The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Al Parr Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

June 18, 2014


Albert Clarence Parr was born in Tooele, Utah in 1942, where his father worked in the copper mines and in the Army Depot during World War II. After the war, the family decided to leave Utah for Roseburg, Oregon. Parr spent most of his childhood in Roseburg with his older brother and younger sister; his mother worked as a teacher and his father worked in the town's saw and plywood mills.

Parr's early interests in science, math, and radios led to a focus, in college, on physics and electronics. He began attending OSU in 1960, initially drawn by a Naval ROTC scholarship and the school's strong science program. Enrolled in the honors program at OSU, Parr double majored in physics and mathematics, and also assisted a few of his professors with their research. An exceptional student, Parr completed two bachelors degrees during his four years at Oregon State, graduating in 1964 with commendations from the honors program as well.

His undergraduate studies completed, Parr next ventured to the University of Chicago for graduate school. Enrolled in the school's lauded physics program, Parr quickly began working in spectrometry and chemical physics as a research assistant. He received his MS in 1965 and entered the school's Ph.D program the following year, where he conducted research on photoionization using the lanthanide series of elements.

As a student in Chicago, Parr married and, with his wife Ruth, started a family. In 1971, when Parr received his Ph.D, the family moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama where Parr had accepted a position as assistant professor of physics at the University of Alabama.

While at the University of Alabama, Parr found it difficult to balance his research and teaching with the constant obligation to search for funding. When the university closed its physics building for renovations in 1978, Parr took a sabbatical, travelling to Washington, D.C. to conduct research at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). During his stay, he worked with threshold photoelectron spectroscopy to study molecular processes in small molecules. He also helped to build an electron spectrometer system.

When the University of Alabama did not complete its renovations within the projected timeframe, Parr chose to remain at NBS for a second year to continue his research. During that second year, Parr was offered a staff position at NBS and decided not to return to Alabama. Instead, he joined a team of scientists in the Synchrotron Ultraviolet Radiation Facility at NBS (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST). The group worked with synchrotron radiation using electron spectrometers to conduct angle-resolved photoionization studies.

In 1986, Parr was promoted to group leader of the Spectral Radiometry Group of the NBS Radiometric Physics Division. In this capacity, Parr worked to develop and maintain standards of optical measurements for use by the entire scientific community. The position led Parr and his team to collaborate with industrial partners like Xerox, Kodak, and 3M. He also worked with the Department of Defense to develop satellites used for national security programs, one outcome of which was the creation of a new facility and techniques for calibrating instruments at five degrees Kelvin. Parr likewise worked with NASA on satellite calibration, and with other agencies, including the CIA, interested in sophisticated sensor systems. In 1991, Parr was promoted again, to Chief of the Optical Technology Division at NIST.

Parr retired in 2007 and moved back to Oregon, where he continues to consult with NIST on space-based radiometry and with Kaiser Permanente on issues of quality management in a professional environment. He has also spent more than three decades collecting rare books and is a member of the OSU Libraries Advisory Council. In 2012, the OSU Libraries became home to the Al and Ruth Parr Rare Book Collection, which consists of more than four-hundred volumes focusing on the history of science, travels and voyages, religion, and early printed books.