Obituary: Dr. Willard Lindley Talbert, Jr. March 8, 1932 – August 3, 2023

Dr. Willard Lindley Talbert, Jr. (March 8, 1932-August 3, 2023)

Will was the son of Willard L. Talbert, Sr. and Ellen Lunette (Goodlander) Talbert and the younger brother of Wendell Talbert. He was born in Casper, Wyoming. In seventh grade, he was inspired by a guest speaker to become a nuclear physicist. He never looked back.

After graduating from Natrona County High School in Casper, he earned a bachelors degree in physics at the University of Colorado. While in Boulder, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Alice Williams. They brought four children into the world: Marc, Ken, Linda, and Cynthia.
From Boulder, Will and his growing family moved to a small Pammel Court apartment in Ames, Iowa. He researched and studied nuclear physics at Iowa State University under Dr. Daniel Zaffarano. Upon earning his doctorate, he worked briefly in Littleton, Colorado, at Marathon Oil but returned to Ames to join the faculty at Iowa State University. He considered his half-time teaching and half-time research position as a fulfilling combination. His job at times was often much more than two half-time positions.

As a researcher at the Ames Laboratory reactor in west Ames, he designed, built, and operated an isotope separator studying the products of fission from the reactor’s core, some with infinitesimal half lives. More than a few lead bricks used as radiation shielding in his work ended up at home, where they served as door stops and anchors for building projects he enjoyed doing (while listening to opera) in his garage workshop. He named his isotope separator and acronym TRISTAN, derived from the Wagner opera. There are few folks who may be able to tell what the acronym stood for. His kids are not among them… As a family, we joined him for a sabbatical in 1969: summer at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, and a school year in Stockholm where he worked at the Nobel Institute of Physics.

He traveled widely as a scientist. Dad was often flying to far-off places, and he and Mom often hosted American and international scientists in our Ames home. He was the primary author of a large number of scientific papers, and the major professor for over 30 graduate students.

Upon the decommissioning of the Ames Lab reactor in the late 1970s he joined Los Alamos National Laboratory. He and Mary spent a year in Vienna, where he worked with the UN Nuclear Verification program and a year in Washington, D.C., at the National Science Foundation. In retirement, he was invited to spend a very special year as a visiting professor at Grinnell College.

To us kids he was a father first, and a scientist second. Much of his work was and still is incomprehensible to us. In spite of a sign he posted outside his various offices: “Fyzics is Phun.” He made certain we correctly pronounced nuclear. His tireless devotion bought a lot of shoes and socks, piano lessons, college educations, on and on and on…

There were plenty of family travels through  his beloved Western United States. For a month each summer we all piled into the Rambler station wagon and, dragging a pop-up camper, eventually visited every state and nearly every national park and monument west of the Missouri River.

Upon retiring, Will and Mary enjoyed a vigorous life of hiking, traveling, biking over mountain passes and connecting with friends. Will was devoted to Mary even after her death in 2014.

Will is survived by his four children, 10 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren. We are grateful for the kind and loving care provided by the staff at Green Hills Health Care Center here in Ames and the staff of Suncrest Hospice. Even as his keen intelligence dimmed, he always seemed grateful for the care he got.

No service is planned at this time. The family plans to gather at Crimson Dawn, on the far side of Casper Mountain, in April or May of 2024. There, we will commit his ashes to the same sagebrush clearing where he will join Mom’s. In lieu of flowers, we will be grateful for any donations made in his name to The National Park Foundation, 1500 K Street NW Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005.

Online condolences may be directed to www.grandon