A Greenwich man who developed an anti-aircraft radar system during World War II that helped Allied forces overcome enemy armies in Europe and the Pacific has died at 95.
Lee Davenport died of cancer Friday at The Nathaniel Witherell, the town's nursing home, his daughter, Carol Davenport, 48, of Cos Cob, said.
Davenport remembers a father who was passionate about what he did and led a full and active life.
"My father was your typical father, with a twist," she said. "He was a very loving husband and loving father and grandfather."
The twist included antics such as attaching sleds to a car and pulling his delighted daughters over snow-covered roads, Davenport remembered.
Lee Davenport was born in Schenectady, N.Y. His war work began in 1941, when Davenport, then a 25-year-old doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, was invited to join 30 physics professors at the top secret Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., to develop urgently needed warfare technologies using microwave radar. Davenport's assignment was to develop the SCR-584, a radar anti-aircraft system able to track and shoot down enemy planes.
The work that Davenport and his group did on the SCR-584 was a major contributor to the Allied victory, according to Robert Buderi, author of "The Invention That Changed the World," a book about the MIT group's work on developing radar technology.
"It ended up being the most important technological weapon the allies brought to bear in the war, far more important than the atomic bomb," Buderi said.
Various countries developed radar independently prior to World War II, but the Allies managed to surpass their Axis foes with advances in the technology.
"The SCR-584 was a very huge advance in antiaircraft fire by automating the gun control with very precise firing," he said.
By early 1944, the SCR-584 was breaking up the Germany's air attacks in Italy. By the time of D-Day, when Allied forces invaded Normandy, France, the radar had seriously crippled German airpower, thus aiding the success of the D-Day invasion.
Davenport was one of the few to know the date of the planned invasion before it occurred. Two months before D-Day, he traveled to England to waterproof the 39 SCR-584 semitrailers that were to be floated ashore in Normandy to direct anti-aircraft fire.
A few weeks after D-Day, Davenport, though a civilian, was secretly flown by orders of Gen.Dwight D. Eisenhower to a location five miles behind the Allied front lines in Normandy to test the SCR-584's adapted ability to direct Allied bombers to their targets. His tests were successful.
A friend of the family, Peter Arturo, 70, said Davenport never spoke about his war work.
"I never knew about his involvement in radar until I saw it one day while watching PBS," Arturo said. "He never told me anything about it. He never talked about it, nothing."
After the war, Davenport led Harvard University's nuclear lab, where he oversaw the construction of the second-largest atom smasher in the world. He also found time to teach physics at Radcliffe College during his time at Harvard.
Davenport moved to Stamford in 1950 to work for Richard Perkin of Perkin-Elmer Corp. as chief engineer to build a bombsight within a B-47 bomber. The device required an electronic analog computer that Davenport built before the days of IBM computers.
Davenport later became executive director of Perkin-Elmer, moving the company to Norwalk with 100 employees, and eventually growing to 1,000.
Davenport moved on to become a vice-president, director and chief engineer of the Sylvania Corporation in New York City before returning to Stamford as president of GTE Labs in 1962.
Davenport moved with his wife and two daughters to Greenwich in 1958 and was the first to build a house on Winding Lane.
Five years later, on July 2, 1963, he survived an airplane crash that killed seven people.
Davenport believed they were heading into trouble as a thunderstorm rolled toward the airport that afternoon.
"The pilot took off in a squall. My father knew beforehand there were going to be trouble," his daughter said.
The airplane crashed soon after taking off from Rochester-Monroe County Airport in Rochester, N.Y., Mohawk Airlines Flight 112 flew head-on into a violent thunderstorm, veered out of control and plunged to Earth.
"Miraculously, he only had burns and a concussion was able to carry many people out of the plane," she said. "The people beside him were decapitated."
He later testified before Congress on improving seat-belt safety in airplanes, she said.
Despite narrowly avoiding death in the crash, Davenport had little fear about flying again.
"Believe it our not, he got back on a plane in the next couple of days for business," she said. "That was very typical of him."
His brush with death left him with a lifelong fascination with airplane crashes, she said.
Another facet of Davenport's rich and varied life was his love of classic automobiles, friends said. Ridgefield residents Robert Stark, 95, and Bette Gollrad, 79 went on numerous trips with Davenport and his wife, Anne, through the years, and they were always struck by Davenport's encyclopedic knowledge of cars and how they worked.
One day while driving his Packard, Davenport began to have engine trouble. Suspecting the problem was the carburetor, he quickly went to work on the device, which had 58 parts.
"He took the carburetor off and took it totally apart and then put it back together again," Gollrad said. "He put it back together and it ran beautifully."
Davenport met his wife in Pittsburgh at a church social before the war, his daughter said. The two shared a strong bond throughout their lives, singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs, traveling in classic-car caravans and cooking family meals together.
"He really was a person with so much personal conviction and strength of character," his daughter said. "He was just a gentleman to the end."
Buderi interviewed Davenport on several occasions for the book. He was struck by Davenport's modesty about his achievements, a trait shared by others involved with MIT's Radiation Laboratory.
"The lab had 11 people who have won Nobel Prizes, nine or 10 became university presidents, and others became heads of major research labs," Buderi said. "Yet it was characteristic, they just didn't see this as something to brag about or that it somehow puts them above other people. It is something that to me is rare these days."
Another striking fact about Davenport and his colleagues was their young age at the time of their research, Buderi said.
"They were young kids, 21-, 22-, 23-years-old, who were brought to this lab and given incredible responsibility. And you know what? They handled it," Buderi said.
Davenport was predeceased by his wife on Jan. 5, 2004, just three weeks shy of their 59th wedding anniversary. His eldest daughter, Jeanne Treder, 51, died earlier this year in Grand Saline, Texas.
He remarried earlier this year to Doris Moss.
A memorial service will be held Oct. 22 at the First Congregational Church in Old Greenwich.
Staff writer Frank MacEachern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-625-4434.