Warren Washington (Finding Aid)

Warren Washington

1936 -

Favorite Color: Blue

Favorite Food: Italian Food

Favorite Time of Year: Summer

Favorite Vacation Spot: Europe (France and Italy)

Interview Length: 166 minutes

Interview Date(s): April 20, 2006

Interview Location(s): National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO


Warren Washington begins by talking about his family background. His mother, Dorothy Grace Morton, taught Washington proper English and was a very articulate person. Washington's maternal grandmother, Bessie was from Texas, and his maternal grandfather, Wirt, was very religious. Together, they moved to Oregon. Bessie was the first free generation of her family, and Wert came from an upper-middle-class family in Virginia. Washington's father was originally named George Washington, but he didn't like that and changed it to Edwin Washington. Edwin was a waiter for the Union Pacific Railroad and had a college degree. Washington's paternal grandfather, George, owned a store in Birmingham, Alabama. Washington's parents met at a dance but his father was often away so they wrote many love letters to each other.

Warren Washington continues to talk about his family and his childhood. His paternal grandparents were Morton and Isadora, and he had a cousin who went to an all-white academy and then graduated from Harvard. Washington was the third of five siblings including, Edwin, Ronald, Darryl, and Glenn. His remembers going to church on Sundays and singing in the choir. He was also in the Boy Scouts, which was integrated at the time. Washington attended Highland Grade School and Jefferson High School, where he was the vice president of the Junior NAACP. Washington recalls that his mother and his teachers encouraged his interest in science. At Oregon State University, Washington worked at the Good Samaritan hospital.

Warren Washington talks about the lack of segregation in Oregon, and that a lot of African Americans had moved there to help during World War II. Washington's uncle, however, fought in the war and said that he was treated poorly in the segregated military. Mr. Wood, a mentor of Washington's, recognized his physics ability, but his counselor told him he should go to business school, not college. At Oregon State University, there weren't a lot of black students, and Washington took difficult physics curriculum. His roommate had never really interacted with a black person before, but they became friends. Washington joined Alpha Phi Alpha after he and a group of peers went to the Oregon State University president to protest segregated Greek life to no avail.

Warren Washington talks about his graduate school experience at Penn State University where he earned his Ph.D. Washington's dissertation examined the atmosphere in relation to physics, and he created early computer models for weather forecasting. He was hired at NCAR as a young Ph.D., and though he was the first African American in his position, there was not a lot of racial prejudice - he mentioned it was probably because of his scientific status. Washington was appointed to the National Science Board by President Bill Clinton for a six-year term and was reappointed before Clinton left office. President Jimmy Carter also appointed Washington to the Committee on Oceans and Atmospheres. Washington recalls that his parents didn't completely understand, but he used to send them clips of his accomplishments.

Warren Washington comments on the differences between President Ronald Regan and Jimmy Carter, and also says that President George Bush's Chief of Staff misquoted him in an attempt to make it look like climate change was not a big deal. Washington was working with weather models to simulate real climate conditions and noted that there was significant change happening in terms of global warming, especially in the sub-tropics, which are populated by poor people. Washington explains how disasters like Hurricane Katrina can often be attributed to global warming. As Chair of the National Science Board, Washington attended appropriations hearings, and in one instance he was asked about the idea of sending people to the moon and Mars, but he concluded that it would have a negative effect on the budget.

Warren Washington continues to talk about his work under several U.S. presidents, and at the insistence of Al Gore, Washington's team got faster computers. He then goes on to talk about his mentees at Penn State University. One student said that Washington was the reason she went into science. Among his awards and honors, Washington received the E.B. Lemon Distinguished Alumni Award, the National Academy of Engineering award, an honor at Reed College, and became an honorary member of the American Neurological Society. Washington says that the most rewarding part of his career was working at CNAR and writing a book with Claire Parkinson on the climate system. He stepped down as Chair of the National Science Board in 2006.

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