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Local News

Delco Engineers Who Changed History Reunite for Building Tour

Those who came to Goleta in the 1960s to work on missile and space programs return for a celebration of the company's 65th anniversary

As astronauts launched into space at the end of the 1960s, sights set on exploring the moon's surface, one group of engineers in Goleta was quietly developing the technology that helped those space explorers navigate to the moon and back, content with helping make history from their Hollister Avenue facility.

The missiles that became so ubiquitous during the arms race of the Cold War had their guidance systems built by these same engineers.

Project by project, they played their part in building some of the most important systems used by the U.S. government at the time.

Those engineers, long since retired, gathered on Thursday to tour their old building at 6775 Hollister Ave., a facility that is about to be overhauled.

About 300 former Delco employees are taking part in a celebration of the company's 65th anniversary, and jumped at the chance to remember their history in the Good Land and their contributions to early technology.

Delco began as a branch of General Motors that began to assist the U.S. government with technology contracts in the 1960s, said retiree Bill Cattoi, who helped organize the reunion and tour.

As retirees on Thursday filed into their old building, now part of the slickly redone Cabrillo Business Park, they took it all in.

"In case you don't recognize it, this is your old administration building," Cattoi called to them as they gathered in the lobby, full of clean lines of glass and steel. "See if you can find your office."

Several former employees peeked around, reporting back that they weren't allowed to check out their offices.

Those are now occupied by Northrop Grumman, whose workers must have security clearance because the work the company does is classified.

Former Delco employee Bill Cattoi briefs other retirees in front of plans for the old Delco building, which will be renovated by FLIR. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The Delco retirees just smiled. They're used to that, and many of their projects were classified at the time they were working on them, said Mike Cavalier, who helped Cattoi organize the tour.

The company's local story began in the early 1970s, when 350 engineers and their families were sent from Milwaukee to Goleta to work in the company's branch in the area.

Cavalier moved his wife and three children in 1972 from Milwaukee, "where we were getting six-foot snow drifts."

Out of the 350 families who relocated to the coast for the work at Delco, "only one moved back to Milwaukee because they were homesick," he laughed.

The company was involved in building some of the earliest missile-guidance systems, which became key projects during the years of the Cold War.

Such high-profile projects, and their implications on global security, could be "really nerve-wracking," Cavalier said. Still, "you felt like you were participating in history," he said.

Cattoi worked on building the guidance systems for NASA's famed Apollo lunar program while he was at Delco, and said all of those engineers moving with their families had a tremendous impact on the area.

"The real estate situation went bananas," he said, adding that a Delco employee would show up to look at an open house, only to find three or four other employees there at the same time.

Cattoi said his two children had two requirements in order to agree to a move: "a dog and a swimming pool."

They got the dog, and there was a pool in the neighborhood, so it all seemed to have worked out for the family. 

Now, his son, Tom, works at FLIR, a company that specializes in thermal imaging, much of which is used in cameras and other optical equipment that has military and weapons applications.

FLIR will soon be overhauling the former Delco building in order to use it as a 170,000-square-foot facility for clean rooms, laboratories and offices for up to 440 of the company's employees.

Cattoi said that when some of his fellow Delco retirees started talking about returning to the old building, "my ears perked up."

"I said, 'It just so happens my son works for FLIR and he's responsible for the whole renovation project,'" he said.

The group was able to get a tour just before the major work begins on the facility, and Tom Cattoi was there to lead the tour.

One of the retirees on the tour was Marty Minasian, who joined the company in 1974 right out of college after graduating with an engineering degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

Minasian worked on the systems engineering for the M-1 Tank, a military battle tank still in production and used by troops today.

He remembered walking into an office soon after starting the Delco job and seeing the older workers, scribbling out a seemingly impossible equation on a white board. 

The young man offered to the older workers to leave and build a computer program that could solve the equation, only to return and find the group had solved the problem, the old-fashioned way.

Slide rules were the standard then, and Minasian said that calculators back then were scarce, and that each department at Berkeley only had one because they were so expensive.

After seeing that whiteboard computation, "I remember thinking, 'These guys are brilliant,'" he said. 

That brilliance introduced them to some very high-profile fans.

"These guys, they knew the astronauts," Minasian said of the Delco engineers. "It's a phenomenal history."

The legacy of discoveries in technology that were made by the engineers at Delco are continuing today in Goleta through companies such as FLIR, Raytheon and ATK.

"Everything builds on everything else," Minasian said. "Every generation builds on that knowledge base."

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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