Obituary

Rex Alfred Elder, born October 4, 1917, passed away at his home in The Tamalpais (Greenbrae, California) after a short illness on February 24, 2018. Rex was the youngest of three children of George Alfred and Jane Elder. Rex is survived by his four children, Jack Elder, Carol Weatherspoon, Susan Mathis, and Will Elder, as well as eight grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Rex was preceded by his wife of 66 years, Janet Alger Elder, and his dear companion Mary Mackey.

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House in Laquin Pennsylvania where Rex was born

Rex was born in the lumber town of Laquin in northern Pennsylvania, where his father managed the mill. The large manager’s house he was born was the last to stand in that company town, which became a ghost town after the lumber was harvested from the area. He remembered riding on the draft horses that skidded the logs to the mill in those days. His father moved from mill to mill, and survived comfortably through the depression era by cutting maple and cherry lumber sold to the furniture factories, and ash for Louisville Slugger baseball bats. Rex learned the mill trades and drove lumber trucks in the 1930s. He was always expected to go to college, and when the time came he moved to Pittsburgh where his sister was living to attend Carnegie Institute (now Carnegie Mellon University), where he earned his civil engineering degree. He then attended Oregon State University, where he received his Master’s Degree.

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Design of Fontana Dam spillway tunnel was one of Rex’s proudest achievements. Here it is seen in operation in 1947.

Rex had an illustrious career as a hydraulic engineer, working on dams, coal and nuclear power plants and troubleshooting all types of large pumps and other of hydraulic machinery. He was particularly known for his work on stratified flows. He worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority from 1943 to 1973. In 1947 he was promoted to director of the TVA Hydraulic Engineering Laboratory in Norris, Tennessee. In 1973, Rex retired from TVA after being recruited by Bechtel Corporation to head their in-house Hydraulics/Hydrology group in San Francisco. He spent the rest of his life in Marin County, where he and Janet built a beautiful house in Tiburon overlooking San Francisco and Angel Island. He worked at Bechtel until 1985, travelling extensively to solve hydraulic problems around the world in France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Canada, Chile, Bolivia, Algeria, Australia and elsewhere. Rex continued to work as an engineering consultant after his retirement until 2001.

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Rex at work at TVA, 1967

Over his career, Rex served leadership roles in the International Association for Hydraulic Research, which took him to global conferences. He received many awards and recognitions for his engineering achievements. Among these were Honorary Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, elected Member of the National Academy of Engineering, and designated Distinguished Alumnus by Carnegie Mellon University. Rex was also chosen for the Engineering Hall of Fame for Sustained & Meritorious Engineering Contributions at Oregon State University. Rex always made time to serve his community as well. In Norris he chaired the Water Commission for 30 years, making sure the town had a reliable and safe water supply.

 

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From back left: Rex, Janet, Susan, Carol, Will with Trudy and Jack in front, 1966

Rex was a devoted family man. He was generous in his time, money and other support, providing for his children’s education, housing and other needs throughout his life. Although not a particularly religious person, he instilled a lifelong sense of moral character in all of his children. From an early age, he would take them fishing and exploring on the shores of Norris Lake, which they soon discovered were strewn with many Indian artifacts and Paleozoic fossils. This led to some of their lifelong interests. When his daughters became interested in equestrian activities, he bought them a horse and arranged to use a pasture nearby, which he then fenced and built a barn. He loved building things and used his access to the TVA lab’s shop facility to build toys, furniture and many other useful items. He taught his children how to use many types of tools and machinery.

 

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Janet, Sally Daily, Will and Rex after taking the Jeep out in the woods.

Rex was always a woodsman at heart. He loved to walk, and he took his family on many long walks through the woods of Tennessee, instilling a love of nature. He also enjoyed traipsing through the woods hunting grouse and floating the rivers hunting ducks. Fishing was a huge pastime. He bought a canoe which he and his sons used to fish the rivers and lakes of East Tennessee on an almost nightly basis. When he moved to California, he started taking his family on salmon fishing trips in British Columbia with his dear friend Duncan Hay.

 

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Rex and Janet visit the Taj Mahal on one of their many overseas trips.

Rex was also strongly devoted to his wife Janet. After she became disabled with eye problems, he cared for her and helped her to adapt.  They traveled the world together and enjoyed their friends in the engineering community who were their travelling companions. They moved to a retirement community at the Tamalpais in 1995 as they anticipated the need for more support as they became older. When Janet became ill there, he purchased a wheelchair accessible van to drive her around the local countryside, and stayed by her side until she passed in 2006.

 

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The family at Mary Mackey’s cabin in Sonoma, 2008

At a thriving 89, Rex soon had a girlfriend to whom he was also devoted. Mary Mackey had property in Sonoma California, and they would drive, and then take limos after he quit driving, up to her cabin for weekends and more. The entire family enjoyed visiting this cabin with wonderful views overlooking the Sonoma Valley. Rex also outlived Mary and just kept going. He made his long time goal of reaching his 100th birthday, and his entire family of 35 descendants and their significant others gathered for that celebration. He had a long, good and remarkable life.