Remembering U.S. Particle Accelerators Expert Tom Elioff

Known for his deep expertise and skillful management of large projects, an engaging and effective way of working with people, and an abiding love of fishing and hunting, Elioff’s accomplishments stretched over nearly half a century.

He worked on early accelerators at Berkeley Lab, including the Bevatron and 184-Inch Cyclotron, and he worked directly with Nobel laureates including Edward McMillan – whom he considered an important mentor – and Ernest O. Lawrence, Owen Chamberlain, and Emilio Segrè.

Elioff was instrumental in the construction of the PEP and PEP-II particle colliders at SLAC, worked on the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), and after retiring from Berkeley Lab came back to SLAC to manage construction of the SPEAR3 particle storage ring, which was brought in three months ahead of schedule. 

“He really loved the building of these things – watching them come together, with all of their different components,” recalled Amanda Elioff, Tom’s daughter, who is an engineering manager in the Los Angeles area for WSP, a large engineering and design firm. “As well as the physicists, he enjoyed working with the other disciplines – particularly the engineering groups – he had really special relationships with the people who worked in the fabrication shops. I think the feeling was mutual.”

Amanda recalled his tireless work ethic, too. “He was working nonstop,” she said. There was a time when he would drive from Oakland to Menlo Park daily, and stints where he also had to spend time away from family for the work week and return on weekends.

When it came to her studies, “He helped me succeed. He would stay up until midnight with me, helping me with my math homework. I was amazed he could remember how to do calculus. He felt strongly about the advancement of technology and science.” And her father and mother, Ione, impressed upon her the value of an education in science and engineering.

She recalls childhood visits to Berkeley Lab and marveling at “all these dials, green screens, and wires” filling the control room of the Lab’s giant cyclotron.

“He was such a great guy,” recalled SLAC’s John Seeman, who worked with Elioff on the PEP-II project. “He worked very hard, was always thinking of what needed doing next, was a straight shooter, and always kept the project first rather than himself. He worked on more accelerators than anyone else I know. He always had good things to say about everyone, but kept them on a true course.”

Fishing and physics

Tom “Tommy” Elioff was born Dec. 11, 1933 in Monroe, Louisiana, to Elisa and Michael Elioff, who had immigrated from Bulgaria. His father worked as a welder on natural gas pipelines, and “often came home with parts of his khaki clothing burned away,” Elioff recalled in an autobiographical booklet he and his wife put together in 2014. His father started taking him out into the bayous to fish when he was 5 or 6 – the start of a lifelong passion for fishing – and he tended chickens, worked in his mother’s large garden, and joined a family-wide effort to help his older brother, Bob, recover from polio.

During World War II, Elioff made friends with pilots training at nearby Selman Field and began building free-flight and radio-controlled model planes, winning a competition with a plane that reached 160 mph. In high school he gravitated toward math and science classes, played baseball and softball, participated in drama and debate, and began dreaming of getting a Ph.D. in physics from UC Berkeley. 

Elioff got his bachelor’s degree in 1954 from Louisiana Polytechnical Institute, where he met his future wife, Ione Hill; they would marry in 1956 after she received her master’s degree from the University of Tennessee.

Then, with a Phi Kappa Phi scholarship making it possible to fulfill his dream, he started graduate studies at UC Berkeley.

Model airplanes and big accelerators

Elioff immediately went to visit the university’s Radiation Laboratory, which eventually would become known as Berkeley Lab, and sought out the lab’s director, Ernest O. Lawrence. Lawrence didn’t ordinarily allow first-year grad students to work with the Lab’s accelerators, but when he heard that Elioff had built model airplanes and repaired bicycles, he declared the young man a perfect fit, Elioff later recalled.

He began helping the team of engineers that ran the lab’s 184-inch cyclotron, including arranging beamlines used to treat cancer patients, and in his spare time went mountain climbing – a hobby learned from his new European colleagues in Berkeley – took up skiing, and helped out on a commercial salmon fishing boat, the Lucky Day.

Fishing “and the camaraderie of fishing and hunting – were his other passions,” Amanda said. She noted that her father had a special group of friends outside of work circles whom he spent time with hunting, fishing, and playing poker. Amanda recalled that her father also advocated later in life for salmon conservation efforts.

He also assisted with experiments at the lab’s Bevatron synchrotron that discovered the antiproton and led to a Nobel prize in Physics for Segrè and Chamberlain in 1959. 

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1960, Elioff continued to work at the Bevatron, where he 
led development and construction of 10 external beamlines, created an experimental users group, and wrote a handbook. He was appointed to the Berkeley Lab senior staff in 1966.

In 1970 Elioff took a two-year leave to work for the Atomic Energy Commission, which oversaw the national labs that would later become part of the U.S. Department of Energy. There he oversaw the Fermilab construction program as well as development at other accelerator labs. 

Returning to Berkeley Lab in 1973, he served as a group leader in the Accelerator and Fusion Research Division and then as the division’s deputy director.

Particle collider projects 

It was in 1977 that he first became involved in projects at SLAC. The first one was PEP, the Positron-Electron Project, which had five detectors to record what happened when accelerated electrons and positrons collide. Building PEP was a joint Berkeley Lab and SLAC project, and he served as deputy director. 

Pier Oddone, a former Berkeley Lab physicist and deputy director who was director of Fermilab from 2005 to 2013, said, “I worked closely with Tommy in the first incarnation of PEP in the 1970s.  He was in charge of the conventional facilities, and I was the coordinator for the experimental program that used those facilities. Tommy was already an experienced manager and I was still wet behind the ears in my first significant management job. We developed a great working relationship. I learned many useful skills from him.”

When that work was completed in 1980, Elioff returned to Berkeley Lab, where he directed the National Center for Advanced Materials and led a group that worked on conceptual design and cost estimates for the Advanced Light Source synchrotron.

The SSC years

In 1984, when planning began for the Superconducting Super Collider – an underground proton collider that would have been 54 miles around, twice the circumference of today’s Large Hadron Collider in Europe – Elioff got involved from the start, representing Berkeley Lab on the Central Design Group and serving as head of project planning and management. He went on to work for three years on the next stage of accelerator development at the SSC construction site in Texas, where his daughter Amanda, was also working on the project as a civil engineer for Parsons Brinkerhoff (now WSP).

“It was really great to be able to spend more time with my dad” Amanda Elioff said of their time in Texas. “He lived in a hotel and he would come over to my apartment in Dallas and we would go out for oysters and beer.”

Also, Ione had moved south during that time to take a job as president of Delgado Community College in New Orleans.

But with construction well underway, Congress shut down the project in 1993. The cancellation of that project “really affected” her father, Amanda said, because he had invested so much effort in it.

Building a B Factory

Tom Elioff returned to Berkeley Lab, only to be invited back to SLAC a year later by Jonathan Dorfan, director of the PEP-II project, to become deputy director of the project – another collaboration between SLAC and Berkeley Lab along with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

This upgrade to the PEP collider added a new low-energy ring to accelerate positrons above the existing high-energy ring, which accelerated electrons. Meanwhile, a consortium of nine nations designed and built a 1,200-ton particle detector known as BaBar to record the results of interactions. Pep-II an BaBar were collectively known as the B Factory, designed to produce and record large numbers of B meson particles for a range of studies, including exploring the still-unanswered question of why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe.

PEP-II was dedicated in 1998, and in 2000 the project team received the DOE Program and Management Award.

“Tom was an uncommonly wonderful man with whom we at SLAC had the great honor of sharing a long, and highly fruitful, collaboration,” said Dorfan, who went on to serve as director of SLAC. “Decency, integrity, and humanity were complemented by Tommy’s exceptional technical and management skills. Everybody loved Tommy – how could one not? He had a uniquely effective way of breaking down complex problems and selecting practical and convincing solutions. This proved invaluable when dealing with Washington.”

In short, Dorfan said, “Tommy was the ideal leader for a federally funded construction project, as his countless successes in such roles proved.”

Upgrading a synchrotron at SLAC

Elioff returned to Berkeley Lab in 1998 and formally retired after 44 years at the Lab between 1955-2004. But he had one more adventure ahead – his “last accelerator hurrah,” he called it – and once again, it took him to SLAC, where Director Burton Richter asked him to direct the SPEAR3 project, which would upgrade the 30-year-old storage ring at the heart of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL). 

Keith Hodgson, a professor at Stanford and SLAC who was then director of the Synchrotron Division at SLAC, recalled meeting Elioff in 1999, just after the project was funded by DOE and the National Institutes of Health.

“Tom was a remarkable person – one of those people who just had an aura about him,” Hodgson said. “He was a very gentlemanly, kindly soul; genuinely warm, kind of low-key, and also an excellent mentor. It was pretty obvious that Tom was just fantastically talented and exactly the kind of person we needed to lead the SPEAR3 project and make it successful.”

The project was completed three months ahead of schedule, with only an 11-month interruption in user operations for the major installation, and within its budget. In 2004, then-DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham presented the project management team with the Secretary’s Excellence in Acquisition Award.

“Tom brought a very special quality to the project,” said Robert Hettel, who was Elioff’s deputy on the project and now directs the upgrade to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory. 

“He was very experienced in large projects; well-known and respected by DOE; trusted by Burt, Jonathan, and SLAC because of cooperative relationships over decades; and, perhaps most importantly for the SSRL team, bringing project directorship with a light hand and a certain Southern genteel demeanor that inspired us. He was and is a role model for me to this day,” Hettel said.

In objective terms, Hettel added, SPEAR3 was not a huge project, “but for us, SPEAR3 was really big potatoes,” adding a suite of improvements that initiated a new phase of operations for SSRL and rejuvenated X-ray science at SLAC.

At the SPEAR3 dedication in 2004, which marked the end of Elioff’s full-time accelerator work, Pat Dehmer, then director of DOE Basic Energy Sciences, presented him with the DOE Distinguished Associate Award for “many accomplishments and leadership in the project management of major accelerator construction for the Department of Energy” over nearly half a century.

Eiloff is survived by his wife, Ione Elioff of Berkeley; and daughter Amanda Elioff of Pasadena.

Services have not yet been announced. The family will be donating to Phi Kappa Phi in his memory.