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George Walter Tressel

George Walter Tressel 1926 – 2019

George Walter Tressel, television pioneer, international award-winning filmmaker, inventor, museum designer, science-education communicator and folk- and tango-dancer, dies at 93.

Tressel’s long and distinguished career in the world of arts and science included pioneering innovations that still shape the landscape of television and documentary production. An early pioneer in television, he created cutting-edge cameras and broadcast equipment, including the very first “news-crawl” at the bottom of the screen and iconic “Steadicam”-like shot of the only color footage of the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, he produced films that are still viewed daily at the visitor centers of the Oak Ridge and Argonne National Laboratories. He was a champion for science education, an advocate for hands-on learning and public science education through mass media and museums, and directly responsible for making television (and film) accessible to the hearing impaired via closed captioning. He helped fund, design and advise many museums (including the Holocaust Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and San Francisco’s Exploratorium among many others) and organizations and science-education programs such as Children’s Television Workshop, “Ghostwriter,” “3-2-1-Contact” and “NOVA,” among many others. A resident of Potomac, MD, since the mid-1970’s, George moved to Silver Spring, MD, about five years ago where he died of heart failure on November 17, 2019, at the age of 93.

Respected and loved by all, he was truly a gentleman in all respects and a man of integrity.

George was born January 23, 1926, in Newport, Rhode Island, to Walter and Mary Tressel. His precocious talents were recognized early and by age 14 he was attending the University of Chicago as a Hutchins Scholar (1940 to 1945). He earned a degree in Physics at 17 and a second degree in Humanities in 1945. George was always very skinny; when he tried to enlist in the Army during World War II he was declared 4F for being underweight and not accepted.

After graduation he became one of the pioneers of television when he began working as a puppeteer and technician at WBKB (now WBBM), Chicago’s first experimental broadcast TV station. He assisted in programs including “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” and “Mr. Wizard.” To fill the space between live television programs, he invented the equipment to create the “news ticker” at the bottom of the screen – the very first non-live news updates and commercials for TV. This invention spurred him to create a company to manufacture this and other innovative TV equipment and to produce films and television programs.

Around 1953, General Electric lured him away to direct its film unit of the atomic airplane project (Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion) even though he had doubts whether it would be possible to power an aircraft using nuclear energy. $1 billion later, President Kennedy and Congress finally realized he was right and canceled the project in 1961.

He then went on to be director of film and documentary production with George Lindholm at the Argonne National Laboratory (where they were known as “The Two Georges”) and then Director of Communication at Battelle Memorial Institute where he continued inventing cutting edge film and tv equipment, produced films and developed policy on public broadcasting, educational media and the nascent cable TV industry. His science films, a staple of public school curricula for decades, received numerous awards from world film festivals, including the Chicago, Atlanta, Edinburgh and Brussels festivals. In 1964 he co-directed the first multi-language US film program for the United Nations’ Atoms-For-Peace Conference.

His films are still shown at the visitor centers of the Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, including “The Day Tomorrow Began,” produced in 1967 for Argonne and the Atomic Energy Commission to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1), the first human-controlled nuclear fission reactor and the proof of concept for atomic bombs and nuclear power. George enjoyed recalling how while at University of Chicago he used to play squash under the old football stadium stands until one day armed soldiers prohibited entry to the courts saying, “There are no squash courts here!” Not until twenty-five years later when making this film did he finally find out that Fermi built CP-1 on the very squash court he used to play on. For this film George serendipitously obtained from Harold Agnew the only color–film footage of the Hiroshima explosion and then invented the equipment to convert the shaky, hand-held footage into the iconic “steadicam” shot of the mushroom cloud.

In the early 1970s George wrote a scathing letter to the Director of the National Science Foundation about NSF’s work on science education and the public. The Director responded by hiring George as Director of Public Understanding of Science to fix the problems. During his career at NSF he became known as the “godfather” of many broadcasting, publishing and science education projects by approving the funding for programs such as Children’s Television Workshop’s “Ghostwriter” series, “3-2-1 Contact”, National Public Radio’s “The Brain” and PBS’ “NOVA” series.

While at NSF, he was directly responsible for making television (and film) accessible to the hearing impaired when he instituted the policy of requiring closed-captioning for any project receiving funding from NSF; that policy was then copied by his counterparts at the Department of Education and other agencies.

George was at the forefront of science education for decades and after retiring from NSF he served on the boards of, and was a consultant and advisor to, many museums and science centers including the Smithsonian Institution, Holocaust Museum, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, the Arizona Science Center, Ontario Educational Television, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the New England Aquarium. He was an honorary Fellow of the Association of Science and the Wildlife Conservation Society and received a Centennial Award from the American Association of Museums as one of a hundred outstanding contributors to museum development during the past century.

He served as a member of the Technical Advisors Group of the Quality Education for Minorities Project and as a Board Member of Free The Children Trust, a college scholarship fund for inner-city children. In addition to his career achievements, George was known for his mentoring work with the local Latino and African-American communities, his lifelong passion for International Folk Dancing and for being a co-founder of the Capital Tangueros and a driving force in establishing today’s thriving Argentine-tango community in the Washington DC area.

Always recognizable for wearing an ascot, George was a man of patience who genuinely listened carefully and always “knew just the right thing to say” as a friend, mentor, and most recently as a grief counselor.

George was preceded in death by his brother, Wilson, and by his four wives, Mary Anne Schmidt, Roberta Tovar, Susette Saperston, and Elizabeth Selinger. He is survived by his sister Mary Gray (Phil Kennicot), his son Paul Tressel (Joan), and stepsons Michael Rumberg (Marisela) and Stephen Rumberg. He will be dearly missed by three generations of grandchildren and his large extended family of nieces and nephews and the countless friends and people whose lives he touched. George was grateful for the richness of his life and knew he had been blessed.

A memorial service to celebrate George’s remarkable life will be arranged at a later date.

To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of George Walter Tressel, please visit our flower store.


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