Bill Wilcox is the official historian for the city of Oak Ridge and offers a wealth of knowledge about Oak Ridge's role in the Manhattan Project. Mr. Wilcox works tirelessly to uphold the importance of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project in an effort to solidify the story in our Nation's history.
How It All Began:
Bill Wilcox arrived in a no-name town being built by the government at the height of World War II. A graduate of Washington & Lee University in Virginia, Wilcox was a chemist brought in to work on a top-secret project in East Tennessee.
The project was the Manhattan Project, and Wilcox was assigned to work at one of three large-scale production plants where the uranium for the world’s first atomic weapon was being enriched. To hear him tell his story is like stepping back in time to a world that was alive with color, music, dancing, and lots of hard work.
When Wilcox was first hired on by Eastman Kodak to work on the Manhattan Project, he was told he would be working with uranium, but he was never allowed to use that word again. From then on out, he had to call the element by a code name, Tuballoy. At the end of the war, when peace was declared and Oak Ridgers finally found out what they had done to contribute to ending WWII, Wilcox heard some commotion outside of his office. He stuck his head out the door to find a man running up and down the hallway yelling “Uranium, uranium!” because he was finally allowed to say the word.
These are but one of many stories Wilcox weaves with passion and enthusiasm, and a mind that is still like a steel trap for someone 88 years of age.
These days, Wilcox is retired, but he spends much of his free time giving back to the community. He is a board member for the Oak Ridge Heritage & Preservation Association (ORHPA) as well as the Partnership for K-25 Preservation (PKP). In addition, he is a member of the Oak Ridge ’43 Club, whose membership is made up of men and women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge in 1943, just after the city was built. And, maybe one of his favorite roles, in 2006, Wilcox was named the official City Historian of Oak Ridge.
Because he lived in Oak Ridge during the War Years, and because he worked at two of the three large plants built here during the Manhattan Project, Wilcox is the perfect person to answer questions regarding those times. And he does it masterfully.
The Oak Ridge Convention & Visitors Bureau utilizes Wilcox’s knowledge and skills frequently when research questions need to be answered, when travel journalists are in town and want to speak with an original Manhattan Project worker, and when groups come to town and a keynote speaker is needed. Because Wilcox lived and breathed the Manhattan Project, he is the perfect person to answer questions and to talk about what he did during that time, what life was like “Behind the Fence,” and the intricacies of the technical jargon that tends to confuse most lay people when it comes to science.
Wilcox does such a good job of explaining things like neutron science and the separation of isotopes, that it's easy to understand.
Wilcox has also taken on the role of lecturer, presenter, and film star. He played a huge role in the documentary films Secret City: The Oak Ridge Story - The War Years and The Oak Ridge Story Part 2: 1945 – 2006. Wilcox has authored numerous “white papers,” published a history of the Y-12 Plant, and most recently published the book, Opening the Gates of the Secret City. In addition, he has assisted in the History Channel's Modern Marvels documentary, Manhattan Project; Atlantic Productions’ Secret Cities of the A-bomb, which also aired on The History Channel; History Detectives on PBS; and War Stories with Oliver North on Fox News.
One of Wilcox’s most impressive contributions was his idea for the Secret City Commemorative Walk, a monument enshrining the names of Oak Ridge’s Manhattan Project workers in a lovely garden setting, which tells the history of the Secret City from 1942 – 1949.
Wilcox’s latest passion is the historic U-shaped building at the K-25 site (at 44 acres, the largest building under one roof in the entire world at the time of its construction). He’s championed an approach that will save a significant portion of the history of the tremendous work done there for over 40 years. While the details are still being worked out, Wilcox has tirelessly contributed ideas and suggestions as to what can and should be done to obtain the goal of a tourist destination at the K-25 Heritage Center.
In 2008, Wilcox was presented with one of Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman's highest awards, The Secretary's Appreciation Award.