A Founding Father of China Lake passes

In memory of Bud Sewell, the News Review is republishing the following Father’s Day feature we ran in 2016

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

A Founding Father of China Lake passesSeven decades into fatherhood, Bud Sewell reflects on his time spent nurturing not only the four daughters he would raise during the early years of China Lake, but also his part in helping plant seeds that would take the “Grand Experiment” of Navy and civilian collaboration to the bastion of national defense that remains in the Indian Wells Valley more than 70 years later.

“I planned to work here one year, then go out and get a ‘real’ job,” said Sewell. “During that first year, we continually left work in the situation you would see in old television shows — the hero would be left falling off a cliff, and you had to come back next day or the next week to find out how the situation would be resolved.

“Every morning you went home, not entirely sure if the base would still be there in the morning. But to me it was thrilling to be a part of that.”

When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Sewell and Robert Stirton, his lab partner at Berkeley volunteered for service. Sewell recalled that the Air Force kept calling him back to fill out forms, but never issued him orders.

“After a few months of not hearing anything, we decided to come visit China Lake.”

Their professor at Berkeley, whose fascination with the remote military base where academia had partnered with the military to establish a cutting-edge laboratory, had managed to pique their interest in getting a glimpse themselves.

“We couldn’t get on base unless we filled out an application for employment, so we did,” he recalled. The two toured the facility, and took interviews and were ultimately offered jobs.

By the time Sewell and his wife Barbara moved to China Lake in October that year, he was already a father of two, a seasoned traveler and an engineer who had studied at UCLA, Yale, Berkeley, Harvard and MIT.

He and Stirton shared their starting day at China Lake with two other men who would become leaders in the community, John DiPol and Kinje Okauchi.

“As I walked into the space that was to be my office in the Ballistics Instrumentation Branch, there was a man sitting at a desk next to the front door of the office. He looked up at me, and the first thing he said was, ‘Do you sing?’ I told him yes. ‘Gilbert and Sullivan?’ Yes, again. So he says, ‘Okay, rehearsal is at 7 p.m. at the high school.’”

That first impression of life at China Lake was eerily portentous of how scientists and engineers who moved to this isolated community were instrumental not only in the defense of our nation, but also in laying a foundation for the social and cultural assets that have helped secure the future of this community.

Sewell, a singer-guitarist, and his wife, an accomplished cellist and the first female to perform with the Boston Pops Orchestra, joined the 60 voices and 40 instrumentalists in the China Lake Repertoire Group — the first of many organizations they would be active in over the years.

In 1952 the Sewells moved into their second home on the base. That year, daughters Peggy and Chrissie were joined by Kathy. In 1954 Debbie would arrive to complete the family.

The Sewells shared a back fence with Bill McEwan and his family, who also had four daughters almost exactly the same ages as the Sewell girls.

The families became fast friends. “All eight of our daughters were like sisters,” said Sewell. “It was wonderful — I loved every minute of it.”

“One of the things I loved was that neither parent treated us like ‘girls,’” recalled his daughter, Debbie Benson, director of the Maturango Museum. “Our parents enabled us in whatever we were interested in. We played with dolls, then we borrowed Dad’s tools to convert our prams into racers.”

Debbie said that this encouragement toward discovery sometimes led to chaos in the home. “But it didn’t matter, as long as it was ‘an experiment.’ I remember making a mess in the bathroom sink, but as soon as my dad found out I was trying to create a water wheel, all was forgiven!”

And while McEwan — a Rhodes Scholar — was an enlightening influence on the Sewell girls, Debbie recalled that her own father’s patient, fun-loving temperament perfectly balanced that relationship.

As the Sewell family grew, so did the base. Sewell continued to contribute to the work in various departments not only as an employee, but also as a collaborator in the many workshops that were set up to share technical information within the workforce.

By 1956 he was working with China Lake legends such as Bill McLean, who led the Sidewinder team, and his deputy Frank Cartwright. Sewell served as the head of the Advanced Design Branch.

While Sewell worked toward the defense of his country, the men and women who shared in that mission lived, played, worshipped and celebrated together after the workday ended (though for some the work never seemed to end, recalled Sewell).

In addition to their adopted co-parents, the McEwans, the Sewell girls spent their time in the company of other China Lake brilliant minds, many of whom spent their leisure time with the Sewells and other families.

“It was a different world back then. We didn’t have the Internet. Most families had only one car, so people didn’t just leave town for the weekend,” said Debbie. “The big thing to do was get together with everyone for a backyard party.

“As children, we got a different view of the world, getting to talk to people who had lived and worked and traveled all over the globe.”

The girls still spent a lot of time going to Girl Scouts, chasing lizards and exploring the desert surrounding their homes, she said, but they also got to mix with some of the most innovative and respected minds in the country, hearing stories and seeing prototypes of the groundbreaking inventions at China Lake.

“At the same time, they were very humble people,” said Debbie. “We didn’t think there was anything abnormal or special about how we grew up.”

Even with her own children, she said, her father was more renowned for his musical accomplishments than anything else. “You know what my kids thought he did? They thought his job was being in the Ken Robinson Dixieland Band.”

Although the faces, and names, have changed, some of the social and cultural organizations that grew roots in the 1940s and 1950s remain today in some form.

But Sewell said that he did not consider at the time that his actions in those days would have such a lasting impact on long-term community building.

“I don’t think people had any idea that China Lake itself would last beyond the days of the ‘grand experiment,’” said Debbie.

Sewell’s wife, Barbara, passed away in 1985. In 1986 he married Carol — who added her four sons to his family of girls. Many grandchildren and great grandchildren have since fleshed out their family tree.

Sewell retired from China Lake in 1986, but continued to work as a consultant until 2005. Although he said that time and technology have changed the community, it’s still the place he loves to call home.

“The only hazardous thing about growing old in this community has been watching my friends growing old here and passing on.”

More than 65 years after his arrival in the IWV, he still performs regularly — playing once a week for the residents of High Desert Haven and Bella Sera, as well as the patients in the hospital’s transitional care wing and occasionally appearing in the Full Circle Band.

He turns 94 next month, but said he has no plans to stop any time soon.

“I love this community that we have. I love the people, the schools and the organizations. And I love seeing the traditions of the early families being carried on as the next generations have gotten involved,” said Sewell.

“One thing that has changed since I was a child is that we had very few senior members who lived here. Except for a few of the pioneers who already lived here, we had a very young population.

“Ruth [Powers] and Tiny Standard, the school teacher, were treasures because having older citizens was so rare,” said Debbie.

“Now that we actually have the full generation spectrum, I think that has made this a much richer place to live.”

Pictured: Debbie Benson and her father, Bud Sewell. — News Review file photo

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Originally published June 17, 2016

Story First Published: 2020-06-16