Obituary: R. Richard Bartsch Oct. 26, 1940 – Nov. 20, 2020

R. RICHARD BARTSCH Oct. 26, 1940 – Nov. 20, 2020

Richard Bartsch dedicated his life to peering into the building blocks of matter and energy that power the stars and savoring fresh air with friends and family beneath the open sky.

Over a decades-long career as an electrical engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation’s premier nuclear research center, he authored or co-authored more than 90 research papers on energy and nuclear fusion and collaborated with scientists in Japan and Russia.

He died at home in Sequim, Washington Nov. 20, 2020, surrounded by family after a four-year battle with cancer. He was 80.

Known as Rick or Dick, he led a team of physicists experimenting with plasma and pulsed power as part of fusion research at the Controlled Thermonuclear Research Division at Los Alamos.

“When Dick spoke, everyone listened,” recalled Jack Brownell, a LANL colleague. “He was brilliant and spoke with subdued surety and directness, and our group always felt that they could trust Dick’s integrity, judgment, and careful adherence to the physics.”

The son of school teachers Al and Gerry, Bartsch grew up in Mason City, Iowa, spending summers on the family farm in Mankato, Minnesota where he nurtured what would become life-long love of the outdoors. An interest in math and science bumped up against the lack of advanced classes at his high school, his childhood friend Stan Collins recalled in a remembrance. Bartsch and Collins got permission to study college algebra at a junior college. “Rick and I went on to teach ourselves calculus using a ‘Calculus Made Easy’ textbook I had,” Collins wrote. “Knowing calculus made the freshman year in engineering school a piece of cake.”

Bartsch left the Midwest to earn his undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an electrical engineering honors program and began his work on fusion, trying to solve the problem of heating plasma to nuclear fusion levels using electron beams.

He took an engineering job in Palo Alto, California at Watkins Johnson Company, an electronics company. In 1975, he and his first wife, Mary, son Eric, and daughter Julie moved to New Mexico to work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and settled in White Rock, a bedroom community above the Rio Grande River.  

He was at home in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado where he honed his fly fishing skills in the San Juan river in the summer, skied in the winter, climbed many of the Colorado “14-ers”—peaks higher than 14,000 feet—and tapped his feet at bluegrass festivals. The Southwest’s big skies lured him upward: he learned to fly gliders and later taught new pilots, including his son. 

His energy research led to collaborations with international scientists including a six-month sabbatical in Japan and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, multiple visits to Los Alamos’ sister city in Russia, Sarov.

“He always pushed us to challenge our limits and go beyond doing the ordinary things,” his son Eric Bartsch wrote in a remembrance. “I think he did that in his own life coming from a small town, going to MIT, traveling the world, and being a preeminent researcher in his field.”

After he retired in 2000, he began a new chapter of his life, travelling extensively in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Europe and South America to fish and study Spanish with his wife, Ginny Phillips, whom he married in 1999. The couple moved to Washington State in 2012.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, a memorial service is being planned for the summer of 2021.

Bartsch is survived by his wife Ginny, son Eric and his wife Alicia, daughter Julie Riley and her husband David, step daughters Allison Phillips, Tasha Phillips-Wilkins, step-son Ted Phillips, four grandchildren and six step-grandchildren, sister Janet Bartsch and nephew Brock Chambers.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Northwest Maritime Center in his name: