Col. Sam Skemp cultivated nuclear warheads and roses

In the Army, he designed missiles. His later pursuits were more peaceful.
Col. Sam Skemp logged more than 20,000 hours as a volunteer.
Col. Sam Skemp logged more than 20,000 hours as a volunteer.
Published November 6 2013
Updated November 6 2013

SEMINOLE — Two days a week, a trim man with neatly parted white hair showed up early at Florida Botanical Gardens, carrying a bucket of gardening tools.

Sam Skemp, a retired Army colonel and a volunteer, had already taught thousands of schoolchildren how to grow vegetables. He talked about the care and nourishment of seeds necessary for a healthy adult plant, hinting at broader lessons.

Col. Skemp ran the rose garden of the Botanical Gardens since the park's opening in Largo in 2000.

Visitors stopped to watch him grafting rosebuds onto prime rootstock, trimming dead blossoms or mulching the soil.

Some colleagues knew his past as a scientist, working alongside Wernher Von Braun to develop nuclear missiles. He told them about the space race, the Cold War and what it was like advising presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon — but only if they asked.

Col. Skemp, who spent a career designing the deadliest nuclear weapons the world had known and a retirement nourishing the most delicate of flowers, died Oct. 24 after an illness. He was 88.

"I was always proud to tell people that I knew a 'real' rocket scientist, and that was Sam Skemp," Leslie Waters, Seminole's mayor and a longtime friend, wrote to the Tampa Bay Times in an email. "We had many conversations about his career in the Army, and about his experiences developing, coordinating and launching missiles, rockets, satellites and manned space flights. Couldn't get more interesting than that!"

The son of an Air Force major, Samuel Charles Skemp Jr. grew up in Rantoul, Ill., and Maxwell Air Force Base outside Montgomery, Ala. He was the ultimate straight arrow — a 4-H member who grew and sold peanuts, an Eagle Scout, a pre-med freshman at the University of Alabama by age 15.

He switched gears and followed his father into the military; the Army shepherded him from West Point to Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a master's degree in physics.

Sixty-two years ago he married Sonja Gottfried, a local who was working as a translator while he was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany.

"She was the love of his life," said Rita Skemp, his daughter-in-law. "You could see it in his eyes every time he looked at her."

In the 1950s Col. Skemp served at the Pentagon and Redstone Arsenal, Ala. He worked alongside Von Braun, designing multiple nuclear missiles and sending objects into space. As Von Braun worked on propulsion and fuel systems, Col. Skemp developed a heat shield that would protect objects re-entering the earth's atmosphere, as well as internal guidance systems.

Three launches of the Jupiter-C launch vehicle proved that the nose cone he had worked on would resist re-entry heat. "I think the most exciting moment was when I first launched the Jupiter nose cone and it was successful," Col. Skemp said in a Pinellas County documentary in 2011. "That was the most exciting thing because nobody had brought anything back from space, ever."

The heat shield also paved the way for manned space flight. Col. Skemp went on to serve in Vietnam, then served as project manager for the development of the Pershing I and II nuclear missiles.

After retiring from the Army in 1976, he helped design the space shuttle simulator in Houston and trained John Young and Robert Crippen, the shuttle's first astronauts.

He and his wife retired to Seminole in 1983 and he began his volunteer work, including serving as neighborhood association president during annexation by the city. In February 2012, in a crushing tragedy, Sonja Skemp died after accidentally setting herself on fire while lighting a cigarette.

"He lasted another 20 months," said Sam Skemp, 59, Col. Skemp's son.

Two years ago, Pinellas County honored Col. Skemp for logging more than 20,000 volunteer hours since the 1980s, a record that still stands.

Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.