Philip R. Compton
Class of 1947, BS
At the age of 86, Phil Compton still has about 30 reasons to get out of bed early five days a week. Since 1990, the octogenarian has reported to work, Monday through Friday, to his volunteer job – reading to the more than two dozen first graders at the Front Royal elementary school.
“There is no better way to start the day than to interact with those youngsters. The boys will give me a high five, and the girls will put their arms around me.” says the retired NASA administrator who also spent parts of his career at Westinghouse, Douglas Aircraft, Lockheed, the Research Analysis Corporation (RAC), and the National Bureau of Standards.
Comptonʼs career in the aerospace industry prompts him to often bring scientific topics into his reading. “I start with the simple first grade books, but I will often move to conversations about the planets, or the sun, or planting a seed. After Chris Kraft presented his Apollo Moon Rock to Virginia Tech, I took a couple of minutes to tell the story to the kids,” the grandfatherly Compton says. The room gets especially quiet when Mr. Compton tells one of his personal stories.
And the job occasionally comes with perks. “One of the first graders asked me to dinner recently,” Compton smiles.
Age is truly just a number for the 1947 aeronautical engineering graduate of Virginia Tech. At 80, he purchased his first personal computer and secured an email account. The World War II veteran was able to get “dec71941” as his cyber world identity.
When he was 75 in 1995, he obtained his pilotʼs license and flew a Cessna 172 for four more years. He completed the flight program in 1942 when he had enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Virginia Tech. His second time around as a pilot was enjoyable until one day, at 79, he knocked his glasses off while he was in the control seat, a few miles from the airport. “I fumbled around until I found them, and then I decided I did not have to fly anymore. I asked the airport manager to give my navigation equipment to someone who couldnʼt afford to buy it,” the kindhearted gentleman says.
Compton understands humble beginnings. He describes his dad as “a carpenter and his mother as parents who loved their family.” When he graduated high school in 1937, the 18-year-old went straight to prep school and then to work for the District of Columbiaʼs Highway Department. After a few years on its survey crew, he and his parents took a drive to Virginia Tech and met with the Dean of Engineering. Immediately after his “interview” with the dean, Compton was told he could enroll, but he would have to be in the military. His parents drove off, and he was left in the engineersʼ battalion.
Not too long after he began his studies at Virginia Tech, the “military came to VPI and took us away. I ended up in the Pacific Theatre in World War II and did not return until three years later in August of 1946,” Compton recalls. He had become a first lieutenant. He had also used a leave to marry his sweetheart of many years, Kitty, whom he had met on a blind date on his first Christmas Eve after high school graduation. Recalling knocking on her parentsʼ door, and having Kitty open it, he says the meeting was an immediate “Bingo!”
In 1947, Compton graduated and, with Kitty at his side, went to work for his first Fortune 500 company, Westinghouse. He roamed around the company on various assignments eventually landing in the Aviation Gas Turbine Division, building the machines for Navy fighter aircraft.
“This job made me realize that I needed more schooling. When I was in school, everything was propellers. Now they were jet fuel aircraft,” Compton says. In less than 12 months, he earned his masterʼs in aeronautical engineering from Georgia Tech, and took a new position with Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, California. He worked on transport aircraft and a bomber project. When he left Douglas in 1961, he was the Assistant to the Vice President of Engineering. His vice president was offered a job at Lockheed, so Compton went with him.
In 1964, he returned to Virginia to become the Director of Program Development with RAC, located in McLean. For 10 years, his work included development of new corporate-wide programs in operations research and systems analysis in both the Army and non-defense areas. It was essentially a “Think Tank” operation, Compton says.
He left RAC to join NASA, “an extraordinary group of technical people,” Compton asserts. His interview for that job was conducted by former astronaut Jack Schmidt of Apollo 17 fame. “We spoke for about three quarters of an hour, and I came home and told Kitty I thought I had the job. She asked, ʻWhat is it?ʼ and I responded, ʻI donʼt know. We never talked about that,” he laughs today. Comptonʼs scope of knowledge and prior reputation landed him the job.
He later became the chair of the Capitolʼs section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and met folks like Wernher von Braun, one of the most prominent spokesmen of space exploration in the United States during the 1950s, and Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb.
“My position was like a lightning rod for meeting influential people,” Compton recalls.
Compton spent his last 12 years of work with NASA in Washington, D.C. as a Program Manager of Advanced Technology. His responsibilities included the oversight of studies and plans for the long-range aeronautics program. He conducted advanced systems studies and analyses of future aircraft design concepts. During this time, he was also elected the 1983-84 President of the Virginia Society of Professional Engineers (VSPE). Afterwards, NASA presented him with its Space-Ship-Earth Award for his VSPE presidency, as well as his work leading up to this time.
In all of the places he worked, his best memories were the friends he made. “It is just that simple,” he says. But when pressed, he adds that flying on the Air France Concord will always be a highlight, as well as earning his amateur radio license (Amateur Extra).
Compton has served as a member of the Zoning Appeals Board for Warren County and for Front Royal, Virginia. He was also on the Front Royal — Warren County Airport Commission. He served on the Citizensʼ Advisory Board for the Front Royal Police Department, and he has volunteered in the past to take fingerprints and conduct sobriety checks.
And he remains a Sunday School teacher at the Front Royal United Methodist Church and on its long-range planning committee. “People my age are talking about the future of the church. We are not steeped in tradition,” he acknowledges.
Phil and his wife Kitty, now deceased, are the parents of two daughters, Georgia Fischel, who formerly chaired the Operating Board of the Lexington Virginia Horse Center, and Carol Hopkins, financial counselor with Metropolitan Life Company, who lives in Connecticut.
Class of: 1947
Year Inducted into Academy: 2007