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Robert William Holmberg

June 20, 2017

Robert William Holmberg, 94, who spent his career as a chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, passed away Tuesday, June 20, 2017, four months after the death of his beloved wife, Reba Justice Holmberg.


Bob was born in 1923 to the late Elmer and Ida (Barquist) Holmberg in Fort Dodge, Iowa. He developed an early curiosity in science and especially chemistry, which included setting off at least one explosion during a chemistry experiment in his home. He graduated from Iowa State University with a BS in Chemistry in 1944. As a student there, he began working on the Manhattan Project at the Ames Laboratory. Eventually drafted into the Army, after a short basic training, he found himself plucked from the ranks to join the Army’s Special Engineer Detachment and was sent to wartime Oak Ridge.


Bob’s first job in Oak Ridge was in a research division at Castle on the Hill (now known as DOE Headquarters).

In 1945, before the end of the war, he got a job in the chemistry division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the field of plutonium chemistry. Bob met many lifelong friends in the early days of Oak Ridge and before long was introduced to Reba , a native of the pre-Oak Ridge Robertsville community and recent graduate of the University of Tennessee who was also working in a chemistry lab. They married in 1950 at Chapel on the Hill. In 1960 while working and raising young children, he earned a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Tennessee. Bob remained at ORNL for the rest of his career, mostly in the Analytical Chemistry Division retiring in 1986.


Although raised in the Midwest, Bob loved his adopted city and state. Along with Reba, he was an avid camper and hiker, taking his children on countless trips to the Smokies and Tennessee state parks. He gave them a love of travel and sense of adventure and they remember especially a month-long camping trip across the United States in 1966 in a new station wagon and camper. He was an avid reader with an enduring intellectual curiosity. He loved poetry, history, and walking with his dogs on the family farm in Oliver Springs. In retirement, Bob improved his golf game, played a lot of bridge, helped Reba in her garden and traveled throughout the world.


He volunteered as a youth basketball coach, was a scientific reader for Recording for the Blind, and served on the Board of Oak Ridge Country Club. He and Reba enjoyed many years as volunteers and season ticket holders at the Oak Ridge Playhouse. They were members of several bridge clubs with the friends from their early days in Oak Ridge. Bob was a frequent guest in the homes of his far flung family, where he built flower gardens, performed minor feats of carpentry and played with grandchildren. He was blessed with good friends and old buddies and most recently enjoyed poker games and outings with the “Old Chemists”. Bob and Reba’s home remained the hub of family gatherings and celebrations for their entire lives.


Bob is survived by his four children, Nancy Holmberg Harrison of Oak Ridge, Doug (Mary) Holmberg of Prospect, KY, Connie (Nathan) Fagre of Middleton, WI and Eric (Jenny Hutton) of Bluffton, SC. He was adored by his ten grandchildren, Andrew (Julia) Kirk of Knoxville, Emily and Claire Holmberg, Mats (Emily Bergman) Fagre Christian, Alex and Ben Fagre, and Isabella, Henry and Clay Holmberg. He is survived by two great-granddaughters, Kathryn and Audrey Kirk and several nieces and nephews.

In addition to his wife and parents, he was preceded in death by his brothers and sisters, Carl Holmberg, Helen Reid, Ray Holmberg and Carol Anderson.


His children will be greeting friends at their family home, 145 N. Seneca Rd. Oak Ridge from 5-7 pm Friday, June 23, 2017. Memorials to Bob can be made to Friends of the Smokies, PO Box 1660, Kodak, TN 37764,

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