Mary Dee Grimm looks back across 62 years at INL

May 28, 2024

By Paul Menser

It all began with a coat…

Crazy as it might sound, Mary Dee Grimm’s lifelong appreciation for fashion was part of what attracted her to Idaho National Laboratory many years ago and kept her on board to become the longest serving employee in the lab’s history.

In the mid-1950s, when she was still Mary Dee Bitner, a schoolgirl in Iona, her older sister Alice Ann went to work as a secretary for Phillips Petroleum Co., the management and operations contractor for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s National Reactor Testing Station. Alice Ann was always generous with her earnings and bought her kid sister a new winter coat from Carroll’s, a downtown store in Idaho Falls where stylish, well-to-do women shopped. “I was thrilled to have a coat from Carroll’s,” said Grimm. “I would have been 10 or 11 years old. I certainly knew that upon high school graduation, I would apply for a Site job.”

Following her graduation in 1962, she started working at the Site in Technical Editing and publications. She worked a full year before starting college at Utah State University in the fall of 1963. Unfortunately, the money she’d saved wasn’t enough to complete a bachelor’s degree, and she had to drop out. There was little financial aid available to young  women then, although she also jokingly blames the old fashion itch she needed to scratch. “One of my funding problems was locating a neat little shoe shop in downtown Logan,” she said.

Mary Dee Grimm’s high school photo from 1962, the year she graduated from Bonneville High School and began working at the National Reactor Testing Station. 

She returned to the Site, this time for good. Over six decades, she has seen seven contractors come and go. As opportunities for women at the lab expanded, she became a supervisor and then a manager. Just short of 62 years, most recently as a business manager for Battelle Energy Alliance in INL’s Facilities and Site Services directorate, she finally decided to call it a career.

“Mary Dee has been a key member of the Facilities and Site Services team, with an institutional memory that will be missed,” said F&SS Director Carlo Melbihess. “If you ask me what her greatest contribution has been, I would have to say it is her mastery of the complexity of the F&SS budget and her ability to always end the fiscal year within the targets established, even during the most challenging times.”

As a mentor and friend, she is highly regarded and well loved. “She was always patient and kind,” Melbihess said. What will he miss most? “Her amazing stories about the history of the lab and all her personal experiences and lessons learned.”

“I have been extremely fortunate,” Grimm said. “My bosses have been very supportive and never told me I could not do something. I think it would be difficult today to do what I’ve done without a degree.”

Mary Dee Grimm.

A close-knit community

Starting out, she knew she would be working at the desert Site and not in Idaho Falls. “There was a limited amount of office space in town, so everyone who got a job knew they would be riding the bus every day,” she said.

Workspaces were in the office buildings and houses built by the U.S. Navy during World War II, when the site was still the Arco Naval Proving Grounds.

Smoking was allowed on the buses, and there was always a card game in the back. Women wore dresses or blouses and skirts because that was the dress code. Pantsuits were finally allowed in 1971.

“Central (Facilities Area) holds a special spot for me,” she said. “There weren’t many people who worked for the Site at the time, and we were really close. We were like a family. We knew each other’s heartaches, and we knew each other’s dreams.”

Working in Technical Editing and Publications, Grimm collaborated on research reports and technical publications with such legends as Russell Heath and Deslonde de Boisblanc. Heath’s gamma ray spectrometry research contributed to the nuclear community’s understanding of radioactive materials and is still used extensively today. De Boisblanc is best known for designing the Advanced Test Reactor’s famous serpentine core, which allows multiple tests of nuclear fuels and materials to be performed simultaneously at different power levels.

Mary Dee, seated, with coworkers in a photo from 1970.

This was heady stuff for a young woman in her late teens, but Grimm took it in stride. She spent four years at Central before she got a job in the controller’s office and moved to an office in town.

She was ready by then. Plenty of times winter weather kept them sitting tight at Central. There was only one time she got stranded on the bus. It was out near Argonne National Laboratory-West (now INL’s Materials and Fuels Complex.)

“The whole bus fleet got stuck and we had to wait for the snowplows,” she said. “You got more and more scared and wondered whether anyone had any lunch left.”

She credits bus driver Gordon Steele, whom she’d known growing up in the Iona area, with doing a masterful job of keeping everyone calm. “We finally got home around 2 a.m.,” she said. “It could get pretty dicey out there.”

Taking care of business

On the business side of things, Grimm has seen all the ups and downs and changes. “One thing that changed everything was the computer,” she said. “Who would have thought that one day you would be able to work from home?”

Further, the young people coming to work at INL are so much more diverse than they were back in the day, she said. “They’re very bright and have grown up with computers,” she said. “Technology-wise, they’re really, really advanced.”

Mary Dee Grimm.

Looking back, Grimm said she never consciously planned to stay on the job as long as she did. Family was important to her, and she was devoted to her husband of 51 years, Jim, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran who saw heavy action and almost died in the Demilitarized Zone in 1968. He was instrumental in the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Idaho Falls’ Freeman Park, and served as a strong advocate for veterans, particularly those who were struggling with the aftereffects of combat. He died in March 2021.

“After Jim died, work was the only thing that kept me going,” she said. After 62 years, she thinks she’s been around long enough to see every curve life can throw at a person. “You may be up one day and down the next,” she said, wistfully.

Once she’s done with work for good, Grimm said she has no definite plans other than gardening and possibly volunteering. She encourages anyone starting out at INL to take in the big picture. “There’s a lot here that you wouldn’t find working at a bank or any ordinary business,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity and areas for growth.

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About Idaho National Laboratory

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, celebrating 75 years of scientific innovations in 2024. The laboratory performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. 

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Posted May 28, 2024

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