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Member Spotlight: Bill Leflang

Tell me a little about yourself and how you first got involved with the Caltech Associates.

I grew up in the Pasadena area and attended the local schools, so I knew of Caltech. During my childhood, we would go horseback riding in the Arroyo Seco and watch some of the activities and tests up at JPL. I was fascinated.

After graduating from Muir Junior College, I went up north to pursue a BS in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley. I then entered the army and was assigned to White Sands Proving Ground, in a group working on field tests of the Corporal guided missile. JPL had developed the Corporal for the army before turning it over to industry. While I was out in White Sands, I made friends with the JPL engineers who were just in the next office from where I was stationed.

When it was time to leave the army, I applied to JPL. I got the job and specialized in radio communications. I was fortunate to work on many of the historic space explorations, including the Explorer, Ranger, Surveyor, Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Cassini missions. Also during this period, I obtained a MSEE from USC.

While I was working at JPL, my late wife, Maribelle, and I decided to join the Associates. Having grown up in the area, supporting Caltech and getting involved to learn more seemed like the right thing to do.

What do you enjoy most about being part of the Associates?

Through our membership in the Associates, we participated in many enjoyable travels overseas and in the United States.

One of the trips that is still memorable was in 2000 with Bill Deverell, professor of history, and Clarence Allen, professor of geology and geophysics, into the Owens Valley. They provided fascinating insights into the history and geology of the Mulholland water project in California and were great educators.

My wife passed away almost nine years ago. She enjoyed the history of Caltech and served as a docent for the campus architectural tours. I continue to support the Athenaeum's preservation fund to help maintain the historic building.

Outside of your involvement with the Associates, what do you do?

I am now retired after a fun 40-year career at JPL. One of my hobbies that I have become passionate about is the preservation of the local Mount Wilson Observatory. I spend most of my time working with a team of engineers to help with maintenance and the upgrades of historic telescopes and facilities so that amateur astronomers and the general public can visit and enjoy stargazing. My main responsibility is keeping the Mount Wilson Observatory's cluster of vintage telescopes from deteriorating into nonfunctioning museum pieces. (You can read more about the work at the Mount Wilson Observatory in a recently published LA Times article.)

What might we be surprised to know about you?

Another hobby I pursued was auto racing as a spectator in sports car racing, and as a mechanic (and banker) for my son's go-kart racing. I served on the pit crew with a team in the Indy 500 in 1996 and stayed with the team for several more years specializing in radio, electrical, and data system work.

Closing sentiments?

I continue to be awed by the Caltech researchers, from the "small" dimensions of understanding the cause of a disease to the "large" dimensions of the history of our universe. The recent Associates trip to LIGO in Hanford, Washington, was awe-inspiring not only due to the scale of the project but to the vision.

Although my financial contribution might be modest, one never knows if it leads to the "small" or the "large" discoveries. That is exciting.

Bill Leflang

Name: Bill Leflang
Member Since: 1994
Membership Level: President's Circle
Chapter: Southern California
Job Title: Retired JPL Engineer