Distinguished alumnus’ life is a tapestry of accomplishment
Envisioning F. Robert Naka’s life as a tapestry might be the best way to examine it: a personal history woven with many different, vibrant threads that came together to create something extraordinary.
Naka, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri in 1945, died Dec. 21, 2013, in Concord, Mass. Between his birth July 18, 1923 in San Francisco and his last days in Massachusetts, he lived a highly eventful and interesting life, most notably known for his pioneering work on stealth technology, part of his longtime career developing high-altitude, minimally-observable aircraft for defense-related reconnaissance.
He also was well known for his generosity toward his alma mater. The Naka Endowed Professorship, established in 2007, currently is held by Curt Davis, founder and director of the MU Center for Geospatial Intelligence, an interdisciplinary center that focuses on geospatial intelligence needs critical for national security, homeland defense and military combat support.
“Just being able to know and meet the gentleman and have that personal connection with him means a lot to me.” Davis said. “He worked in an area where I’m actively working now in terms of research, so the stuff that he did for part of his career — the part that he worked on at NRO [National Reconnaissance Office] is what’s most closely related to what my interests are currently with this research center.”
Naka also earned the Missouri Honor Award in 1971 and an honorary doctorate in 2008 for his outstanding career and his generosity toward the university.
Naka and his wife, Patricia, additionally created a scholarship endowment in 2001 for Mizzou electrical engineering undergraduates, which was funded in part from the reparation payments Naka received after being incarcerated in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.
“Establishing a scholarship with those funds at Mizzou,was a pretty amazing use of that money,” said Shawn Poore, a former MU Engineering senior director of development who frequently worked with Naka. “He was one of the most humble but also one of the most interesting people you could ever meet,” Poore said. “He was so multi-faceted in his conversations and was so well-rounded. You could tell that he loved people.”
Naka came to MU by virtue of a handful of twists and turns in his younger years. He enrolled at UCLA at age 16 and studied there until 1942, when he was interred at Manzanar Relocation Center in California as part of the relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government during World War II. He remained there for nine months before the efforts of the Quakers helped secure his release and the chance to continue his studies — provided they were at a university away from the west coast.
That’s where MU came in, and Naka graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1945 before moving on to earn his master’s from the University of Minnesota two years later and a doctorate in electron optics from Harvard in 1951.
His career began at the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he led a team that developed the first automatic analog radar signal detection equipment, used to provide warning of bomber attacks, as well as the top-secret U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. He then joined the MITRE Corporation in 1959, working with stealth technology designs, before taking over as deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office from 1969 to 1972. He then served as chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force beginning in 1975.
Naka was the first deputy director of the NRO hired from the world of industry, serving under director John McLucas. While there, he handled the day-to-day operations — dealing with classified materials less than 25 years removed from his stay at Manzanar, an impressive career arc. He considered increasing the number of days in orbit of photoreconnaissance satellites his greatest achievement during his time at the NRO. His ability to get NRO program offices to collaborate has been lauded.
“I’ve been in NRO once, and they have a hallway of all the directors’ and deputy directors’ plaques and little blurbs about them, and his is up there. It’s pretty cool,” Davis said.
Naka eventually retired from GTE Government Systems in 1988.
Naka was active in his community, both at Mizzou and beyond. He served on the Engineering Dean’s Advisory Committee, the “For All We Call Mizzou” Engineering Campaign Leadership Team and the campus Major Gifts-Engineering committee. He also served as a fundraiser and board member for the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, which awards scholarships to students from underserved Southeast Asian communities. He was active in his church and often held MU alumni get-togethers at the Harvard Club in the Boston area.
Naka was preceded in death by his wife, Patricia, and is survived by four children and nine grandchildren.
“Bob Naka was successful as an engineer, but more importantly, he was eminently successful as a human being,” said College of Engineering Dean Jim Thompson. “He overcame extraordinary adversity, grew from these experiences and was thankful for the opportunities and successes of his life. He thought of others and, with his time and money, supported numerous educational, religious and community activities. He was kind and thoughtful and will be greatly missed.”