William (Bill) Spencer Gilbert, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, died peacefully on Aug. 26 in the Berkeley home where he had lived since 1967. He was active in Berkeley city governance and politics from the 1960s to 1980s. Bill’s positive attitude, his sharp intellect, and his unfailing sense of humor made him a pleasure to be around until the end. He was 95.
Bill was born on May 25, 1927, in Brooklyn, New York, and attended elementary school in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and high school in Kingston, New York. He was a precocious student and an intellect from an early age and was selected to compete on the QuizKids radio show, which was broadcast on the GE radio station in Schenectady, New York. Besides being an intellectual his entire life, he was an athlete as a youth, being a short distance sprinter. He continued to run at the UC track until 1989.
The U.S. Navy stationed Bill at its Treasure Island base from 1944-1945 working on radio communication. Immediately after the end of WWII, Bill enrolled at UC Berkeley where he received a bachelor’s in physics in 1948 and then a doctorate in 1952. Enjoying the camaraderie in Berkeley, he decided to settle here. After a short period at North American Aviation, where he met his future wife, Billie, he took a job at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he worked on projects with the goal of advancing the science of nuclear weaponry, in particular in the area of safety. One anecdote he has shared about his time at Livermore: because he was athletic, he was given the job of climbing to the top of a tall test pylon in the New Mexican desert to confirm the proper functioning of the Geiger counter that would be used to measure radiation levels during an upcoming nuclear bomb test.
After working at Lawrence Livermore for several years, Bill moved to Lawrence Berkeley Labs, where he could be an innovator in the new science of superconducting magnets, thus advancing pure science rather than contributing to the buildup of nuclear weapons. He felt the U.S. already had enough of them. He spent the bulk of his career at LBL designing and building superconducting magnets for particle accelerators. He traveled the world to collaborate with other top physicists in labs such as Fermilab in Illinois, Brookhaven National Lab in New York, Cern in Geneva, as well as similar facilities in China, Russia, France and Germany. His last big project was the Superconducting Super Collider, which would have been the largest and most energetic particle accelerator in the world but, after an expenditure of $4 billion, was canceled by Congress in 1993, two years after Bill retired.
Bill, and Billie, became involved in Berkeley politics through participation in the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association (CENA), where Bill served as president for many years. In the 1970s, CENA and other Berkeley neighborhood organizations fought hard to protect neighborhoods from the increasing encroachment of cars, advocating for the use of concrete diverters to force traffic onto main arterials instead of allowing it onto all the neighborhood streets. Bill also served on Berkeley’s Citizens Budget Commission (no longer in existence).
Bill was an avid athlete. Besides sprints, as a young man, he took up weightlifting with gusto, perfecting his own physique and foreshadowing a life-long focus on good health and fitness. Bill enjoyed road biking through the East Bay hills with his biking buddies from the lab, wearing his worn yellow windbreaker. And he and Billie were longtime members of the Berkeley Tennis Club, where Bill played into his 80s, enjoying his singles and doubles matches with several regular partners.
Billie died in 2005 and in 2011 Bill met his final love, Gail LaForge, at a Phi Beta Kappa conference in Asilomar where Gail’s friend whispered to her “that man is looking at you.” They lived happily together in Bill’s home in Berkeley for the past 11 years where they socialized with their friends from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and enjoyed wine tasting evenings with a group of likeminded wine lovers. He and Billie — and later Gail — also enjoyed festive evenings, often including dancing, at The Claremont Club. In addition to Gail, Bill is survived by his two children, April Gilbert of Berkeley and Eric Gilbert of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and his four grandchildren, Kelsey and Fraser Isbester and Spencer and Sawyer Gilbert. He will be very sorely missed by his family, friends, and his few remaining colleagues.