later Florida Tech’s second president, pulling me aside and telling me that Jim had vouched for me. “Remember Patterson,” Dr. Miller declared, “the drill at FIT is NOT “Ready, Fire, Aim. Get it right.” Wise counsel.

A final note: The Vanguard I satellite that Jim Stoms helped launch in March 1958 has the distinction of being the oldest satellite still in orbit. Like Florida Tech, Jim Stoms built things to last. Twenty years ago Ed Kalajian and the Florida Tech Alumni Association oversaw the refurbishment of the single surviving Vanguard rocket engine. It is now on display at the Orlando Melbourne International Airport.

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