One of the most memorable events from my high school days was an address to the student body by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. As the founder of the nuclear navy, he was a stalwart proponent of nuclear energy but his talk was about education in all of its dimensions. He had been born in 1900 in Russian-occupied Poland to a Jewish family who emigrated to the United States in his youth.
A decade after his talk, when I was a graduate student, I found myself next to him waiting for the traffic light to change at the intersection of McKinley Street and Connecticut Avenue in Washington. I knew of his brusque manner, which often frightened members of Congress, but as we waited I spoke to him mentioning his talk to our school which he vividly remembered. Undaunted, I asked if I could walk along with him. He replied, “If you can keep up.” Although the time was late and he was off duty, he was wearing a plain khaki uniform without insignia and highly polished black shoes. I learned that the evening walk was part of his daily exercise routine.
I told him that although impressed by his talk I had not gone into science but was studying history. To which he replied, “We need that too.” He lived in an apartment on the avenue and as we neared it, I thanked him for letting me walk with him and said goodnight. I encountered him several other times at the Safeway store followed by other, albeit briefer, conversations.
In 1986 when Admiral Rickover died at the age of 86, I wrote a column about our encounters. To my surprise, two years later at a dinner meeting I was seated next to his widow, Eleonore, as she was joining a group to which I belonged. I told her about my encounters with her husband and I asked if I could send her a copy of the “Excerpts” I had written about him. She said yes and I had it off to her in the mail the following day.
She replied saying that I had been the only person who had written about him who did not focus on his scientific background and that, by not speaking of it, I had expressed the person he truly was. I told her that was all I could say about the admiral, as nuclear energy was not my forte. What ensued was a 33-year friendship that lasted until her death last month at the age of 91.
She and the admiral had moved to a high-rise apartment in Arlington where she told me in his latter years he had given in to wearing tennis shoes for his daily walks in the corridors of their building, but all of his interests had remained undimmed.
In the course of our friendship, we traveled with a group of aid volunteers to inspect the damages in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Eastern Europe and she attended a lecture I gave in Warsaw, Poland (not Richmond County!), on the status of Poland following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Two years later she was a guest at our wedding.
Eleonore was a native of Chicago, born of Polish emigrant parents, and a 1951 graduate of Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital School of Nursing. She was a retired U. S. Navy captain herself having spent her entire professional career in military service, which is how she met Admiral Rickover. In retirement, she donated generously of her time and talent to numerous charitable causes. She truly cared about the disadvantaged and the sick and she found pleasure in seeking to serve their needs.
She had been the sponsor of the U.S.S. Hyman G. Rickover, the nuclear-powered submarine commissioned in 1984, and every two years thereafter she flew to Norfolk to attend the ship’s change-of-command ceremony. She was saddened when it was decommissioned in 2006 and was looking forward to its forthcoming replacement, which was christened on July 31.
Eleonore lived a full and purposeful life that was distinguished in its own right and complementary to that of her husband. In contemporary terms, she and the admiral were a “power couple”. Each of whom left a profound legacy to be studied and appreciated by future generations of Americans.
Eleonore Bednowicz Rickover, June 6, 1930-July 5, 2021. R.I.P.