Obituary: Bertha Nonenbacher / New Yorker who worked on the Manhattan Project

October 26, 2011

By Mark Roth

October 23, 2011

When Bertha Van Rooyen graduated from Hunter College in New York City in the middle of the Depression, the city had stopped offering teachers’ exams, thwarting her original career plans.

With the help of Hunter’s president, the young geology major instead got a job working with the former U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, helping to unify different countries’ maps of North Africa to assist the burgeoning Allied war effort against Nazi tank commander Erwin Rommel.

After her boss repeatedly refused to promote her, Ms. Van Rooyen managed to land a job helping an obscure government agency find better sources of uranium in Chile. Only after getting the job did she find out she was working for the Manhattan Project.

Bertha Van Rooyen Nonenbacher died peacefully in her sleep on Thursday at the home of her daughter, Joan Nilson of Regent Square. She was 98.

She was born in the heart of Yorkville, the historic German section of Manhattan, and remained a New Yorker until moving here in 1983 to live with her daughter.

Mrs. Nonenbacher’s father was a native of Holland who stowed away on a ship to avoid his mother’s insistence that he become a priest. The ship put him to work in the galley, and he went on to make his career as a chef.

Her mother, the former Theresa Caccia, was an early community activist, working with Eleanor Roosevelt to ensure that New York tenements had fire escapes.

Mrs. Nonenbacher attended Hunter College High School and then the college itself.

After the atom bombs were dropped in Japan and the Manhattan Project began to wind down, Mrs. Nonenbacher was determined to stay at home to raise Joan, her only child.

But she began teaching first and second grade after her daughter started school, and continued as a teacher for 20 years, becoming the family’s main breadwinner after her husband, Joseph Nonenbacher, became ill with colon cancer and died in 1961.

The refusal of her first boss to promote her became a defining moment in her life, Ms. Nilson said.

After he told her that her work was high quality but “as long as I work here, no woman will ever be a supervisor,” she appealed to her friends to help her find another war job, which led to the Manhattan Project offer.

“She said one of the greatest satisfactions of her life was to hand the letter to her old supervisor saying she had gotten a higher-level security job and would no longer be working for him,” her daughter recalled. “When he asked her what the job was, she said, ‘You don’t have a high enough security clearance to know that.'”

After moving to Regent Square, her daughter said, Mrs. Nonenbacher exulted in sewing and arts and crafts work, telling stories to her friends in her distinctive New York accent.

In recent years, macular degeneration destroyed much of her sight, but “she accepted it with elegance and dignity,” Ms. Nilson said.

“I’m lucky that my mother shared so many stories with me. Whatever joy I had, sharing it with her made it twice as lovely, and whatever disaster I had, sharing it with her made the distress half as much.”

Funeral arrangements are still pending and will be handled by the Thomas L. Nied Funeral Home in Swissvale.

Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette