Much of my grandfather’s life is classified but the rest is pretty special

Lisa Woolfson with sister and grandfather
Lisa Woolfson (right) with her sister, Rachel Woolfson, and her grandfather, Martin G. Woolfson, in front of the capsule
at the National Air and Space Museum that Martin Woolfson helped design

By Lisa Woolfson

When my sister and I were little and we visited my grandpa, all we thought he did was play cards and watch TV. We knew little about him besides his hobbies and that he was a loving grandpa. As it turns out, there was a reason for that. Most of the work he’d done in his life was classified. And the work that wasn’t, well, it wasn’t easy to explain to a couple of kids.

Now that I’m older, I know a lot more about my once mysterious grandpa.

My grandfather, Martin G. Woolfson, lives in Pikesville and is a member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation. He recently turned 85. He was born in the Bronx but moved to Baltimore during World War II, during which his father worked in a shipyard.

After the war, they returned to the Bronx, and my grandpa left home at 15 when he had one year left of high school. He decided to move back to Baltimore because he liked it and had a lot of family living here. He went to Baltimore City College for high school and graduated sixth in the class.

After high school, he got accepted to a work-study scholarship program with Johns Hopkins University and Westinghouse Electric, a military contractor that produced defense electronics. My grandpa worked 32 hours a week and went to school at night and during the summer. It took about six years for him to earn his bachelor’s degree.

In 1958, he was drafted into the army and was at Fort Knox for about four months. But they decided his skills would make him more useful on inactive reserve, so he returned to Westinghouse. He was honorably discharged from the army eight years later.

He went for a master’s degree at night, which took around another five years.

My grandfather also worked on Project Gemini, NASA’s second spaceflight program. He helped design the circuitry and metering of the Westinghouse rendezvous radar, which allowed people to take an object in space and hook it up to another object in space.

NASA liked my grandfather’s designs so much they patented his designs for themselves in his name. This is part of why he won a fellowship from Westinghouse. Out of 100,000 employees with only one or two offered fellowships, he was chosen.

My grandfather was supposed to go on to Stanford, but his mother had just passed away and he had an 8-year-old brother. So instead, he decided to stay at Hopkins and begin a Ph.D. program. In 1973, he finally earned his Ph.D. in arts and sciences.

In the summer of 2016, when I was between high school and college, I went with my grandfather to the National Air and Space Museum in D.C. When we arrived, my grandfather told me that he worked on the design of something in the museum. We walked through the sprawling building to the space section, and he pointed out a capsule that he had designed part of. It was amazing to see that his work was such an important part of history that it was featured in a national museum.

While he was working at Westinghouse, he learned a lot of classified information, much of which still cannot be shared today. But the information about Project Gemini now belongs to the public domain.

He eventually retired from Westinghouse, which, by then, had been bought by Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology company. Now, he focuses his time on music. All in all, he started working at 16 and stopped at 76.

My grandfather has been interested in music since he was a child. Every road trip I’ve gone on with my grandparents has included listening to 3-4 hours of Frank Sinatra and other 1940s and ‘50s hits.

After retirement, he took classes in music theory and jazz theory. Then he saw a private teacher to learn how to compose music.

Whenever I visit him, he plays me his new songs and explains how he wrote them. I love hearing the music he composes and that he still finds a way to make brilliant creations, even after retirement.

Lisa Woolfson is a freelance writer.

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