Retiree recalls rocket pioneer got dismissed for tardiness

It was August 1950 and the three members of the carpool were uncomfortably hot while waiting for the fourth member who was habitually late. They could care less that he would soon become one of the most famous scientists in American history.

They were waiting in the sweltering Ford convertible outside building 111 since 5 p.m. and finally the “Professor” showed up at 5:30. This had happened at least eight times. So, the “Professor” got duly warned that if he was late again they would leave him and he’d have to get home as best he could on his own.

At 5:15 p.m. the next day, they left Dr. Wernher von Braun to find a ride for himself.

The storyteller is Redstone retiree and World War II veteran Bob DeYoung, 92, a resident of the Brookdale retirement home in south Huntsville. DeYoung tools around the grounds in his wheelchair but his mind is as sharp as ever.

“Dr. Kurt Debus said, ‘We’re going to kick the professor out the carpool if he’s late one more day,’” DeYoung recalled. “And we said who’s going to tell him if he’s late one more time, and Dr. Debus sai, ‘I’ll tell him.’ It was at least 90, 95 and it was hot sitting in that car. And Dr. Debus told him when he got there. Dr. Debus said, ‘Professor if you’re late one more time, you’re out of the carpool.’

And von Braun replied, “‘OK,’” De-Young said laughing. “What could he say?

“He was usually (late because he was) talking on the phone to Washington, trying to get money, trying to get projects approved. He’d be oblivious to the time. He was focused on going to the moon.”

Typically after his tardiness, von Braun “was nice, he’d apologize. But it didn’t mean anything because he’d do the same thing the next day,” DeYoung said.

When this happened the day after the ultimatum, the carpool departed after waiting 15 minutes. Debus told the others, “Let’s go.”

“And we said ‘How’s he going to get home?’ And Dr. Debus said, ‘That’s his problem,’” DeYoung said,. “We don’t know how he got home that day.”

Dr. Ernst Geissler joined the carpool in von Braun’s place and tardiness was no longer a problem. Word of von Braun’s dismissal spread among the occupants of the second floor of building 111. “The story got around,” DeYoung said.

“We accepted the fact that (von Braun) was more or less an absent-minded professor. I mean he’d just forget what time it was.”

DeYoung hasn’t forgotten much of anything all these years. The Huntsville native graduated in June 1943 from Huntsville High School and got drafted into the Army within two weeks. At 18 he became an intelligence corporal, arriving first in New Guinea and then the Philippines. He saw combat against the Japanese. “I was a forward observer when I first got there,” he said.

His job was to go behind enemy lines and pick out reference points for potential bombing targets. He and another forward observer were given a jeep and told to enter Japanese territory on the island of Leyte in the Philippines. But the Japanese bombed the road behind them, so they were trapped in enemy territory. After more than two weeks, U.S. engineer Soldiers repaired the road so the pair could escape. About 20 years later, DeYoung had the opportunity to talk on the phone with a Huntsville veteran who had been one of the engineers who saw the joyous pair freed that day.

DeYoung served three years in the Philippines. He spent the last year in hospitals because he contracted Bright’s disease which caused his kidney to enlarge. After his three years in the Army, he came to work at Redstone in 1950 and worked as an engineer in research and development until he retired in 1979.

His wife since 1949, Mary Kate De-Young, died from a stroke at 87 about a year and a half ago. His daughter, Mary Lynn DeYoung, 62, is a retired interior designer in Huntsville. His son, Bob III, 66, of Los Angeles, is a boat wholesaler and innovator who has developed a computer product which provides light enhancement for night-time driving.

DeYoung, who has lived at Brookdale about three years, has a fiancée, Nancy Sharp, 90, who also resides there. De-Young volunteered as director of services for Calvary Bible Church from 1956 until about five years ago. He directed services for the “church on the lake” at the Marshall Baptist campground in Guntersville.

“I think that the Lord kept me alive to conduct services at the church on the lake,” he said. “My talents were few, but the Lord knew what I could do.”

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