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Kenneth D. Claborn, engineer

Bendix Radio Corp. electrical engineer built antennas to track the Soviet Sputnik and volunteered at domestic violence home

By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

4:39 PM EST, January 9, 2014

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Kenneth Dale Claborn, a retired Bendix Radio Corp. senior project engineer who worked throughout the Cold War, died Dec. 24 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at his home in The Villages, Fla. He was 89 and had lived in Perryville and Parkton.

Born in Texline, Texas, and raised in Sterley, Texas, he followed his father, Leonard Claborn, around the engine house he maintained for the Fort Worth and Denver Railway. His mother, Oleta Stauffer, was a homemaker and quilter.

"My dad developed an early love of mechanics and railroading," said his son, David W. Claborn of Marion, Ohio. "As a teenager, he became adept at oiling and maintaining the steam engines. He told stories of backing the engines in and out of the shop, no doubt in violation of numerous railroad regulations."

During World War II, he served in the Army Medical Corps in France. He landed at Omaha Beach during the June 1944 invasion.

After the war, he earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

"He was not a stellar student and he struggled," his son said. "But he had mechanical ability and could build anything. He was as much practical and pragmatic as he was theoretical."

In early 1953, he moved to Maryland and joined Bendix Radio on East Joppa Road in Towson. There he did work that was then classified. He worked on antenna designs for the Patriot missile and NASA spacecraft in his 35 years there.

"In his 80s, he began talking about things that were once classified. One of the early projects he and several of his co-workers at Bendix accomplished was a design for a tracking antenna for the Navy when the Russians put Sputnik into orbit. Dad said Bendix got a somewhat panicked call from the Navy, asking if anyone there could design an antenna that could track the satellite," his son said.

Navy officials told Mr. Claborn and his colleagues they could hear the radio emissions — the beep-beeps — from the orbiting satellite but lacked the piece that goes in front of the parabolic reflector to be able to track it.

"So Dad and his buddies went to work on the project over a weekend. They put an antenna together out of some pipe, coaxial cable and fiberglass, then drove it down to Wallops Island, Va., where it was installed," his son said. "America was then able to track Sputnik. At the time, the fact the Russians had this thing up in the sky over our heads was quite disconcerting."

Mr. Claborn worked through the period of post-World War II tension in Germany.

"He told me about an antenna he designed once for a government contract. He believed it to be for the CIA. It was a small antenna that stuck out of the bottom of a Volkswagen that was made to look like a package delivery vehicle," his son said. "The packages were actually radio gear designed to be driven around in Berlin, so our side could listen to the transmissions of the other side."

His son said his father designed a Patriot missile acquisition antenna.

"It allows the missile to home in on the incoming missiles and blow them up before they have a chance to hit their targets," he said.

He also designed a number of antennas for NASA, including one used on the Gemini spacecraft. He held several patents and retired in 1988 as a senior projects engineer.

Mr. Claborn was a consultant to Baltimore County and designed an antenna used by its police and fire departments. He also worked in civil defense.

He later worked at the AAI Corp. in Cockeysville.

Not everything Mr. Claborn built was adopted. He worked on an aircraft collision avoidance system, but Global Positioning System technology improved and rendered his unpractical.

Mr. Claborn lived for many years on a farm in Parkton, where he raised cattle and made wine. He also enjoyed bluegrass music and played guitar. After moving to Perryville, he became a handyman volunteer at the Cecil County Domestic Violence Shelter and helped veterans get to Sunday chapel services at the Perry Point Veterans Affairs Hospital.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Lee A. Patterson & Son Funeral Home, 1493 Clayton St. in Perryville.

Survivors include four other sons, George Claborn of Amherst, N.H., David B. Claborn of Bel Air, James Claborn of Stevenson and Douglas Claborn of Glen Rock, Pa.; a daughter, Janis Umetin of Havre de Grace; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife of 45 years, the former Lorraine Cook Nelson, died in 2011. His marriage to the former Margaret "Peggy" Warren Bacon ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com