Obituary: Russell Karl / Nuclear physicist, WWII veteran and lifelong educator

May 1, 1925 - Aug. 27, 2014


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As a soldier in World War II, Russell Karl was pulled from the wreckage of an overturned tank, dodged snipers while sneaking through a German stronghold and avoided a potentially fatal injury when his canteen absorbed the impact of a bazooka slug.

Once his tour ended, rather than settling into one of the less-combustible fields of science, Mr. Karl dove into nuclear physics and took on a career at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, designing nuclear reactors for submarines bound for Cold War missions.

The devil-may-care attitude that dismissed the potential for danger on the battlefield and in the laboratory could have given Mr. Karl an advantage in any career with an edge of excitement.

But despite the brushes with danger, loved ones said a natural affinity for learning and sharing knowledge made Mr. Karl a de facto educator on and off the clock.

“I always said my father was the smartest person I’ve ever known,” said daughter Jocelyn Hladycz of Bethel Park. “He was the kind of person I could say, ‘Hey Dad, I don’t understand this question,’ and I swear he always knew the answer.”

Mr. Karl of Bethel Park died Wednesday from complications related to pneumonia at Family Hospice and Palliative Care in South Hills. He was 89.

A classically trained cellist who had season tickets to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for years, Mr. Karl’s combined love for academia and music would ultimately lead him to the love of his life.

As an undergrad at Denison University in Ohio, Mr. Karl met Carol Thorpe when playing cello with the Lincoln County Philharmonic Orchestra. The couple were literally pushed together by circumstance, she said, and there was no pulling them apart.

“When we drove to and from rehearsals there wasn’t enough room for all of us in the car,” said Mrs. Karl, “so I sat on his lap.” They married in 1952, a day before her college graduation.

The couple’s combined passions for music and education trickled down to their three daughters and beyond with all practicing instruments through high school.

Daughter Adrienne Gerber of Baldwin took the nudge from her father one step further by making music and the cello her college major.

On the other end, lessons in science didn’t go unnoticed, with at least one grandchild planning to follow Mr. Karl’s footsteps into nuclear physics. William Darr, a Bethel Park native and longtime friend of Mr. Karl’s who worked with him at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory since 1965, said his easygoing mentorship style made anyone from a curious grandchild to an industry peer turn to him for guidance.

“Russ was a remarkable and talented friend whom you could approach without defensiveness for technical assistance at the lab, or for wonderful and humorous conversation outside of work,” he said.

Whether it was the explanation of a kink in a nuclear reactor or the long-running tradition of taking family members on tours of Downtown complete with historical references, Mr. Karl treated life as an education and existed as both teacher and student.

“He always wanted to teach other people everything and it wasn’t just science, it was to have an appreciation for everything that’s around you,” said Mrs. Hladycz.

In addition to his wife and daughters Carol and Adrienne, Mr. Karl is survived by daughter Alison Peters of Mt. Lebanon, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Oct. 4 at 11 a.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills.

The family is asking for contributions to Denison University in the memory of Russel Karl, P.O. Box 716, Granville, OH 43023.


Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.

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