John Wortman, mathematician, 75, investigated blast on the Iowa

March 11, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

John D. Wortman, a retired mathematician for the federal government who investigated the deadly explosion aboard the battleship Iowa in 1989, died Monday of cancer at his Havre de Grace home. He was 75.

For 38 years, he calculated studies at the Ballistics Research Lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where he worked in the early days of the space exploration program. He was among the first scientists there who programmed the early digital ORDVAC - ordnance discrete variable automatic - computer, a device built at the University of Illinois for the federal government.

In the 1950s, he ran a simulation on the ORDVAC of a missile warhead then under development. His research helped the United States evaluate the weapon's performance.

"He was a good mathematician and a good programmer in the days when programming was not nearly as common as it is now," said Norman Arnold, a friend and former co-worker who lives in McLean, Va. "I always thought of John as a gentleman. He also had a beautiful voice - a fine baritone."

When a 1989 explosion aboard the battleship Iowa killed 47 sailors in a gun turret, he was part of a team that studied the cause, then a topic of considerable debate. He believed that the incident was caused by contaminated gunpowder and that the deadly blast was not an act of suicidal sabotage by a despondent sailor. He delayed his federal retirement to complete his examination.

After he retired, he became one of Harford County's most active bird watchers. He planned and led bird walks, counts and banding exercises. He enjoyed watching the hawks, warblers, sparrows and waterfowl of the Upper Chesapeake. Friends said he had an uncanny ability to identify birds.

"He had been bird-watching all his life, and he could look at a bird and say, `That's a savanna sparrow,'" said David Seitz, a birding colleague and friend who lives in Bel Air. "He was quiet, calm ... just a good man, he never bragged. You could count on him for everything."

A member of the Harford County Ornithological Society, he also volunteered at Harford Glen Environmental Center in Bel Air, where he taught bird recognition to fifth-graders. Under the direction of a licensed bird-bander, he helped net birds that were later banded and freed.

Named the Harford County Salvation Army's Volunteer of the Year in 1998, he also gave time to Grace Place, a Havre de Grace food kitchen.

Born in Union, Ore., he attended a rural one-room school there and built the fire in an iron stove each morning. At 13, he began working on the Miller ranch, a cattle operation near Union. He initially tended the garden, kept the chickens and did yard work. He later learned to ride a horse and brand cattle. In his 70s, relatives said, he recalled that the ranch work had its perils - his lung was once punctured by a sharp rake.

He left the job when he was drafted into the Army on his 18th birthday. He flew 21 missions over Germany in a B-17 Flying Fortress. He was discharged with the rank of staff sergeant.

After the war, he attended the University of Oregon, where he received a degree in mathematics.

In 1953, he married the former Lorna Elligsen, who survives him.

Funeral services will be held at 3 p.m. today at the Havre de Grace United Methodist Church, Congress and Union streets, where he was a member and choir soloist.

He also is survived by two sons, Warren Wortman of Columbia and Odin Wortman of Elkridge; a daughter, Adel Wortman of Laurel; and five grandchildren.

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