Pictured: Anne Marie and Everett Kaukonen together with Nancy & Stewart Witt at the 2015 Roosevelt Dinner
In 1963, a major San Diego employer was General Dynamics Astronautics, with the primary facility located in Kearny Mesa along the eastern side of Highway 163. The product was the Atlas rocket, a vehicle with two missions of vital importance: to US military (ICBM –Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) and space operations (Project Mercury, which launched the first U.S. astronauts). Many employees moved to Serra Mesa as it made for a very short commute to the plant (in fact, the Serra Mesa west side was built to provide convenient housing for General Dynamics employees).
Florida’s Cape Canaveral (later name changed to Cape Kennedy) was a hotbed of activity as it was the U.S. primary rocket launching facility. Engineers, technicians and scientists from all around the nation regularly converged there to provide the many services needed for successful operations. Teams from General Dynamics Astro made frequent journeys from San Diego to support Atlas launches. One of those was the Guidance and Trajectory group whose responsibility was to prepare the Atlas radio guidance system for successful launches.
A key player on that team was Serra Mesa engineer Everett Kaukonen. He had hired on to Astro in 1961, following a tour of duty in South America with Chevron, doing oil exploration. That’s also where he met his wife, Anne Marie, from Belgium and working there as a travel agent. They settled in to a new house in Serra Mesa.
As this was early years of rocket operations, his team of roughly a half-dozen tech specialists was required to put in long hours to meet their requirements. One of the complications of good team togetherness was that Florida was still a segregated world. A key team member, Wayman “Mac” McIntosh, was black, meaning he could not stay in any nearby hotel. Kaukonen: “We all had to be there to work, but no motel would accept Mac. He came in each day around 10 a.m. from Miami Beach, and then had to catch the plane back at 2 in the afternoon. This was ineffectual and we couldn’t get much work done.”
So one day in 1963 Kaukonen decided enough was enough. He picked up the phone in his Kearny Mesa office and called the division GM, Jim Dempsey. His call that day started action that ended the Cape’s hotels’ segregation policy. Dempsey had recently done a plant tour and invited employees to contact him if they had any problems. Kaukonen made that call, did not reach Dempsey but told the secretary about the problem. This was mid-afternoon on a Friday and the software team was scheduled to leave for the Cape the following Monday morning to support two launches. Kaukonen: “Just before 4 pm, we got a call that we were all going to Cocoa Beach. Arrangements had been made and a hotel had agreed to accept us all.”
The team’s first stop was New Orleans where the General Dynamics Base Manager met the team and flew with them to Melbourne at the Cape. They were driven directly to the Carriage House Motel and checked in, the first time a black had been there. (Across the street was the Cape Colony Hotel, a popular place owned in large part by the Mercury astronauts. They would not accept blacks.)
Per Kaukonen their team launch operations were much improved now that all the players could stay in the Cape overnight. “However, I was uneasy during this entire period and could finally appreciate how blacks felt all the time. Someone told me what it was like to be black — like always wearing tight shoes, feeling constantly uncomfortable because of the uncertainty. On the plane heading home after that two week stay, it was a relief that I didn’t have to worry about that any more.”
The full story about how this major change came about was published 3+ decades later in a December 1998 article in the San Diego Union Tribune, as “Never a Vacancy: the Day San Diego Integrated the Cape.” I was the author of that story, and with some remembrance of it as in ‘63 I was an engineer in Kaukonen’s department. In November 2012 it was a feature in Quest Magazine: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly.
Everett and Anne Marie Kaukonen still live in the same Serra Mesa house they bought back in 1962. They’re active in the community in a variety of ways, e.g. Everett is a past member of the Citizen Patrol, Anne Marie is a Mingei Museum Docent, and they volunteer often for classical music concerts. They keep active with tennis and daily strolls along the beach.
Now how about an “attaboy” drum roll and cheer for how this clubmember’s action made a major change in one Southern discrimination policy (there were still plenty more in place).
Tom Leech is a clubmember and author, with Jack Farnan, of Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping. His recent book, with co-author Leslie Johnson-Leech is a children’s Christmas poem The Curious Adventures of Santa’s Wayward Elves.
This article originally appeared in the Serra Mesa Observer. A full article was published in Quest: the History of Spaceflight Quarterly.