NAWCWD remembers Bob Hillyer

By MATTHEW DENNY

NAWCWD Public Affairs

Friends and admirers have been remembering the contributions of Bob Hillyer, former technical director of the Naval Weapons Center China Lake, who died Oct. 28 at age 78 at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego.

“We used to have a saying about doing things ‘the China Lake way,’ and Bob was the personification of that,” said Burrell Hays, former NAWCWD technical director. “He was one of the good ol’ boys who cared about his work and those around him; he should be remembered with great honors.

“This country owes a great deal to Bob and all the sacrifices he made in his government service. At any time he could have taken a commercial job and earned a lot more money, but he chose to stay and support the warfighter. The warfighter mission was important to him.”

Hillyer, born in Sayre, Pa., earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Idaho and the University of California, Los Angeles. He served in the Navy Laboratory system from 1957 to 1982.

“I came to the Navy in 1957 fresh out of school as an ensign and was assigned to the Naval Ordnance Lab in Corona, Calif., because they thought I’d sink one of their ships if they sent me to sea,” said Hillyer in a 1982 interview.

“In Corona at that time, there were only five military people and I was the most junior.

“I had a choice of jobs — be the assistant to the executive officer or go into the technical codes as an engineer. I chose the latter.”

When he got out of the service after three years, he went back the next day to the same job in the same desk in civilian clothes.

Hillyer’s early work was in safety-arming devices for the Side-winder missile program, and his first job was coordinating between the Fuze Department at Corona and the people at China Lake.

In 1970 Hillyer, who had previously been a branch head and assistant division head, became head of the Fuze Development Division when it moved to China Lake. In 1973 he became head of the Fuze Department, serving in that position until he became head of the Resources and Technology Office.

“With leaders like Hillyer, China Lake stood tall and [continues to] stand tall today,” said Scott O’Neil, NAWCWD executive director.

“Thank you to Bob and others like him who have had their hands on the tiller of China Lake. Last year, I had the opportunity to sit down with him and reflect on NAWCWD, what it was, what it is today and what it still can be.”

Upon reorganization of the Naval Weapons Center in 1976, Hillyer became the laboratory director and deputy technical director.

In December 1977 he was appointed technical director of the Naval Weapons Center, China Lake.

“I can recall a time sitting at Bob’s house, where we got to talking about management styles,” said Matt Anderson, a protégé of Hillyer’s who went on to head five separate departments at China Lake.

“I mentioned some concepts about ‘management by objectives’ that I had been reading about. Not long after that, Bob creatively took advantage of a special feature of the recent Civil Service Reform Act that allowed Congress to grant five-year experiments to organizations to improve government efficiency.

“From that, the China Lake Personnel Demonstration Project was born. This highly successful project may be just as important as the many technical achievements from China Lake.”

As technical director, Hillyer re-invented WD’s bids and proposals process and negotiated with Washington to bring in millions of dollars into new programs.

“Bob got a lot of flak for his changing and innovative ideas, but he stuck to it and successfully made a difference in the Navy,” said Hays. “He propelled NAWCWD and China Lake design and development ahead of all other technology and ideas of the time.”

Hillyer’s honors include the Navy Holloway Plan Fellowship, the Naval Ordnance Laboratory Fellowship and the Navy Weapon Control Systems Engineering Fellowship. In 1966 he was listed in Outstanding Young Men of America.

In 1982 he was awarded the rank of Distinguished Senior Executive by the President of the United States and was presented the Distinguished Civil Service Award in 1983. Hillyer went on to receive the Meritorious Senior Executive Presidential Rank Award in 1987.

“He left a very strong legacy both personally and professionally,” his children said in a letter. “Throughout his life he loved and served his country. He was absolutely committed to protecting the freedoms we all enjoy. Dad touched many lives and made a significant impact on those around him. His sense of humor continued to the end.”

Hillyer was married to Lu, his best friend and partner, for 53 years. Together they have four children — Tom, Michelle, Linda and Gina.

“Bob was the first technical director I actually got to talk with and get to know,” said O’Neil. “A long time ago I got to learn a valuable lesson because of Bob; this lesson clarified for me the China Lake values and made it real that we need to be technically right, stand tall and fight for our position.

“When I did that, I found that China Lake leadership, both civilian and military, were in the fight with me and they engaged to support; they walked the talk.”

When O’Neil took the executive director position, he found a note taped to the desk tray.

Upon hearing the news of Hillyer’s death, O’Neil pulled the tray and re-read the note: “Hays, the helm is yours — take it firmly in hand, but handle it gently; the ship is fragile, the seas are rough and the course is uncharted.”

“That was a piece of wisdom from Bob given to Burrell; really though, that piece of wisdom has been passed to each subsequent director, finally to me,” O’Neil said. “Bob was right.”

Story First Published: 2013-12-25