Carol Jean Oen, biologist, feminist, information specialist, manager, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) retiree, died November 3, 2018 of a massive heart attack. Her life was characterized by her love of family and friends, love of learning, devotion to work and faithfulness to the Lutheran Church. Carol was born to Ila Filkov Blackey and Lawrence Blackey on April 19, 1934 in the small village of Egeland, North Dakota during one of the worst depression-era dust storms.
It takes a village. Her special village supporter was her godmother, Frieda Baerwald, who was with her mother as they waited, hoping the county’s only medical doctor would be able to drive the 14 miles to their house in the terrible dust storm. Frieda often took Carol to her house and later Carol often lived with Frieda during the winter school months. Carol’s parents divorced when she was three years old.
Carol enjoyed learning and thrived in the town’s twelve-year school. The total enrollment in the four-year high school was forty students. With only eight classmates, she sometimes said she graduated ninth from the bottom of her class, surprising people at such an “admission.” Everyone had to participate in extracurricular activities to create extra opportunities. Carol joined the girls’ basketball team, edited the school newspaper, played in the band, sang in the chorus, and acted in plays. When there was a dance in the wider area, Carol tried to be there, usually succeeding in finding a like-minded group of teenagers.
After high school graduation as class valedictorian in 1952, she attended the University of North Dakota for one year. There she met Ordean Oen, who was spending that year earning his master’s degree in physics. They married in June of 1953 and moved to Columbia, Missouri, where Ordean was a part-time instructor in physics as he pursued his doctorate at the University of Missouri.
Carol continued undergraduate work as a pre-med student, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1956 with Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi honors. Throughout her undergraduate years at the University of Missouri, she worked as part-time office manager for chemistry professor Dr. Norman Rabjohn, who also served as Organic Syntheses’ corporate secretary. In 1956, she was the first woman awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship at the University of Missouri. Two men also were so honored that year. Only two awards preceded these: one was to Ordean Oen in 1955, and another man had received the first NSF fellowship in 1954. This award provided financial support which allowed Carol to pursue a graduate degree in medical physiology and pharmacology at Missouri’s then brand-new, four-year medical school.
The Oen’s first child,Kristin, was born at the beginning of Carol’s junior year. Second child,Norman John, was born mid-semester of her senior year (she missed two days of school and work for that event). Third child, William, was born just as she finished her master’s research and thesis. Carol and Ordean spent the summer of 1957 at Oak Ridge, Tennessee where he worked in ORNL’s Solid State Division. Ordean accepted a permanent position at ORNL as soon as the formalities of his doctorate were completed. The Oens took up their long-time residency in Oak Ridge in September, 1958. Ordean became Dean in Oak Ridge, where everything seemed to begin with the letters “OR” to designate Oak Ridge.
Once in Oak Ridge, Carol became a real estate salesperson and supervised the construction of their dream home. She also volunteered with the local Planned Parenthood affiliate, was active in the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women and was a leader in Camp Fire Girls. She spent one semester teaching science at Robertsville Junior High in Oak Ridge where she pioneered the first sex education program in the Oak Ridge Public Schools.
Carol worked on a Euratom project building technical computer-based information resources for the Atomic Energy Commission’s Department of Technical Information Extension from 1965-1970. When the Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, broad-based information resources needed to be developed. Carol was invited to join the new Environmental Sciences Division at ORNL under Dr. Stanley Auerbach. Within six months she was named the first woman manager in his division where she was the founding director of the Environmental Sciences Information Center.
ORNL offered many, varied activities for Carol. From 1974 to 1978 she served as the Laboratory’s first full-time Industrial Cooperation Officer. She initiated ORNL’s participation in the prestigious I-R 100 Awards program. Her submissions to the I-R 100 Awards program (later R&D 100) began a still-unbroken series of annual ORNL winners. She was recognized by management as both a dreamer and a doer.
During Dean’s assignment to the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics near Munich, Germany, in 1977-78, Carol received a leave of absence from ORNL. Carol embraced the German language and culture and claimed the year spent in Germany was the most interesting year of her life. She continued to pursue opportunities to learn German regularly thereafter including 16 annual trips to attend Concordia College’s Adult German Week at Waldsee.
She enjoyed the Association for Women in Science, founding the local AWIS awards program with fellow members. One memorable award went to Dr. Mary Bunting, once an AEC commissioner and president of Radcliffe College. She supported part-time employment for technically trained women. A number of Oak Ridge women had the advantage of working under this program. They were called “Bunting Babies”. Dr. Bunting came to Oak Ridge to present a lecture, accept her award, and converse with many of her “Babies”. Meeting Dr. Bunting thrilled those who had benefited from her actions and Dr. Bunting loved talking to the individuals and receiving their belated, but personal thanks.
Carol studied and worked through an era of improvement in work situations for women. At ORNL, she hired a number of women, all of whom performed admirably under her mentorship. Carol’s mentoring skills positively impacted the careers of many of her co-workers. She worked hard to improve the work world for women and succeeded in some areas. She often told the story of a Laboratory Human Resources male staff member announcing that she was “asking for too much money for a woman”.
Retirement in 1989 brought new adventures, including 14 winters and summers in Breckenridge, Colorado, then moving to Mesa, Arizona, for winters filled with polka and ballroom dancing. Carol joined a writer’s group in Colorado, and continued as a writer. Several summers were spent writing articles for a weekly newspaper in North Dakota (where Dean goes in pursuit of wild fruit for his retirement activities – jelly and wine making). In Oak Ridge, Carol wrote poetry, freelance articles for magazines, and a senior romance novel, Songs That Remember, about Alzheimer’s and caregivers. She enjoyed being a writer. She taught memoir writing at the Oak Ridge Institute for Continued Learning, and wrote many of her own memoirs.
Carol was a faithful member of the Lutheran Church her entire life and was a member of Grace Lutheran Church in Oak Ridge for more than 60 years. She taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, Bible study groups, wrote profiles of church members for the church newsletter, helped edit Grace’s 50-year history volume, participated in both a church-wide writers’ group and planned to be in a new photography group, and danced in the square dance group. Favorite activities at Grace included being a charter member of the Tuesday Group and co-chairing the Building Committee from 1980-1983 with Nancy Munro.
Surviving family members include her spouse of over 65 years, Dean Oen, her three children, Kristin, Norman John, and William, five granddaughters and one grandson: Elizabeth and Katherine Stone, Rachel Novosad, Stephanie and Kelsey Zazanis, and Jonathan Oen. Carol loved her grandchildren and their mothers Kristin, Judy, Marina, and Ema.
The celebration of Carol’s life will be held on Saturday, November 17, 2018, at Grace Lutheran Church, 131 West Gettysburg Avenue, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The family will receive friends at 10 a.m., followed by a memorial service at 11 a.m., with a reception afterwards.
Carol strongly preferred memorial gifts in lieu of flowers. Memorial gifts may be sent to Grace Lutheran Church of Oak Ridge, or to The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, or to Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi.
- Date & Time: November 17, 2018 (10:00 am)
- Venue: Grace Lutheran Church
- Location: 131 W. Gettysburg AvenueOak Ridge, TN 37830
- Phone Number: (865) 483-3787
- Date & Time: November 17, 2018 (11:00 AM)
- Venue: Grace Lutheran Church
- Location: 131 W. Gettysburg Avenue Oak Ridge, TN 37830
- Phone Number: (865) 483-3787
- Date & Time: No Date & Time
- Venue: Grace Lutheran Church
- Location: Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi The Planned Parenthood Federation of America,