In Memoriam: John P. Witherspoon, Jr.


Adapted with permission from the Oak Ridger, 7 February 2017

John P. Witherspoon, Jr., age 85, died on 4 February 2017. He was born 28 February 1931 in Hamlet, North Carolina. He attended elementary school in Jacksonville, Florida, and high school at Porter Military Academy, a boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina, from which he graduated in 1949. As a result of his years there, John had a lifelong appreciation for Charleston and Porter and the surrounding area, to which he always enjoyed returning.

John met his future wife, Ulilla ("Lil") Treon, while he was at Porter. They became high school sweethearts and dated for several years before they wed. The marriage lasted nearly 63 years, ending only with Ulilla's death in 2015.

John received both his BS and MS from Emory University in Georgia, the latter in 1954. He then served in the Army for two years in Maryland. After that, he embarked on his PhD in 1957 at the University of Tennessee, working on the effects of radioactivity on forests. From thence John accepted employment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), where he spent the rest of his professional career.

John's division manager, Steven Kaye, noted that John took part in pioneering field ecosystem research at ORNL aimed at understanding the natural uptake mechanisms of radionuclides released to the environment, particularly forest ecosystems. A major contribution involved radiocesium uptake and cycling in tulip poplar trees, a common species in the southeastern United States. He also used his broad knowledge of natural environmental systems to evaluate and predict environmental impacts from nuclear operations.

John supervised many students during his time at ORNL, often bringing them home for barbecues with his family, and he was an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee for many years.

John was Sherri Cotter's supervisor from 1977 until he retired. Sherri said she found John to be incredibly smart and a very thoughtful and fair boss. She recalled that he could do dose assessments in his head. Although Sherri worked mostly on atmospheric doses with computer programs, John had the ability to estimate the dose from all pathways in his head—an incredible feat! Sherri believes that his true work-related "love" was botany, since most of his work in the Environmental Sciences Division (pre-1977) dealt with trees and plants. Sherri observed that John was a "regular" kind of guy—no pretense or big ego. She said he loved his wife Lil and his kids and was super crazy about his grandchildren.

John was a plenary member of the Health Physics Society from 1966 until 1991. He also was a prolific contributor to the Health Physics Journal and other scientific journals during his research days at ORNL, publishing many articles on radionuclides in the environment and the impact of radiation exposure on biota.

John's love for his adopted community was evident by his involvement in that community. He was an active member of First United Methodist Church for over 55 years and a subscriber to the Oak Ridge Playhouse for over 42 years. He had season tickets to the Oak Ridge Wildcats football games, occupying the same reserved seats for 41 years—he continued attending the games, despite failing health, through part of the most recent season. John's pastimes included hiking in the Smokies, supporting his daughters' Camp Fire Girl troops, and fishing at various spots in East Tennessee.

John was predeceased by his wife, Ulilla, and is survived by his five children and their spouses, Michael (Robyn), Sharon, Susan Reed (Rick), Robert (Judith), and Trish Spore (Richard). He is also survived by nine grandchildren, Marco Jowell, Adam Jowell, Stephanie Reed, Shannon Tiezzi, Travis Reed, Zachary Witherspoon, Hayden Witherspoon, Kelsey Frix, and Caroline Spore.