Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Oliver R. Kirby

Making a paper box.
A good friend of mine passed away in 2009, and I was reminded of him while in Annapolis as I had dinner with a former employee of the National Security Agency who was one of my students at the Annapolis Woodworking Guild Box Making Class. My new friend in Annapolis knew of Ollie Kirby and his time and position at the NSA.

Oliver R. Kirby had been in my thoughts of late due to a movie about Alan Turing who had built the first computer designed to break the Nazi's Enigma code during WWII. Kirby had been stationed at Bletchley Park in the UK along with Alan Turing, and while they did not work closely together, both shared important roles in breaking the German Codes. Ollie Kirby had time on his hands while he was in the UK during WWII, and because his wife Jeanne was in the States, he was lonely and volunteered for every possible assignment in an effort to end the war ASAP so he could get home. While others were using their time off  to explore the UK or hang out in bars, Ollie chose to keep very busy instead. He made himself essential to the war effort and that led to important work in national security after WWII.

We met Jeanne and Ollie Kirby when they vacationed regularly in Eureka Springs during the 1980's and early 1990's. We had dinner with them on several occasions and had them as guests in our home. Ollie and I shared a love of wood and woodworking, and one would never have guessed the important role that Ollie had played in WWII, as he was not one to brag on his top secret exploits, nor would he have been allowed to. Some of Kirby's personal narrative has been declassified so you can be read some of his story on line.

Ollie, besides being a cryptographic expert, was very different from Alan Turing whom he described as being remote. Ollie was kind, friendly, and loved wood. His wife Jeanne commissioned me to make a cabinet to fit Ollie's ties, of which he had a large collection, and I delivered it to their home in Greenville, Texas during the early 1990's.  I have always been amazed how a love of wood can push so many other barriers aside and open doors of friendship wide. Oliver R. Kirby was an inductee in the NSA Hall of Honor in 2008. When we visited Ollie and Jeanne in their home in Greenville, Texas, Ollie showed me his efforts to convert a log into lumber using a Haddon lumber maker.

I am home in Arkansas for classes at Clear Spring School. This morning the first and second grade students  made paper boxes using the designs published in Ednah Anne Rich's book, Paper Sloyd for the Primary Grades. I am always deeply intrigued by the interconnection of all things, and that a sincere interest in craftsmanship can lead to the development of connections even where one might not expect.

Susan Blow, in her book Symbolic Education, wrote the following about Froebel:
In the attempt to capture and hold the citadel of imagination, Froebel makes one of his most signal advances upon the theory and practice of his predecessors. Rousseau had nothing to say of imagination, save that it is the source of all human misery, and that its wings should be clipped as early and as close as possible. Pestalozzi ignores it––hence the dreary monotony of his sense-impressing exercises. He urges us to "Make the child see, hear, and touch many things," to "introduce order into his observations," and to "develop the elementary ideas of number and form in order that he may be able to compare objects and exercise his judgement upon them". But the necessity of a "spiritual questioning of sense and outward things seems to have occurred neither to him nor to the more recent advocates of the doctrine that all thought is transformed sensation. Hence their practice tends to arrest development at its starting point, and a faithful adherence to their suggestions would produce in the pupil a strong likeness to that Peter Bell on whom Wordsworth has conferred so inglorious an immortality.
One of the things that I hoped to convey in my presentation in Annapolis to the Annapolis Woodworking Guild is that the spirit of the child can be energized by craftsmanship without forcing the child to conform to any particular religion, or any particular set of religious principles, thus not violating the separation between church and state within the public school context. Craftsmanship can engage the child's spiritual nature in public education without promoting a particular religion. Froebel's kindergarten was intended as a means to enrich the spirit of the child, while it seems  modern education in both public and private schools does the exact opposite, constricting the child's inventiveness and creativity whether they intend to or not. The answer is to make things that reinforce the child's sense of connection with community, for the child's spirit rises in direct proportion to the growing sense of interconnection with all things.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Very interesting information. Ollie was my uncle, and I agree he was extremely kind and unassuming, and very brilliant! Thank you for sharing! By the way, I also love woodworking...

  2. Ollie is my grandpa. I remember him speaking of you. How funny that I came across this article, but I am glad I did. Thank you for thinking of him - he is missed! My name is Jeannie and I am his youngest grandchild.

  3. I assume you are named after your wonderful grandmother.