Virginia Stovall passes the century mark

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Centenarian honored for her intellectual, social and spiritual gifts

By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE ­­ —  Virginia Stovall, one of Los Alamos’ first Living Treasures, celebrated her 100th birthday Wednesday, surrounded by an adoring family and admiring friends.

Stovall, her husband Emory who died in 1989, and two of her three sons, worked at the laboratory in Los Alamos. She is remembered and beloved for her church and charitable activities on the Hill and around northern New Mexico.

For many years she organized clothing drives, holiday parties and cooperative projects in Truchas, Chimayó, San Ildefonso and Santa Clara.

Stovall’s three sons, Leonard, Jim and Bob, their families, including six grandchildren along with many neighbors and acquaintances, showered her with affection and attention as she reached the century mark, looking very young for her age and not a little surprised by all the fuss.

Asked what her secret was, she ignored the promptings of her sons and said, “Good genetics.”

In fact, studying the family genealogy was one of her many passions and she was especially proud to have traced the family line back to four passengers on the Mayflower, including John Alden. Alden was one of the founders of the Plymouth Rock colony and was immortalized in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “The Courtship of Miles Standish.”

Some of the guests at the party were friends whose ancestors also came over on the Mayflower.

“You’ve got so darn many friends,” said Alice Mutschlacner of Los Alamos as the friends took turns giving hugs and saying hello.

The party gathered at Jim Stovall’s house off Tano Road in the northwest outskirts of Santa Fe. Back for the occasion from an assignment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, middle son Jim Stovall related some of his mother’s vital information.

“She presently lives at the Rosemont Assisted Living Home in Santa Fe and still has ‘all her marbles,’” he wrote in an invitation to the event.

His mother earned a master’s degree in actuarial mathematics and worked for a couple of insurance companies, coming of age during the hard times of the Depression.

“I got pretty tired of eating canned fish and spam,” she recalled in an oral history interview conducted by Peter Malmgren. “Big fish, they weren’t nice little ones. That was one of the few things we could buy without stamps.”

She married physicist Emory Stovall in 1938 and had her first son Leonard just six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. When Emory was invited by Edward Teller to work at Los Alamos, the young family then moved from Washington, D.C. to Los Alamos where they lived in a Sundt quadraplex on Gold Street.

“She worked as a microscopist in a log cabin near Ashley Pond for Louis Rosen and others helping to measure nuclear cross sections that were important to the early weapons programs,” Jim Stovall recalled. “Later she was involved in the infancy of high energy physics by analyzing cosmic ray data collected by balloons and V-2 rockets.”

Rosen was an illustrious scientist who pioneered research in high-energy particles at LANL. He died last month at the age of 91.

During the party, Virginia Stovall recalled using a hammer to unpack a primitive calculator from its box and having piles of excelsior padding around for the amusement of her children. When the calculator “got stuck,” she said, “I picked it up and slammed it down on the desk.”

She said she used Rosen’s data and wrote a program for one of the early computers that she considered one of her most important contributions.

“He (Rosen) said I was the first one to use a computer to make graphics,” she said.

Stovall was born in Indianapolis. Her parents were both college graduates.

Her boys were well educated, as well. Leonard worked in nuclear material storage and robotics at the laboratory. Jim carried on one of the family’s specialties in high energy physics, and Bob, with a PhD in public administration pursued what he called the family’s “missionary work,” working with troubled youth in California.

“I learned before I went to kindergarten that I was expected to go to college,” their mother told Malmgren in her rich oral account of the 20th century.