Background To The Movie ‘Oppenheimer’ Chapter 2: The Los Alamos Ranch School 

The center section of Fuller Lodge was built for the Los Alamos Ranch School in the late 1920s. The wings on the structure were added after World War II. Photo by Chris Judson

Presented by the Los Alamos Historical Society and Team Oppie

Historical Background: Chapter 2, The Los Alamos Ranch School 

In 1917, Ashley Pond Jr. founded a school for boys on the Pajarito Plateau. The Los Alamos Ranch School would become a prep school where students not only received a fine academic education but also spent time outdoors to become strong and well-rounded young men ready to take on the responsibilities of manhood. Pond had the vision to establish the school but was not the person to run it; for that he hired AJ Connell, a local forest ranger. Connell set up the school as Boy Scout Troop 22, with the boys wearing their uniforms year-round, including shorts and the special school Stetson. He hired Fayette Curtis, a Yale graduate, to run the educational aspects of the school, and Curtis in turn hired young, enthusiastic graduates of colleges in the East as masters. School enrollment was never higher than 46. Through the years the school built structures that are part of the Los Alamos scene today—the houses along Bathtub Row and the original part of Fuller Lodge with its distinctive vertical logs. Another multi-story log building, the Big House, was torn down after the end of World War II but is still present in downtown Los Alamos in the form of a large photograph on a building wall northeast of the Romero Cabin.

On a usual day, the boys did calisthenics first thing in the morning, had classes and study time in the mornings and evenings, and spent afternoons and weekends outdoors. They were encouraged to bring their dogs, and each boy was assigned a horse that was under his care throughout his time at the school. Tuition was high, so the boys came from wealthy families, mostly from the East and Midwest; many went on to become heads of well-known companies. Almost all loved being at the school, and later said it had made a positive effect on their future lives. Contrary to common tales, Robert Oppenheimer was never a student at the school and didn’t give a speech at the school’s final graduation. Today, a room in the History Museum features items and photos from the ranch school days, and Troop 22 continues as a noted part of the community.

Background of Characters

Gen. Leslie R. Groves (played by Matt Damon)

Leslie Richard Groves (1896-1970) was the son of an Army chaplain, growing up on different army posts around the country. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and graduated fourth in his class, going on to become an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In August 1941 he was assigned to be in charge of building that would become known as the Pentagon, at that time the largest office building in the world. In September 1942, as that construction was being completed, he was assigned to take over the super-secret Manhattan Project, the work to create the first atom bombs. In the process of establishing or contracting with more than 30 entities and employing more than 150,000 people, one of his responsibilities was to hire a director for Project Y, the secret nuclear laboratory that would be built in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He chose a young scientist who had no experience directing a laboratory but quick intelligence, strong ambition, and the ability to explain complex physics in a way that Groves understood—J. Robert Oppenheimer. Groves chose to look past Oppenheimer’s college connections with the Communist Party, and the two men became a good team. Groves continued to support Oppenheimer after the Manhattan Project and through the following years, including the hearings that removed Oppenheimer’s security clearance. General Groves is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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