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VIProfile: Sam Beall, Jr.

Story by Gay Lyons with photography by Britt Cole

You don’t live to be 99 years old without experiencing a lot, but Sam Beall, Jr. may have seen and done more than most.

Beall was born in Plains, Georgia, and grew up in nearby Richland. He admitted to knowing Plains’ most well-known resident.

“I knew Jimmy [Carter,]” he said. “He was seven or eight years younger than I. His first cousin was my best friend. His grandfather was our postmaster; his aunt was my mother’s best friend.”

After his father passed away, Sam’s mother, Anna Fischer Beall, who was from Knoxville, returned to her hometown with seventeen year old Sam and his younger brother Bill.

Beall was the recipient of a $500 a year scholarship from the Knoxville Rotary Club.

“$500 was a lot of money then,” said Beall. “I paid them back. They didn’t require you to pay it back, but they encouraged it.”

“I had taken correspondence courses in electrical engineering while I was in high school,” he continued. “I changed to chemical engineering at UT and then graduated with a degree in industrial engineering. I like to do things with my hands. I’m interested in mechanics, in how things work.”

After graduating from UT in 1942, he was hired by the DuPont Company. From there, he began working on the Manhattan Project in Chicago and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory where he helped develop the atomic bomb.

After the Manhattan Project, Beall was an engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and served as director of the Reactor Division from 1963 to 1971 and the Energy Division from 1972 to 1974. He retired in 1982.

Most people working in the “secret city” of Oak Ridge had no knowledge of the purpose or scope of the project, but Beall said, “From the first day I started on the Manhattan Project, I knew what we were doing.”

“The University of Chicago was kind of a closed loop,” he said. “They all knew what they were aiming for. We were there for six months and then came to Oak Ridge to build the graphic reactor. We got that going, and then we went to [Hanford,] Washington, where the plutonium was manufactured for the second bomb.”

“Working on the Manhattan Project was an exciting moment,” he continued, “but one of many. It set me up for a good career at Oak Ridge.”

He served as lead engineer for the low intensity test reactor, the first watercooled reactor. He also was in charge of building and operating two liquid fuel reactors which produced the first electricity from nuclear energy in 1953.

His work with nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg producing electricity from nuclear energy led to a 1959 meeting with Senator John F. Kennedy.

“Albert Gore was Senator at the time,” said Beall, “so he brought Senator and Mrs. Kennedy with him to see the reactor.”

“Senator Kennedy seemed interested in what we were doing,” he continued.“Mrs. Kennedy  was a very beautiful lady. Mary Anne wouldn’t let me keep that photograph [taken during the visit.]

Sam and Mary Anne Beall were introduced by a friend.

“Our first date was a trip to the UT-Alabama game in Birmingham,” said Beall. The couple, who married in 1944, were together 73 years until Mary Anne’s death in 2017. The family produced five children, 13 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren.

Beall stays busy at the West Knoxville home on a large piece of land bordering Fourth Creek where he has lived for over 30 years.

“I grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers,” he said. “I have a lot of different plants in the greenhouse: a lemon tree, an orange tree, camellia bushes. I have a lot of orchids in the ‘plant room’ in the house, a lot of cacti. I have gardened for pretty much my whole life. I like to garden and work on the computer. I write letters and trade stocks.”

Beall was recently honored by the Knoxville Museum of Art with the prestigious Clayton Award. He also recently received the Silver Beaver Award from the Boy Scouts, one of the highest awards given by the Boy Scouts of America.

Beall was Scoutmaster of Troop 6 from 1945-1952. I’m the oldest living Scoutmaster,” he declared. “I’m honored to receive the award.”

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