Project Pioneer: Family and friends remember Arnold's first contractor public affairs manager

  • Published
  • By 208151
When Jack Shea arrived at the Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) in 1953, he had already seen a lot in his 34 years of life, both the best and worst things imaginable.

He was already well known for having a keen sense of humor and an ability to see the light side in any situation, including when coping with the stresses of war.

A rifle-platoon leader with the 115th Regiment of the Army's 29th Division during World War II, he served under Maj. Gen. Norman Cota, who the led the assault on Omaha Beach at Normandy, France in June 1944. Shea also saw action in the Rhineland and Central Europe, earning a Purple Heart, among other awards.

In 1953, Shea began his career at AEDC as a special assistant to the managing director of ARO (Arnold Research Organization) Inc., the support contractor for Arnold. Before long, he became the first director of public affairs at AEDC. Shea was also the first editor for 'High Mach,' the base newspaper.

He and his staff, including base photographers and cinematographers, covered a wide spectrum of newsworthy events, including unprecedented flight simulation testing of rockets, jet engines, aircraft and countless weapons systems, many which were classified or highly sensitive. Many stories and photographic records had to remain under lock and key for years before being cleared for public release.

In a retirement article about him published in 1982, Shea said his interest in the newspaper business began when he was in the fifth or sixth grade. At the age of eight, he had started his own neighborhood newspaper - it only lasted six months, but Shea got a glimpse of his future. As a young man, he worked his way up from copy boy to reporter for a variety of weekly and small daily newspapers in the Boston area before he joined the war effort in late 1942.

After the war, Shea was chief of the Air Force press desk in Washington, DC, before taking an assignment as vice president for public relations at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corp. in St. Louis.

Emma Underwood, who lives in Beech Grove, worked as Shea's clerk and stenographer in 1965 and then as his secretary and later as an information specialist until 1980. She described Shea as a caring and supportive person.

"He was a wonderful gentleman, so intelligent, respected by everyone - contractor and Air Force alike," she said. "He was kind and thoughtful - if you ever had a problem, no matter what; he was always there for you.

"I still have the letter he wrote to me on his last day in the public affairs office, complementing me on my work over the years," she continued. "It should have been me thanking him for the wonderful person he was to me and everyone in the office and all that he taught me. I can still see him puffing on his cigar."

Larry Nee, a Tullahoma News reporter, worked with Shea from 1968 to 1979 and remembers a tight-knit group of professionals who kept up a "constant" pace at work.

"In those days there was a requirement that we submit periodic three- to five-minute movie clips for what was called the Air Force Newsreel," he said. "It included the latest test projects underway at the center."

Nee and Phil Tarver, Arnold's first public affairs photographer, said Shea was a professional who had the trust of leadership and was the kind of person who inspired his staff to rise to the challenges involved.

"Our office was attached directly to the office of the managing director of ARO Inc., Robert Williams," Nee explained. "There were no intermediaries, and Jack had the full trust and confidence of Williams. Jack came from a newspaper background and since this was understood throughout the company, both of these things made it easier for our office to function."

Tarver, like Nee, recalled that Shea was not big on formalities in the office and the staff would occasionally get together on his houseboat after work to fish and relax.

"Jack had a house boat on Woods Reservoir and about once a year we would be invited out for a cruise," Nee recalled. "Jack's most famous quote was 'we need to do this more often.' Somehow, we never managed to do that."

However, Shea still had high expectations from everyone in public affairs. He was a professional who expected the same from those around him, but he inspired and mentored his staff to get things done.

"He'd tell you what he wanted and leave it up to you to do it," Tarver said. "We all worked really well together. Jack was a great guy who never met a stranger - he was one of these people who could always remember names."

Shea's sense of humor, whether at AEDC or at home, kept life interesting for everyone.

In 1973, when Shea's daughter, Kathleen, started working at Arnold as a design drafter, she was still living at home with her parents and carpooled with her father and two membersof his staff.

"I was irritated from time to time because I would be standing on the curb waiting for them to come around to pick me up after work, but dad was so gung ho about work, time would slip by with him," she said. "I remember one time I started walking towards Gate 2. Dad pulled over to pick me up and when I got in the car, they were sitting there passing dollar bills back and forth like they had a bet going on how far I was going to make it, I remember that."

Kathleen said her father was a gifted storyteller, something she fully appreciated.

"I loved to listen to his stories because he wouldn't just tell the story, he would use an accent, whether German or French or Italian or something to go with it," she said, explaining that he was a master at combining fact with fiction.

"He had me going at times with his stories," she recalled. "Often it was a joke and he'd catch me by surprise with a punch line. He was just funny."

Megan Shea, an older member of the family, recalls one of her father's anecdotal stories found its way into print.

"One of my favorite stories was about the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and the poulet cannon (center's impact ranges)," she said. "That story actually made the wire services. I had copies sent to me from friends everywhere who read about Jack Shea's defense of firing chickens at airplane canopies in an effort to assess their impact capacities.

"He said that there was no dangerous residue as the flying carcasses vaporized upon impact and there should have been no cause for concern about cruelty to animals because the Air Force had become the local A&P's best customer buying the chickens from their local market's meat department."

Shea passed away in 1984, only two years after he retired from AEDC. However, his legacy lives on in his contributions to spreading the word about Arnold to the world. He set a standard for journalist excellence at the center, according to those who knew him and worked with him over the years.

Friends and family affectionately remember the man 'who was everybody's friend.'