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NMSU alum, discoverer of heavy elements, credits teachers with success

At 74 years old, Jerry Landrum is discovering fame, enjoying his first grandchild and receiving an honorary doctorate.

Group of people with Livermorium Plaza plaque
Jerry Landrum and his family celebrate the naming of Livermorium Plaza in the name of element 116. Landrum was among a team of scientists honored at the event in June 2013. Pictured from left son David, Jerry Landrum and wife Velma, son Vaughn and his friend Jennie Stark and son Stephen. (Courtesy photo)
Man standing and woman seated
Jerry and Velma Landrum were voted most likely to succeed at Fort Sumner High School. (Courtesy Photo)
Head and shoulders of Jerry Landrum speaking at the podium.
Jerry Landrum, who received an honorary doctorate at New Mexico State University's fall commencement, speaks to the graduates. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Don't try to call him Dr. Landrum. He prefers just plain Jerry.

"Jerry has always been a humble kind of guy, never looking for the spotlight," said childhood friend Charlie Rogers. "He was really taken aback by this honorary doctorate from New Mexico State University. He's very proud of his work but never thought of receiving this kind of recognition."

After retiring from decades as a chemist at one of the top labs in the country - Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - Landrum was among a team of scientists honored over the summer for discovering two heavy elements on the periodic table - 114 and 116.

"Discovering a new element is a dream come true, especially after chasing it for so many years," Landrum said. "What makes it surreal is that the discovery was made in 1999 and it was not until the fall of 2012 that credit was given and naming rights awarded."

Elements 114 and 116 were named Flerovium and Livermorium to honor the labs where they were discovered. Landrum and his colleagues at Livermore Lab, working with a team of Russian scientists from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, observed six new elements: 113, 114, 115, 116, 117, and 118. Two are recognized and four are still under consideration by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Because the results must be validated, recognition and naming of these discoveries is usually a long time coming.

Landrum and his wife, Velma, traveled from their home in Modesto, Calif., to Las Cruces this week to receive another recognition. At Saturday's commencement ceremony, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from NMSU, where his degree in chemistry in 1961 began a life of exploration.

"The work Jerry Landrum has done is exactly what we mean when we say that New Mexico State University is all about discovery," said NMSU President Garrey Carruthers. "He is a great example for our students who start their journey here that they, too, can achieve extraordinary success."

Landrum's education nearly took a detour.

"It was about the same time the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and set off the space race," Landrum said. "There was little doubt in my mind that I would study chemistry if I went to college, but this was 1957 and not everyone was going to go to college. Some of my buddies were going to join the U.S. Marines and encouraged me to join them."

Landrum came close to enlisting. He got as far as passing the physical exam, but ended up at NMSU instead.

For Landrum, the attraction was Velma Gunter, his high school sweetheart, who was on an academic scholarship at what was then known as New Mexico A&M.

"The first time I saw him I thought he was the best looking boy I had ever seen," said Velma Landrum. "I am so glad I got him. He is the best man I could ever have."

By the time Landrum graduated from NMSU in 1961, the couple had been married two years and was expecting their first child. Landrum and his wife were both working full time at NMSU's Physical Science Lab when he saw the opportunity to join Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"I consider my college education the most important career accomplishment in my life. It opened doors that would not have been possible otherwise. I am sure the administrators at LANL were aware of the quality of faculty and staff at NMSU and that made it possible for me to start off at such a famous institution."

Working at Los Alamos for four years, Landrum discovered an interest in nuclear and radiochemistry. At the time there were no jobs available at Los Alamos in that field. With three sons under 5-years-old in tow, the Landrum family headed for California.

"It was the height of the Cold War and a very exciting time for a young chemist," he said of the move to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Landrum caught the eye of Ken Hulet, a heavy element expert at Livermore Lab. When he joined the group it had just discovered element 106, now named Seborgium.

"We were on the search for the 'Super Heavies' and that mythical island of stability (somewhere around element 124). I was involved with this research group off and on for the rest of my career. I retired in July of 1999, but not for long. I went back part time between 2002 and 2006 to work with Super Heavy Element Search."

While he worked on discovering heavy elements, Velma Landrum raised their three sons and completed an associate degree with a certificate in radiation technology. She also worked at Livermore Lab for nearly 25 years, retiring in 1996 as the supervisor of the Dosimeter Division, which measures levels of radiation exposure for employees at the lab.

"I have discovered that even though I made my choice very early in life, I could not have made a better choice for a lifetime partner than the love of my life, Velma Corene Gunter," he said.

His mother also had an impact on his success. While Landrum was in grades 7-12, Gladys Pearl Boyles owned a florist shop in Fort Sumner. She stood 4-foot-11-inches tall and raised Landrum and his sister alone after divorcing his father, an uncommon step in 1948.

"I was incredibly lucky to have a mother who never once thought she wouldn't succeed at anything she chose to do and always supported me in any way she could," Landrum said. "Despite her small stature, I have never known a larger personality."

Fort Sumner is where Landrum met lifelong friends Charlie Rogers and his younger brother Mike.

"He was always a serious student," Charlie Rogers said. "Since Jerry and his sister were raised by his mom, Jerry knew he had to be the "man of the house" and that attitude carried through to his studies. Both Velma and Jerry were serious students in high school and college."

Landrum's interest in chemistry began when he met James Fincke, a science teacher who would later become principal of Fort Sumner High School.

"Without a doubt, Mr. James Fincke influenced me the most. His expertise and teaching abilities were exceptional and the subject of chemistry really excited me."

Landrum also credits his NMSU professors who taught him "belly up to the bench" separation skills in quantitative analysis that would serve him for the rest of his career.

"I discovered that no matter how distasteful a particular job may be, if you apply yourself and do it well, you will learn something you didn't know before and wouldn't have known otherwise." Landrum said. "Every assignment we get is an opportunity for discovery."

Other honors are ahead for Landrum. There are four more elements he helped to discover that have yet to be named. The attention he has received in recent months has caused him to rethink one aspect of fame - his name.

"I once thought if I became famous I would change my name to J. Harland Landrum. I'll stick with Jerry!"