Kenneth Relf

Kenneth Relf at the controls of the 60-inch cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley Radiation Lab.

Kenneth Relf at the controls of the 60-inch cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley Radiation Lab.

Kenneth Eldon Relf, a USD Vermillion graduate, passed away quietly at the Coliseum Medical Center in Macon, GA on Saturday, Dec. 21 at 5 p.m. He was 94-years-old. Kenneth was born on the family farm west of Flandreau on July 12, 1919 to Ethel Mae and Charles Harrison Relf. He attended Bell Rural School, District 22, and Flandreau High School and continued his education at the University of South Dakota, Vermillion, where he received his B.S. degree in Physics in 1942.

He worked his way through USD and supported his parents while working as chief engineer for KUSD radio and, during the summers, as engineer for WNAX radio in Yankton. He was a member of the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. He also was in charge of designing and setting up the public address systems for USD sports events. In March 1942 he was invited to the University of California, Berkeley Radiation Lab by Ernest Lawrence to work on the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic bomb. On Kenneth’s arrival, Lawrence assigned him the position of chief engineer for the 60-inch cyclotron. Kenneth became widely recognized as an expert on the radio frequency systems of cyclotrons after authoring a book, “The Radio Frequency System of the 60-Inch Cyclotron,” published by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1950.

Kenneth received his Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics from Berkeley in 1954; his thesis project, “A Diffusion Cloud Chamber of Unusually Large Dimensions,” was used to study cosmic ray air showers and was displayed in Switzerland in 1956 for the first International Atomic Exposition.

He met his wife, Jo Ann Helen Stepanek of Tabor, while in Berkeley and they were married in 1952. They moved to Pittsburgh in 1955, where Kenneth worked for Westinghouse Atomic Power Division, Bettis Field. While at Westinghouse, he was involved in the design of the nuclear reactor for the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, and authored several chapters of a book for the Navy on nuclear propulsion systems for naval vessels. He received a letter of commendation from Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover, Director of the Navy’s Nuclear Reactors Branch, for his work on this book and on the Nautilus. While at Bettis Field, he also conducted classes on reactor physics and core thermal design and the design of industrial experiments for scientists and engineers associated with the Naval Reactor Program.

In 1959 Kenneth moved with his family to Melbourne, FL to work on the space program. He re-educated himself on the design and operation of the radars and telescopes used to track missile launches and satellites. He was assigned to a variety of projects including an early assessment for the Air Force on the feasibility of what is now known as the Global Positioning System, and an early evaluation of optical fingerprint identification systems. During the 1960s, he was also an adjunct professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, where he taught experimental design for six years. He also served as a science fair judge for Melbourne and Satellite High Schools, a student counselor at Melbourne High School, and a lecturer at Melbourne and Titusville High Schools on careers in science. He was a member of the American Rocket Society, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), American Institute for Astronautics and Aeronautics, the American Physical Society, and the Society of Sigma Xi. He retired in 1994 at the age of 75.

In his private life, Kenneth always spoke fondly of growing up on the family farm west of Flandreau, his years at USD Vermillion, and the community spirit and beauty of South Dakota. He had an endless supply of stories about his family, friends, and growing up in South Dakota, and he visited South Dakota every summer with his family. He enjoyed spending time with his wife’s family in Tabor, Charles and Helen Stepanek, and usually timed his family’s visits to coincide with Tabor Czech Days and family reunions.

He loved exploring the American West, the mountains, and photography and transmitted this love to his sons. His oldest son, Douglas, earned his BFA in Photography with his father’s urging and support. Kenneth loved nature, hiking, and camping and took his family on many memorable vacations to Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Canada. His family will always remember these trips together.

He was completely devoted to and is survived by his wife, Jo Ann and their two sons, Douglas and Murray, who currently reside in Macon, GA. Kenneth will always be remembered for his kindness, generosity, faith, integrity and inner strength.

The family is planning a memorial service in Flandreau this spring, date and location to be announced. His family currently resides at 123 Boulder Cove, Macon, GA 31220. They can contacted at (478) 747-9050, (703) 727-5809 or at

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the University of South Dakota Foundation at, or send checks payable to the USD Foundation with the word “Gift-Memorial Kenneth Relf” on the memo line. Mailing address: Wagner Center 1110 North Dakota Street Vermillion, SD 57069.

Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>