In Memoriam: Gerald Robert Yesberger


by Ron Kathren, CHP

Sadly, the health physics community lost one of its finest on 27 August 2015, with the death of Gerald Robert Yesberger, known to all as Jerry, in Richland, Washington, at the age of 90. Jerry was born, along with his twin sister Geraldine, into a classically poor American family in Pueblo, Colorado, on 16 July 1925. He is survived by his loving wife Marge, three sons, one daughter, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Jerry grew up in Pueblo, graduating from high school there in 1943, shortly before his eighteenth birthday. The world was at war, and Jerry, heeding his country's call to arms, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he was assigned to an amphibious attack transport (APA) ship and saw combat in the South Pacific. After the war, Jerry took advantage of the GI Bill and attended the University of Denver, graduating in 1950 with a degree in public health and pharmacy. While a student, he met Marge Early, the beautiful and vivacious young woman destined to become his wife.

His professional career began in 1950, when he accepted a position with General Electric, then the prime contractor at the Hanford site. Initially he was involved with classical public health activities, but after a year he moved into the more specialized and demanding area of operational health physics. For a time, he also took on additional work in the evenings as a part-time pharmacist, providing a little extra income to support his growing family. In 1960 he accepted employment with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, initially working in the Compliance Division to assure that license conditions and other legal requirements pertaining to radiological safety were met. When the division was transferred to California, Jerry chose to stay in Richland, overseeing contractor radiological protection operations, investigating on-site accidents and incidents, and responding to off-site incidents as a member of the Radiological Assistance Team. He was a cool, pragmatic professional who did not allow the bureaucratic administrative folderol to get in the way of the prime objective of the safety and protection of workers, the public, and the environment. Indeed, he had a number of creative ways of getting around the administrative red tape legally and ethically.

Jerry's exemplary behind-the-scenes actions as a Department of Energy (DOE) liaison in the well-known 1976 accident at Hanford (in which Harold "Mac" McCluskey received a massive exposure and intake of 241Am as a result of a chemical explosion in a glove box) deserve mention. Mac was heavily contaminated internally and externally, spending many months in isolation because of his radiological status, and he underwent numerous procedures, some quite painful, to remove the contamination and glass from his skin and within his body. Jerry acted as Mac's advocate, seeing to his comfort, providing support, easing the administrative and paperwork burdens, and serving in many other ways too numerous to mention, supporting Mac until his death from unrelated causes 11 years after the accident.

Jerry's professional efforts were recognized by his professional peers in the Columbia Chapter of the Health Physics Society, who honored him with the Herbert M. Parker Award and John P. Corley Award. He was elected a fellow of the national Society and served as president of the local chapter. He also received the Exceptional Service Award from the DOE. And, in keeping with his concern for others, for many years he was the Sunshine Committee of the Columbia Chapter, sending out countless cards for birthdays and condolences. He also served as a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation, an organization dedicated to public education, scholarships, and preservation of the history of the radiological sciences.

Jerry loved helping people, performing little services with no thought of reward or recognition; the satisfaction of having helped someone was enough. The careers of younger members of the profession who were fortunate enough to be assigned to work with him greatly benefited from his mentoring. For his community, he served on the local United Way board, volunteered at the Richland Food Bank, and willingly provided sound advice to young people in a casual, relaxed, and nonthreatening fashion. He happily would do little services to help others—going to the store to procure groceries for a neighbor and watching for the newspaper delivery each morning so he could go across the street to place the paper where his physically challenged neighbor could easily retrieve it. A self-taught pianist, for 12 years he was a mainstay at a senior residential facility, playing piano for the joy of the residents, many of whom fondly recall his performances, especially of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," a treat for the ladies. Indeed, he never met a woman he didn't like—he could charm the ladies like nobody else but was fully dedicated to his wife Marge. Even after 67 years of marriage they acted like young lovebirds and were a joy to watch.

Jerry loved children and dogs, often serving as a dog sitter for friends, and in his low-key, straight-faced way played many a joke on some unsuspecting friend. He enjoyed playing bridge and, right up until his death, a weekly cribbage game with three old friends. They had to watch him closely, though, for he was known to try to sneak an extra point in now and again, doing so with an expression of pure innocence on his face. This self-effacing, service-oriented man lived the quintessential American life, and we can all be proud that he was one of us.