A building is not sacred. A church or a temple, no matter how old, or big, or beautiful, by itself is not sacred. It’s the attitude of the people and the things that people do in a building that make it sacred or not. I have met many people in the home performance field who quietly go about the work of making homes sacred places; places that serve a higher purpose than just making money for the contractor or builder; buildings that are affordable to live in, that are healthy environments, and that house people in comfort. I want to celebrate these quiet heroes, and someone very important to me who contributed to the healing of the planet we all call home.
My father, Thomas Bernard Gunshinan, died of cancer at the age of 85 last December. He grew up in Long Island and went into the Navy at 17 so he could be in the War before it ended. To him and many others of his age it seemed like a chance for an adventure. He was a radioman on a small, shallow draft boat that went through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to China and back twice to do harbor control in Shanghai and bring supplies up the Yangtze River for the Chinese fighting in the war. Dad talked of the White Russians he met in Shanghai, who all looked lost and forlorn to him. And he talked about the grace and dignity of the Chinese workers, called “coolies” at the time, who carried heavy burdens, both physical and otherwise. He came back and went to Catholic University for an electrical engineering degree through the GI Bill, got married, and had two kids already when he was recalled for the Korean War, this time to work in communications in Norfolk, Virginia.
After college Dad worked for the Navy and then NASA from its beginnings in the mid-60s to the mid-80s, when he retired at 61 to take care of my mother who was dying of cancer. As with most kids, I didn't think too much about what my dad did for a living when I was young, although we made plenty of trips to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he worked, for holiday parties and once I remember to see a launch on closed circuit TV. With his crew cut and pocket protectors, Dad was not cool or hip. And his attempts to help us read the bands on electronic resistors proved frustrating to him and my brothers and I. (We did manage to build a Heathkit oscilloscope together, though it was mostly his work. It was the sixties and seventies, and so we hooked up the oscilloscope to a reel-to-reel stereo system and made our own light shows with the music of Jimi Hendrix, Lead Zeppelin, Yes, and Iron Butterfly’s “Inagodadavida” with it’s awesome drum solo.)
But now I know Dad had an impressive resume. He was an electrical engineer and Quality Assurance engineer who was responsible for the testing and operation of the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO) (the precursor to the Hubble), TIROS Series weather satellites, the Sea Air Rescue Satellite (SARSAT), the Geostationary Orbiting Environmental Satellite (GOES), and finally the living and scientific quarters of the International Space Station. He retired while the space station was still a political football and they never could focus on a mission or a design, or a budget.
All the satellites my father worked on, the ones that made it into orbit, exceeded their design life. (One of the OAO satellites never made it into orbit, but that was the Air Force’s fault. The “shroud” that held the satellite on top of the rocket never opened and it fell into the Indian Ocean when it couldn’t maintain its orbit. NASA fished the satellite out of the ocean and cut up the solar panels and gave the project crew a piece on a plaque as a strange memento of the failed launch. Did I say it was the Air Force’s fault?) The satellites Dad worked on were the early weather and scientific and environmental satellites that measured infrared temperatures and surface albedo, and provided other data that made the work of early environmental scientists and climate change research possible. I don’t know how many lives his TIROS weather predictions and the Sea Air Rescue Satellites (SARSAT) saved, but it was many.
Dad never got any major awards and he was never written up in the Washington Post. His boss at NASA hired him, gave him a high level of responsibility, but took 13 years to pay him accordingly. I know it pained my Dad a lot, especially with six kids to take care of, but we did fine and he wasn't someone who needed or sought celebrity or riches. He always considered it a privilege to serve the country. His work was fascinating and rewarding in itself. And he came home every day at 5:20 pm for dinner with my Mom and us six kids in a 1,400 square foot Rambler in Silver Spring, Maryland. My grandparents (Mom’s side) lived for several years in a basement apartment my parents built for them.
Like a lot of you in the home performance field, who every day do something to make homes more comfortable, efficient, and healthy to live in, my Dad sacrificed his life, not dramatically, but each day for the good of others. For many of you, the houses you work on, by your actions and attitude, become sacred. My Dad’s work was sacred work and I think he and a lot of other engineers at NASA, RCA, and other government contractors made a lot of satellites, some of them still pumping out useful data, sacred objects in the sky. Dad’s sacrifice was spread out over a lifetime. He was paid for his work and it allowed him and my mother to raise a family and see that we all grew up to be productive, hard working, and honest citizens. (At least I can speak for my three brothers and two sisters and not for myself.)
Thank you all who put your heart and soul into the work of home performance. And thank you Dad. Your love and strength and good heart will live forever. And your satellites are living for a heck of a long time too.