Terence T. Finn, author and retired NASA executive, dies at 71

Terence Finn
Terence Finn (Courtesy of Heather Joiner, Baltimore Sun)

Terence T. Finn, a retired NASA executive who boosted the Space Shuttle program and whose passion for military history fueled four books on the subject, died June 27 of a blood platelet disorder. The Eastern Shore resident was 71.

Dr. Finn, a New York native, spent his working life in the Washington area as a federal employee, first as a legislative assistant to Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, a Maryland Democrat. Dr. Finn worked on Capitol Hill from 1966 to 1977, in staff positions that included senior counsel for energy, science and space at the Senate Budget Committee.


He then went to NASA, where he worked from 1977 to 1994. One of his proudest accomplishments was helping the agency receive the continued funding it needed to build the Space Shuttle.

"He was legislative director of affairs when the shuttle was under development — and constantly over budget — so he had the privilege of going to Capitol Hill many, many, many times with the NASA administrator and others to secure a supplemental budget for the shuttle in order to keep it being developed," said his wife of nearly 20 years, Joyce Purcell. "Terry was a big, big supporter of manned space flight."


He also served as an original member of the agency's Space Station Task Force and as director of policy and plans for NASA's Office of Space Flight.

In the midst of that work, Dr. Finn made time for academic pursuits. He earned a doctorate in American government from Georgetown University in 1973, building on the education he received at Williams College in Massachusetts — where he earned his bachelor's in 1964 — and at the University of Sussex in England, where he earned a master's degree.

While at NASA, he taught graduate students on the side at American, Catholic and George Washington universities about the inner workings of the nation's capital, from budgets to lobbying to the way bills become law.

Later, while retired on the Eastern Shore, Dr. Finn taught a course in political science at Washington College in Chestertown and drew on his deep familiarity of military history for illustrated lecture courses through the college's Academy of Lifelong Learning.

"He was a lifelong reader, and always interested in history from the time he could read," said Mrs. Purcell. "He was extremely knowledgeable about pretty much all U.S. military history, but particularly World War II."

They planned to take their children next year to Normandy in France, a region he had visited twice before. The first time, Mrs. Purcell said, "we hired a private guide to take us around, and he knew a lot more than the private guide about Normandy and World War II."

Richard Kalter, a friend who lives just outside Chestertown, said Dr. Finn also knew more about military aircraft than museum docents.

They took a trip to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio, and "there was not a plane in any of their four hangars that he did not know the history of and what it was good for," Mr. Kalter said. "Remarkable, because he was not a pilot."

In retirement, Dr. Finn's passion for history drove him to write four books.

Two were war novels: "The Best of Times," following an American P-47 pilot in England during World War II, and "To Begin Again," about a professor recalled to the Air Force during the Korean War.

He also wrote two nonfiction accounts: "When Europe Went Mad," about World War I, and "America at War: Concise Histories of U.S. Military Conflicts from Lexington to Afghanistan." The latter was published by a Penguin imprint in January and drew praise from retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey: "This book should be essential reading for students of U.S. history and military officers around the world."

Dr. Finn wrote his books on yellow legal pads, handing them over to Mrs. Purcell to decipher, type up and edit. A hunt-and-peck typist, he organized his thoughts better with a No. 2 pencil — on index cards first, then on paper.


She said he explained his pursuit this way: "When you retire, you have no excuse not to do those things you wish to do, and I wanted to write books."

Dr. Finn's first wife, the former Leslie Kohn of Baltimore, died in 1993. He married Mrs. Purcell in September 1994, after they both retired.

The couple lived in Chevy Chase for about 10 years, then moved to Tolchester, near Chestertown, to a house they built on a bluff overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.

Dr. Finn volunteered at several local organizations in the area, serving as vice president of the Chester River Association, vice president of the Tolchester Community Association and as a board member of the Kent County Public Library's foundation.

A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Aug. 10 at Washington College's Gibson Center for the Arts in the Decker Theatre.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Finn is survived by his sons, Kevin Finn of Poolesville and Timothy Finn of Somerville, Mass.; his stepson, Daniel Schneider of Chicago; and his brother, John Finn of Alpharetta, Georgia.


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