Interview with Sally Slate
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Bauman: Say your name and spell your last name for us?
Sally Slate: Okay. Sally Slate. S-L-A-T-E.
Bauman: Okay. My name’s Robert Bauman and today’s date is August 5th of 2015. We’re conducting this interview at Sally Slate’s home in Richland, Washington. So let’s—if we could, start by having you give us some background information on when you came to the Tri-Cities, what brought you here?
Slate: Well, I was a new graduate from the University of Idaho in June of 1955. I guess I was attracted to this area because I was going with a young man that still had a couple of years of schooling, and I wanted to be kind of close to the University of Idaho for him. Unfortunately, we broke up. [LAUGHTER] But I came as a tech grad for GE. These were three-month assignments where we rotated different assignments. My first assignment was to open up the chemistry lab at PUREX building that was still under construction.
Bauman: And were you familiar with Hanford before you came here? Did you know much about the place?
Slate: Yes, I was, because we have an atomic energy site near southern Idaho, and my father was working there. So I was quite well-informed. In fact, I’d taken some classes in nuclear energy.
Bauman: And had you been to Richland or the Tri-Cities before?
Bauman: And did you have a first impression when you arrived?
Slate: Well, everybody had told me that I was going to hate it, that it was desolate, sagebrush. I came here and I thought, gee, I’m at home! Snake River’s just around the corner. And [LAUGHTER] sagebrush, I’m well-acquainted with. Potato fields? Yes. And also, I felt very comfortable.
Bauman: So you said your first job was opening up the chem lab at PUREX.
Bauman: Can you describe what that was like? What that work was like?
Slate: It was doing a lot of dish-washing. Because everything had to be taken out of the boxes, we had to figure out where to put it in the lab, we had to get the equipment set up and tested. There were two or three of us doing that job.
Bauman: And can you maybe explain what PUREX was, for [INAUDIBLE]?
Slate: PUREX is the separations plant that was—the fuel went in on one end of the building and made a continuous run and we got the plutonium and uranium separated at the end. The REDOX Plant, you had to do it in batches. But this was a continuous process, so it was going to be a little more efficient. As I say, it had not been—they were still under construction at the time that I was out there. And unfortunately, when we got here, nobody had Q clearances, and they thought that we needed Q clearances. So they set us in the unclassified library until they finally figured out that, oh, our clearances are all sitting on somebody’s desk and he’s on vacation, and you don’t need a Q clearance anyways, so put them to work! [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: So that was your first job. Where did you go from there?
Slate: Oh. The next job was at the REDOX Plant. It was not really a happy experience. I wanted to be in the lab. As a woman chemist, I don’t think they appreciated women chemists in the lab at that time. It was trying to put together a compilation of all of the procedures that were being done, and trying to classify them so that if we got some kind of an assignment, you had to—okay, we need this analysis done. What procedures do we have available to do it? And it was well before the capabilities of our computer systems and everything now. I just didn’t appreciate that assignment. Then I went into the classified library as an abstractor. Where I had to read all of the classified—we were one of four—reading classified materials that came in. Everything from books to reports and anything generated that came into the library. We had to write a small paragraph about what the—without saying anything classified. We did bibliographies, computer searches. Except it wasn’t a computer search, it was a search of the index cards and made up answered questions that would come in. That was an interesting job. But it wasn’t as fun as being in the lab.
Bauman: And how long did you work there in the classified library?
Slate: Well, that was pretty much—well, that was a permanent position.
Bauman: Oh, okay.
Slate: I worked there until I had been married and was expecting a child. And then they required me to quit.
Bauman: Okay. So you talked about being a woman chemist and it didn’t seem like you were really welcome in the lab, or that they wanted—were there other women chemists around at the time?
Slate: There were a few. There was a couple of others. Actually—let’s see. I’m thinking as the abstractors, the other chemist who was an abstractor was a mathematician. And the other woman was a mathematician. They were drawing the abstractors from the scientific fields, because you could teach somebody to be an abstractor, but you couldn’t teach the scientific part of it as easily.
Bauman: Right. So was it a GE policy that when you were married and—
Bauman: --you had to quit?
Slate: Yes. Five months, period.
Bauman: Oh, you had five months after you—
Slate: After you got pregnant.
Bauman: After you got pregnant, that you could work and then you had to quit.
Slate: That was routine. When I got to working in Idaho for Argonne National Lab, they said I could I work as long as I wanted. As long as I could do the job. Phillips Petroleum says, we think you’re pregnant. Prove it that you’re not. Otherwise, you’re gone. There’s definite bias there.
Bauman: Oh yeah.
Slate: They didn’t want us riding the bus.
Slate: And I was riding a bus 75 miles each way. Twice a day.
Bauman: Do you know when that policy changed?
Slate: I don’t. Because my next experience out here was in the ‘70s. And by that time, the policy had changed.
Bauman: Sometime in between there.
Slate: Sometime in between.
Bauman: Yeah, it changed. So let’s talk about transportation. You said you had to ride a bus out?
Bauman: Pretty much every day?
Slate: Here in Richland, we had the buses. They would pick up at specified places along the—in town. Or you could drive your car out to the big bus lot, and leave your car there and transfer to the bus that you were going to be going out into the Area on.
Bauman: Okay. And where was the lot at?
Slate: Oh, go out Stevens, on the left-hand side as you go out Stevens.
Bauman: Oh, okay.
Slate: They’ve transformed it into—part of it was an area where the police are doing training. After they had just redone the parking lot and spent millions doing the parking lot, then they decided, oh, we’ll close the buses down. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: I wanted to ask you about housing when you arrived in Richland. What sort of housing was available, or wasn’t available?
Slate: Well, when you first come, you check into the Desert Inn, which was the only hotel in town. Then you check with the Housing Authority, and the housing office assigns you housing according to your job, and your status—your marital status. And being single, I was assigned to one of the dormitories. And we still see the dormitories around. W-5 was just off of Lee—Lee and Knight. It was definitely a dormitory. It had a house mother. Doors were closed on the weekdays at 10:00 at night. The doors were locked. It was later than that for the weekends. But you had a little room, furnished. If you took the furniture out and put your own furniture in, you couldn’t get their furniture back if you changed your mind. It was cheap.
Bauman: Do you remember how much it cost?
Slate: I don’t. But something--$20 a month or less.
Bauman: And so how long did you stay in the dorm then?
Slate: I stayed in the dorm until—well, I went into a private apartment with a friend. And then we got married and went into a two-bedroom prefab down here.
Bauman: Oh, okay, sure.
Slate: In the south end of town. When those houses went up for sale, we could have bought that house for $1,875. [LAUGHTER] Yeah. We thought it was too small for us, because by then we had two small children. We bought a pre-cut. Three-bedroom pre-cut from a friend. They didn’t want the house, but if they had just moved into the house that they were going to buy, they would have had to remove all of the improvements that they’d put into the house, which included the wall-to-wall carpeting, drapes, electrical for a dryer, a fenced-in backyard. All of that would have had to have been removed. And they would have lost all of that investment. So they bought the house and sold it immediately to us at a slightly higher price to accommodate for their investments.
Bauman: How would you describe Richland in the ‘50s? I know it was a government town, still, when you—
Slate: It was government town, yeah. Everything. The schools were—GE ran it all for the government. Police department, schools—just about all of the—anything that had to do with the town.
Bauman: And did that change significantly when it sort of became its own city, then?
Slate: It was very gradual. They started selling the houses—we became a town in October of ’57? ’57. And the houses were being sold in ’58. Early ’58, we bought our house on Smith.
Bauman: I know one of the events from the community happenings or things was when President Kennedy came to visit in 1963. Were you here then?
Slate: ’63, we were not.
Bauman: Oh, had you—
Slate: We had left. Took a while to wander around to Idaho and Washington, but kept coming closer and closer, and finally said, we got to go home.
Bauman: You talked about having to get a—well, you thought you had to get your Q clearance, then didn’t have to get a Q clearance. What was security like at Hanford at the time? Would that impact your work—I mean you were working in classified libraries, so that part--
Slate: Yeah. You could get into—up to the 300 Area. But there was a barrier there. You couldn’t go through the barrier without a clearance. You had to have at least a Q clearance—or not a Q clearance, a Nil clearance is what they called it, was the beginning clearance. But then to get into the 200 Area, and to get into Two West, you had to have a Q clearance. That was just—you had a badge and it had your type of clearance on it. If you were working around the areas where there was a lot of radiation or potential radiation, then you’d wear pencils, and you might wear a ring. The ring would be checked weekly, and if it showed anything, then they would check your badge. Badges were changed out, I think, on a monthly basis. I never was in a situation where I accumulated anything. You had hand and shoe counters that you had to check into the building and check out of the building—using the hand and shoe counters to make sure you weren’t carrying anything there. Because those would be the two areas that would be most apt to pick up something.
Bauman: So where was the classified library located?
Slate: In the 300 Area. The building is still there. I don’t remember the building number. It was across from 319.
Bauman: And you mentioned—so you got married in—
Slate: In March of ’56.
Bauman: Okay, and did your husband also work at Hanford then?
Bauman: And what area did he work in?
Slate: He was at Three West Area. The REDOX area.
Slate: We happened to be riding the same bus together.
Bauman: Is that how you met?
Slate: Actually, we met at the Mart cafeteria. That building on Lee and Knight that has Sirs and Hers Barbershop and had a gun shop in there. But at that time it was a 24-hour cafeteria. There was a drugstore in part of it. And there was a jewelry store up front and a little lounge area, the Evergreen Lounge, in the back. We’d just—I’d just gotten off of my first day of swing shift.
Slate: And he had just gotten off work. We were in there having coffee. The girl I was with knew him, and knew the other fellow that he was with. But then I discovered that we rode the same bus. Or, rather, I made sure we rode the same bus. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: So how was Hanford as a place to work, then? I know you talked about not really being able to work as a chemist [INAUDIBLE]
Slate: Well, I don’t think it was any different than working anywhere else at that time. Because there were restrictions everywhere. My original plan when going to college—I wanted to be a veterinarian. And after one year of pre-vet being the only girl in the School of Agriculture, I was told there was no way in hell that a woman would be accepted into the School—
Slate: --of Veterinary Science. And that I needed to choose something else. So, I went into chemistry, which is another love that I had. I was one of two women—first two that had graduated in chemistry in five years from the University of Idaho. And now, you know what percentage of women are. Far more women than men. And the same veterinary school now.
Bauman: Sorry about that. Talking about Richland, I was going to ask you one other question about the town. In terms of entertainment or things to do for fun, what was there in the area in 1955, ’56?
Slate: Well, pretty much the same things that we have now. The Richland Players was a movie house at that time. The roller skating rink was there. We could ride horses—we could rent horses out on Van Giesen. Boating. Pretty much the same mix of things that we have now. At that time, we had the symphony, we had Richland Players, although they were having their plays in the schools at that time. But those were the things—and bowling.
Bauman: So when did you move away from Richland, and when did you come back then?
Slate: Oh. We left in ’58, ’59. We left in ’59—June of ’59. And we came back for good in ’71.
Bauman: Had the place changed a lot in that time?
Slate: Grown! Yes. Not so much Richland. Although it was beginning to grow. But the areas between Richland and Kennewick that used to be grapevines and all kinds of farmland where Columbia Center was getting started and it just—I didn’t know my way around.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Are there any things I haven’t asked you, or anything you’d like to talk about that you haven’t had a chance to talk about yet, in terms of your work at Hanford, or--?
Slate: At Hanford? Of the early years?
Slate: I don’t know. I enjoyed it very much. It was very mentally stimulating. And even the recreational things that were here were—because we had the symphony, we had the Richland Players. And it’s good to see that they are growing. If we’d only get our performing arts center.
Bauman: I’m with you on that. [LAUGHTER]
Man three: We’re with you.
Slate: And they’re saying 20, 30 years, and I don’t have that many years left, I’m afraid.
Bauman: Well, I want to thank you very much for letting us come to your home and interview you, talk to you. I appreciate your sharing your experiences with us very much.
Slate: Well, it’s been kind of interesting, thinking back to those days.
Man three: I had a quick question, comment.
Man three: So when you were in the labs—
Man three: What would you do? What were you doing in, like the PUREX or the—what sort of thing would you do?
Slate: Oh. Well, the laboratory was an analytical lab. And they were divided into hot sections and cold sections. The hot section would receive the really radioactive materials that had to be handled in big glass-enclosed, with lead—a glass so wide. But I was never involved in that real high level. By the time I got things, it was down to the very low level radioactive materials that we could handle in a hood with ventilation. We wore just a lab coat. I’m trying to think if we even, in those days—I don’t think even at REDOX that I was involved with anything higher than just very low level materials. And we would separate out the plutonium or the uranium out of the fraction that we got, and would pipette it onto steel planchets. Little steel discs. And then the discs would go downstairs to the counting lab, and would be put into the counting lab and they would determine how many counts per minute were coming off of that. That would tell them the amount of radiation that there was, the amount of material that there was in that. We did everything in duplicates and triplicates, to make sure that we hadn’t made a mistake.
Slate: Most everything was done triplicates.
Man three: So you didn’t work in the hot cells because of gender?
Slate: No, no. I didn’t work in the hot cells because I didn’t work in the—I was never assigned to it.
Man three: But that wasn’t a gender-based—
Man three: I was trying to—
Slate: No, I don’t think it was gender-based at all.
Man three: The other question I had was—so, GE and stuff, if you were five months pregnant, then that was the time to separate.
Man three: Did you have a job to come back to, or that was terminated?
Slate: [LAUGHTER] You had a job to come back to if there was a job available. That was part of the reasoning, they said, oh, that going into the classified laboratory was perfect for you, because there’ll always be a job available. Little did they know that computers were coming along, and computers were going to do all the abstracting and all the bibliography. You’d punch in a question and they’d come out with all the answers of here’s the materials that we have available on that subject. So computers did away with that job.
Bauman: Right. Had your old job been available, would you have had it, or would you have had to reapply?
Slate: I would have had to reapply.
Bauman: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.
Slate: Yeah, it wasn’t an automatic thing.
Slate: You were expected, as a young married mother, to stay home with your children. At least until they got into school. That wasn’t to say that there weren’t people who went back to work right away. But it was not the usual thing. Of course, I wanted to be able to stay home with the kids. By the time I had three, I had to go to work. [LAUGHTER] By that time, I started looking around and thinking, well, what can I do? I can go back to school and get a job as a teacher. So I got my teaching degree. And I taught school for five years until we decided we got to go home, we got to come back here to Richland. And that’s when I got back into the chemistry.
Bauman: All right, well, thank you again very much.
Man three: Thanks.
Bauman: I really appreciate your time and letting us come in here. [LAUGHTER]
Man one: Okay.