The Philip H. Kitchens Endowment will provide for the acquisition of science and technology resources for the LSU Libraries in perpetuity, thanks to his generous gift to the Libraries. Kitchens, whose varied education includes degrees in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and library science and whose career path includes stints at NASA, the University of Alabama, and the Redstone Scientific Information Center, was possessed of a fascination for the American space program that was not uncommon for children of the mid-20th century. Time and circumstance allowed him to realize the dream in more than one way.
Kitchens grew up in Alexandria, Louisiana. His father was a forester and served as executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association. Kitchens majored in chemical engineering at Louisiana Tech, graduating in 1967. As his graduation approached, aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun made a presentation in Shreveport, and Phil’s father took him to hear the famous rocketeer, who mesmerized the audience with his vision. Afterward, they went to the podium to meet von Braun in person, and Kitchens was hooked.
Von Braun not only inspired Kitchens’ romance with aerospace engineering but personally invited him to the NASA team that put America on the moon. He applied and was accepted to work at NASA, arriving just months after the catastrophic fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee. Kitchens worked for NASA’s Apollo program during a period that included both profound tragedy and sublime triumph. Those experiences have shaped his life and worldview. Among the missions that Kitchens supported were Apollo 8, the first human astronautic mission to the moon (a.k.a., the famous Genesis scripture-reading mission); Apollo 11, the first mission to land humans on the moon; and Apollo 13, the near-tragedy that was averted only by creativity and grace. Kitchens remembers that being an eyewitness to the launch of Apollo 11 atop the awesome Saturn V launch vehicle was an electric, exhilarating, mindboggling, almost-spiritual experience for him that left a massive, ongoing impact for life. His memories of those times are vivid and visceral.
“I am most grateful that I contributed to the success of Apollo,” recounts Kitchens, “if I had been born just two years later, it wouldn’t have happened! Being part of the 7,000-person team at Marshall Space Flight Center, and one of the 400,000-person nationwide NASA team – those are truly two ‘memberships’ that are infinitely meaningful to this day.”
As the ’70s progressed, congressional support for the space program diminished exponentially. Congressional appropriations were cut, the final Apollo missions were scrubbed, and the team of 400,000 was reduced accordingly. Kitchens found himself among many former NASA employees who had lost not only employment but the sense of intense common purpose and collegiality that had given meaning to their lives. Back in Louisiana, Kitchens worked briefly in traditional chemical engineering but found it unfulfilling. As he considered his options, the graduate library science program at LSU strongly piqued his interest.
“I was seeking my identity,” Kitchens notes. “My father often said ‘anything worth doing is worth doing well’ and I followed its logical corollary ‘what one enjoys, one will probably do well.'” Realizing he had always been a book lover, and that he was comfortable and confident in the library environment, he entered the program.
“The curriculum, at least in the first-semester reference course, forced me to go into the stacks in order to do the assignments. It was then, in a certain subtle way, that I ‘talked to the books’ and they would talk back to me. By the time I left GSLS (LSU’s Graduate School of Library Science) for the Engineering Library at the University of Alabama, there had arisen a spontaneous, reflexive image within me, and I could meld with that image in the working world. To this day the image persists and I sustain, even in retired life, the application of the fundamentals that GSLS embedded in me when chasing an endless emergence of new curiosities via research. As a person-oriented to research, I ‘toe the line’ with personal discipline in the use of those fundamentals which trace back to GSLS.”
Although he has added the discipline of library science to his repertoire, Kitchens has retained his grounding in engineering and science and sees the skill sets as inseparable. He observes that most engineering practitioners will declare themselves to be problem solvers. Problem solving requires information resources, and strong information resources contribute to robust problem solving. This, in essence, is what inspired him to make his gift to LSU Libraries.
“By encouraging the future scientists and engineers, perhaps even in aerospace, I hope to catalyze their occupational paths, each to an eventual personal, individual internal sense of fulfillment.”