News obituary

Francis B. Magurn

Lincoln Labs researcher remembered for advocacy and research

Francis B. Magurn believed in keeping things simple. He drove secondhand cars his entire life and rarely shopped for new clothes.

He also believed in longevity, as evidenced by his 62-year marriage and his 43-year tenure at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, where his research involved developing radar technology and various projects for NASA.

“Dad was a very curious man and an engineer through and through,” said his daughter Janet, of Concord. “He loved the challenge of a puzzle and could look at a problem and figure out a solution. Lincoln Lab was perfect for him.”

After retiring in 1986, he became an advocate for the elderly, volunteering for advocacy organizations such as AARP and the Silver Haired Legislature.

Mr. Magurn died in his Concord home Aug. 2 of arteriosclerotic heart disease. He was 97.

Though Lincoln Lab was a significant part of his life, he was limited in what he could disclose about what he did.

“Much of what he worked on was part of either the space program or the missile defense program, and as such was literally a government secret,” said his son Francis II of Littleton, a Massachusetts Army National Guard colonel. “But Dad had great pride in the work and in the association with MIT.”

Mr. Magurn “was easy to talk to,” helpful to co-workers, and shared in generating new ideas, said a former colleague, Erv Schowengerdt of Newburyport.

Work required Mr. Magurn to spend considerable time in places as distant as the Marshall Islands in the Pacific and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Back in Concord, he enjoyed his time with family.

“Camping was the iconic Magurn family activity above and beyond everything else,” said his son. “My father had his way of doing everything, including a military-like precision and discipline involved in loading the car and setting up the campsite. I still remember how some jobs, like carving the stick to hold the roll of paper towels, were coveted, while others, like filling and lugging the 2½ gallon water jug, were loathed.”

C. Ellen Magurn of Montpelier said her father was thrilled in 1980 when she gave him a 12-speed bicycle for Christmas.

Her father, she said, had started out a couple of years earlier “on a Frankenstein bike he built from stuff he found in the garage.” The bicycle, she said, often needed repairs and “it wasn’t unusual to see him walk the thing home. On Christmas Day when I wheeled the bike in, his reaction was complete surprise.”

The oldest of nine children, Mr. Magurn graduated in 1936 from Northeastern University with a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

His penchant for building things led him to the world of midget race cars.

“We would come out of Sunday School when we were younger,” said his friend Daniel Curley of Marlborough, “and the church was right next to the Ford dealership, and that race car would be on a trailer.”

His family said the pinnacle of Mr. Magurn’s racing career occurred in 1946 when he broke the dirt track record for eight laps at Seekonk Speedway. He continued visiting tracks for decades.

“We have a big vintage show every year at New Hampshire international speedway, and Francis would show up when he was in his 80s to talk to some of the old-timers,” Curley said. “He was 87, maybe 88 years old at that time, and he would still drive.”

The youngest of Mr. Magurn’s children, Walter of Chelmsford, was so enamored of his father’s racing that he also raced midget cars for several years.

Spending time at the track also led Mr. Magurn to the woman he married.

“In late summer 1948, my brother took me to a midget race, where he introduced me to this grease-covered driver who I thought was a mess and would never clean up,” said his wife, the former Charlotte E. Cain. “The first time he asked me out I said no, but I eventually saw him cleaned up in a sport coat and that was it.”

Mr. Magurn, she recalled, “was very handsome and confident,” and had “a gentle way about him. On our first date he took me for a ride in an airplane.”

He had learned to fly at Hanscom Field in Bedford during World War II.

Mr. Magurn also was proud of his affiliation with groups that advocate for the elderly.

“My father was selfless and purposeful,” Francis Magurn said. “His sense of fairness really gave him the drive to stand up and make a difference for a slice of the population he felt was underrepresented.”

Walter Lawler, who formerly worked at Lincoln Lab, said he was at a meeting of the Wakefield Retired Men’s Club “and I looked up one time and there was Fran coming to give a talk to seniors about what they could do and what they could get. His speech was very informative and useful.”

Francis added that his father “just couldn’t fritter away his time. I once asked why he didn’t take it easy in his retirement, go fishing or just take a rest, and his response was, ‘I’ll get plenty of rest when I’m 6 feet under.’”

A service has been held for Mr. Magurn, who, in addition to his wife and four children, leaves a brother, Albert of Concord; four sisters, Mary Giles of Naples, Fla., Martha Ivey of Torrance, Calif., Esther Capozzoli of Escondido, Calif., and Louise Smersh of Everett, Wash.; and seven grandchildren.

When Mr. Magurn became ill, the kindness he showed others was returned. His grandchildren and other children who lived nearby would “make him cookies or muffins, which he loved,” his wife said.

“Fran loved children,” she added. “He loved to hear them in the neighborhood, and his eyes would light up when they would bring drawings and pictures for him. During his illness he always had drawings from the grandchildren or neighborhood kids hanging on the walls.”