Mike Maguire, A Great Leader

Mike Maguire, A Great Leader

By Phil Pressel

The Optical Technology Division of the Perkin-Elmer Corporation in Danbury, Connecticut designed and built the camera and film handling system for the Hexagon spy satellite program. Hexagon was a major factor in keeping the peace during the cold war (1970’s and 1980’s). It provided excellent imagery photographs of military and other assets of the Soviet Union and other denied territories.

Much of Hexagon’s success belongs to the talented staff consisting of over 1,000 Perkin-Elmer employees and to the thousands of personnel of the Air force, the CIA, the NRO, the Navy and many private industry personnel. Mike Maguire was the leader and first Director of the incredibly complicated Hexagon camera system at Perkin-Elmer.


        Mike Maguire on his 91st birthday 

        Mike Maguire on his 91st birthday 

In speaking about him with former colleagues over the years, while working or in retirement, we all agreed that, “Mike was the best manager I ever worked for.”

He was strict, fair, knowledgeable, demanding, inspirational and respected by all of us. Technically he knew the engineering workings of the program inside out.

The following are excerpts from an interview I conducted with Mike in 2005.

“This was a career job. It had to be for most of us. How many people get a chance to build something that sophisticated, and that did so much for the country? It was a marvelous opportunity to do something really spectacular and really well. I think it was the most complicated thing ever put up in orbit. We had a great group of people. I don’t know if it was luck or whatever but we put together one absolutely great and dedicated team

Hey let me give you some personal stuff; you know that I am an immigrant also, that I wasn’t born in the US. I was born in Ireland; I tell the story that my father took one look at me and left the country. Which is literally true because after 3 years earning enough money he sent for my mother, my brother and myself and we lived in the south Bronx in the tenement on east 162nd street for several years. I graduated RPI with my undergraduate degree and my graduate degree from the U of CT. I had all the credits for my doctorate but my wife was pregnant with number 8 at the time I was ready to finish up my dissertation, so I became a manager instead of a technical specialist. Gloria and I now have 12 children and 20 grandchildren.

 Before I came to PE I was manager of guidance and control systems at GE Missile and Space Systems down at Valley Forge.“

Ken McLeish, chief engineer at PE called me and asked if I would like to come up and work for him at PE. So I said well I’ll come up and see what the possibilities are, and we talked and he wanted to make me an offer but first I had to be interviewed by Dick Perkin who was the founder, President and CEO of PE. I went to see Dick and he says, tell me about yourself. Well I’m an electrical engineer. He said what do you know about optics. I said, I had optics in a physics course in my sophomore year, that’s about it. He said, do you know how a roof prism works, and I said gee I really don’t Mr. Perkin and he gave me a training manual on fire control systems that had a description of a roof prism and how it worked; he said go away and read it and come back and visit me in a couple of weeks; which I did and he said did you read the manual; I said yes; he said can you tell me how a roof prism works now; I said, yeah I sure can and I did and he approved me being hired and I was hired as an engineer and branch manager working for Ken.

 Soon the agency came to PE. They wanted a scanning system that would have the accuracy of a spotting camera system. They gave PE some study money to look at it. I was not the early proposal manager on the system. I believe it was Milt Roseneau or Dick Babish. Well at any rate it was a very challenging situation. Les Dirks from the agency was the key technical guy, a very bright guy. He said what makes you think you can do this job and I said I have some reasonable experience and I think we can pull it off; he asked me a bunch of questions and I apparently satisfied him and he gave his ok to it and we started the study.

 Then the real proposal came and that was a substantial effort and I have to say that I was really impressed by all the people that contributed to that proposal. It was probably one of the best proposals I had ever seen.

 I think one of the biggest challenges in the early part of the project is that we only were able to get about 150 people from the PE cadre and we had to increase that to over 1,000.

 Anyway we went out and did a search for competent people and we put them in that big chamber area with all the noise, and I don’t know how those people stood it for the months they had to wait to obtain their security clearances.

 At the same time we had to define and build a facility and the plans kept changing because they wanted to put in bigger test chambers and so forth. Trying to split between getting the system defined, getting the people on board, and getting the facility defined and built was a pretty strenuous part of the program.

 Talking about the facility by the way, it was to be a classified facility and the Danbury tax assessor evaluated the value of the facility at $10 million and he then said it was his experience that the equipment in a big factory like that would be equal to the factory itself. So he wanted to assess us another $10 million; I said I’m sorry but most of the equipment going in here will be government furnished equipment and you can’t tax that. He didn’t believe me and I got a call from Senator Lowell Weickert who was the Connecticut Senator at the time, and he said would you come down and see me as you are having some difficulty from the people in Danbury. So I said sure and I went down, and he said what are you building up there and I said I’m sorry I can’t tell you what we are building up there and he said why not, I said because you are not cleared, and he said, I’m a Senator I’m cleared for everything. I said look I’m sorry I don’t want to argue with you I can’t tell you the stuff, but if you need it call the department of defense and they will put you in touch with the right people. I never heard anything more about it. That was just a humorous story.

 Then we actually started on the work. By the way we never had any real manufacturing at PE except for the optics manufacturing, and when we started looking at the complicated assemblies we had to put together here I started out looking for a manufacturing engineer that had put together fairly sophisticated systems and we couldn’t find any. There was a guy named Kenny Meserve who was a technician at the time and he had worked on a prior facility down on Route 7 and I said Kenny I want you to sit down and figure out a flow diagram for the assembly of this whole system, and he looked at me and said what’s a flow diagram. I said it is where the assemblies come together part by part until we get to the final assembly. He said ok I can do something like that and he put together a couple of flow charts and we talked about them and modified them and he was obviously a very bright guy and very intent on doing a good job, and we ended up making him the manufacturing manager for the project. Good guy and a really good decision.

 We used to have morning stand up meetings where we’d take the problems as they came up and try to get them solved before they got to be too big. I liked that approach to doing things, we had good communications throughout the program; people weren’t afraid to say what was wrong and what we needed to fix

 Some of the key people on the program were Bob Jones, Charlie  Karatzas and Bob Williamson and on the servos Marty Yellin was a very bright guy; Williamson was low key but a good manager he kept track of everything.

 Anyway Hexagon was a great success and I always considered the Hexagon program to be the pinnacle of my professional career.”

In recognition of Mike’s achievements I nominated him in 2005  (seconded by Bob Jones, Bob Williamson and Mike Mazaika of Perkin-Elmer) to be inducted into the NRO’s (National Reconnaissance Office) honor group of Pioneers and Founders of National Reconnaissance. This group consists of individuals that represent the finest talent in government, military and industry whose contributions cover a body of work that is and was of lasting importance to the nation. 

In the nomination I included the following about Mike:

“Mike’s leadership was instrumental in melding the complicated state of the art technical developments necessary to meet the difficult optical, mechanical and electrical requirements of the KH-9 camera into a well functioning system by coordinating all of the necessary skills, talented people and department organizations into one cohesive operation. The program provided valuable intelligence to the country as the technical means of verification for the SALT treaties.

 The team grew from the initial staff of 30 to over 1200 and was dedicated because he was a visionary, a superb motivator, blessed with smarts, had total recall of technical issues and tireless. He was a hard-driving and fair leader.”

 The NRO did select Mike Maguire as a Pioneer and Founder of National Reconnaissance. The NRO announcement stated:

 “Mike Maguire pioneered one of the last film based reconnaissance systems used by the NRO. Pushing the state-of-the-art during design and development phases of acquisition, Mr. Maguire’s efforts and leadership resulted in an invaluable national asset in reconnaissance and one relied on heavily by the nation’s decision-makers. The resulting imaging satellites brought reliability and operational longevity to new heights.”

I just heard from Mike and he asked me to make sure to give due credit to ALL the PE people who contributed to the success of the program. Each individual who worked on the program in their own field of responsibility shares credit for their outstanding job in the success of the Hexagon program.