William Robertson Latady, 1918-1976

Publication Year: 1980.


Bill Latady’s death at his home in Hingham, Mass. in October was a shock to his many friends and associates here and abroad. In his 62 years of vigorous life, he pursued several exciting and rewarding careers and climbed many mountains along the way. I met Bill almost 40 years ago, as he was about to climb his first “big one.” It was in July 1941 on Mount Rainier. I recall so well his gangly 6'4" frame, with straw hat and red kerchief, silhouetted in the doorway of the Rainier National Park guide house at Paradise as he asked to be scheduled for the next guided climb to the summit. I did not realize then that when Dee Molenaar and I were assigned as his guides that it would lead to many climbs together in the years ahead and that from this two of my warmest and most cherished friendships would develop.

Although that was Bill’s first ice climb, his long legs and athletic conditioning helped us to have a fine ascent in record time and to vary the usual Kautz route down. Bill, from Cambridge, Mass., was a shop teacher at Shady Hill School. As I was at Harvard then, I saw much of him until military service in 1943. With the Harvard Mountaineering Club, we shared dozens of rock climbs all over New England and enjoyed many ski and mountaineering weekends at the Harvard Cabin on Mount Washington. Among his joys were the ice climbs, including the first and second ascents of several imposing ice gulleys in Huntington Ravine. We also shared Bill’s strength and fine personality on the HMC Selkirk Expedition in June 1942, with a storm-lashed crossing of the Illecillewaet Névé and an Army QMC ration-testing project to remember. Bill was always the mechanical genius of our group, being a master of inventive-ness and able to fix anything under any circumstances, be it a broken camera shutter, a damaged Coleman lantern or an ice axe needing a new shaft.

In 1943, Bill was employed at MIT’s Radiation Laboratory where his technical expertise turned to secret war projects. Since he remained in Cambridge, the perpetuation of the HMC was assured, for he served as de facto wartime President, Secretary and Treasurer. In the winter of 1944-45, he even managed to assemble material and edit and publish a wartime issue of the HMC Journal, with the editorial help of Andy Kauffman.

During the war, letters exchanged between him, Andy Kauffman, Bill Putnam, Dee Molenaar and me led to plans for the Harvard-Army QMC Expedition up the west ridge of 18,000-foot Mount St. Elias in the summer of 1946. Here Bill’s prowess as an expedition phenomenon was fully revealed. I can still see him aqua-planing across a rushing glacial stream at the edge of Alaska’s Malaspina Glacier, the only way that he, as the last man across that treacherous torrent, could retrieve the ropes we had used in a Tyrolean traverse. Bill’s compatible manner, gentle good humor, practical common sense and penchant for an early-to-bed routine came to be appreciated by us all.

After the success of St. Elias, he and I remained in Alaska for six weeks to carry out a coastal glacier survey for the American Geophysical Union. We photographed and transit-surveyed most of the glacier termini from Icy Bay and Yakutat Bay southward along the Panhandle Coast to Glacier Bay and the forest fiords between Juneau and Wrangell. In the late summer, we also spent two weeks surveying the main westerly- and southerly-flowing glaciers of the Juneau Icefield. On several reconnaissance flights over the Juneau Icefield, we selected field campsites for the Juneau Icefield Research Program. Thus Bill was a pioneer on the JIRP program which has continued, without interruption, every summer since. Two years later, in 1948, he was my co-leader on the third JIRP expedition, involving the first traverse of the southeastern quarter of the icefield and establishment of the beginnings of a network of 20 permanent field- research stations that today stretch across the whole of the Alaska-Canada Boundary Range between Juneau and Atlin, B.C.

In 1947, Finn Ronne asked me to join his Antarctic Expedition as photogrammetrist and photographer. As I could not go, I recommended Bill. He was a much better choice as the niche was suitable to his unique mechanical and photographic expertise. He carried out an aerial survey and mapping program covering some 250,000 square miles of previously unexplored Antarctic terrain and made several climbs of 7000-foot peaks in the Stonington Island area of the Antarctic Peninsula. Bill’s even tempered personality helped greatly to soothe serious personality conflicts that developed among other members during the 15 months’ isolation of this expedition.

Thereafter, Bill’s professional life moved into new frontiers, including a number of unique business ventures. After his marriage to Nancy in 1949, he worked briefly on the Antarctic map project for the Army’s Aeronautical Chart Service in Washington, D.C. and then, until 1952, in photogrammetry for the Aero Service Co. in Philadelphia. During this period he began to establish his own firm, Latady Instrument Company, specializing in mechanical engineering and photographic optics. Then came a challenging four years as Vice President of the Cinerama Corporation in charge of its world-wide theater development. This involved responsibility for wide-screen projector installations and leasing of Cinerama theaters throughout the United States, Europe and Japan.

In 1958, he and his family moved to England, Germany and Switzerland where for two more years he coordinated, expedited and directed theater installations and operations for a competitive company, National Theaters, showing the Cinemiracle films of Louis de Rochement. At last there was opportunity again to indulge in mountain sports and to do some skiing and rock climbing in Europe, even returning to North Wales where, on a brief business visit during the war, he had slipped away to climb on Craig Yr Ysfa and the Idwal Slabs.

In 1960, he returned to the United States and to the further development of his instrument company. He and Nancy bought a lovely old mill on a small stream in Bucks County where they lived until moving to a grand old house in Philadelphia. In 1970, he sold his company and moved back to his beloved New England where he purchased an old farmstead at Hingham, Mass. Two years later he bought back the company, and specialized in such products as mapping and exploration photography instruments. In 1979, a distinguished and culminating honor came ... a technical Oscar for design of a snorkel camera, involving a new technique for close-up photography. This honor was shared with his old friend and associate Paul Kenworthy. At the time of his death, Bill was negotiating to shift his company’s emphasis to the technology of micro-analysis of tissues and fibers, including uses in crime-detection work.

Throughout these years, although no longer active in climbing, he continued to be devoted to mountaineering through service as a Councilor and Vice President of the American Alpine Club. In 1970, he ran the AAC Annual Meeting in Boston and was active in the success of the program to keep the AAC Club House in New York. Over the past decade, Bill was an energetic worker for the Youth Programs of the Explorers Club, which he served as a Board member. In 1976, he was instrumental in the evolution of the Expedition Training Institute, a spin-off from the Explorers Club to provide expeditionary experiences for young people. He also served on the Advisory Board of the Foundation for Glacier and Environmental Research in Seattle, which today sponsors the JIRP expeditions. In 1971, Bill returned to the Juneau Icefield on the staff. It was a happy time, as his son, Robin, was a member of the same expedition.

Bill was recognized as one of the finest optical-mechanical engineers in the United States. Although dedicated to these professional and technical pursuits, he remained deeply interested in exploration and mountain activities, always encouraging it in others, especially in young people. He was a fine alpine skier and a graceful figure skater. For hobbies, he enjoyed square-dance calling and sailing on his 37-foot Seafarer. He enjoyed especially having all of his family together at their lovely farm home.

His was a varied and worthwhile life, symbolizing professional excellence. Although his technical accomplishments were outstanding, Bill’s expeditionary work gave him great joy and satisfaction. He treasured his contributions to JIRP; the significance of the Antarctic Expedition Medal, awarded to him with Finn Ronne by President Ford in a 1975 White House ceremony, and the fact that a chain of islands off the Antarctic Peninsula was named for him by the Royal Geographical Society. A mountain in the sector of Antarctica which he explored also bears his name. A beautiful peak in the Devil’s Paw sector of the Juneau Icefield is to be named in his memory, a dominant summit that he knew well as it is hard by the pioneering route which he shared with us into the Alaska- Canada Boundary Range 31 years ago.

All who knew Bill have privileged memories. Our sympathy goes to his mother and brothers and to the family he held so dear ... his wife, Nancy, and his five children … Wm. R. Latady, Jr. (Robin), Kevin, Heather, Althea and Leslie.

Maynard M. Miller