Coiley, Danner, Green: 150 years of Fermilab history

It was 1969, and Keith Coiley was a high-schooler who heard about a good-paying summer job working at what was then named the National Accelerator Laboratory. That year, Johnny Green, also in high school, was recruited to join the lab, as was Curtis Danner a year later. Danner and Green were recruited as part of the NAL Equal Employment Opportunity program.

Fifty years later, they continue as productive members of the Fermilab workforce and community. In recognition of Black History Month, they talked with Fermilab news editor Leah Hesla about their experiences as black men working at an international science center over a half-century. Below is a glimpse of their collective 150 years of Fermilab history.

How did your career at Fermilab start, and what do you do now?

Johnny Green: I started off as a lab assistant in June 1969. I was recruited from Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago, and Fermilab recruiters decided they wanted to give us an opportunity to be trained and to work at this special high-energy physics laboratory. So I came here for the summer, liked it and stayed. There were six of us from Dunbar. We worked on electronics.

For the last 20 years I’ve been a fabrication specialist. Lately that’s involved working on components for projects related to the CMS experiment, DZero, the Dark Energy Camera, SuperCDMS, Muon g-2 and Mu2e. Over the years it’s been diversified into whatever Fermilab needs help in.

Curtis Danner: In 1970, there were six of us from Westinghouse High School in Chicago. We were recruited to Fermilab by Jim Thompson and Bill Butler. I started on my birthday — I turned 18. I started out as a lab assistant in the Film Analysis Facility, building a lot of scanning machines to look at bubble chamber films. I did that 10 years. Later I helped build electronics for the fixed-target experiments and interfacing for computer numerical control machines that were used to fabricate detectors.

Now I’m a technical supervisor, in charge of three different facilities and providing electronics support for the experiments.

Keith Coiley: I basically came here when I was still in high school. I started on my 17th birthday. They were going to pay $90 a week to cut grass. So I came out that summer, and they invited me to come back the next summer. It was in 1971 when I came to work at Fermilab permanently. You were able to move to an extent: I started out with a farm crew, then moved into the Receiving Department, then from there was a driver for a while. Then I came over to what was then Computing Department as a computer operator trainee. That’s where I’ve been since.

Now I’m task manager with the Computing Division. Whenever we’d get any robotic tape libraries in, any new components, I would oversee their assembly. I also take care of a lot of the personnel aspects. I’m a jack-of-all-trades, in some sense. I get stuff done. It’s varied; it’s not one specific thing.

From left: Johnny Green, Keith Coiley and Curtis Danner were all in high school when they first came to work for Fermilab. Fifty years later, they continue working as productive members of the laboratory. Photo: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

What was it like working at Fermilab as a person of color in the lab’s early history?

JG: I had a lot of growing up to do. I’d only been in the inner city. There, the only time I came across someone of another race was if we happened to go to White Sox park or some function downtown. But my little neighborhood was all black. When I came to Fermilab, I was one of a few. My associates were all white. I was trying to figure out how to fit in. It took a lot of misunderstanding on my part to figure out what was expected, and I tried too hard to be what was expected, or to be accepted, and I realized that wasn’t working. I think I finally arrived at a point: “Just be yourself and do what you gotta do, and call it a day.”

KC: It was like a reverse situation for me, growing up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Coming to Fermilab was my opportunity to work with other African Americans. I did not have another black student in school with me until I was in eighth grade. My senior year, out of probably 2,000 students, 10 of us were black. It was interesting to see that Fermilab was an experiment in diversity at the time. You were working with all kinds of people. It was a first for them as well. It had its growing pains. But I really enjoyed it. It was like a little United Nations out in the middle of nowhere, different parts of the country and cultures.

CD: The culture’s really strange coming from a public high school. We were taught to say “yes sir, no ma’am.” We were kids talking to adults. Then we come out here, and the physicists wanted to be addressed by first name. It’s still like that today. You don’t hear “Dr.” this or that. It’s a first-name basis. It took a while to get rid of that habit.

What has it been like working at the lab since then?

JG: As I matured, I learned how to compete. I felt that some people were uncomfortable with my ability to do this work. I’m basically competing with myself. It’s hard for them to ignore me because I know what I’m doing. Sometimes it makes people a little uncomfortable, especially as I got older and more capable of carrying out these tasks. I still respect people, and I expect them to respect me. I do a good job, I expect to get recognized, and sometimes that doesn’t happen.

CD: To me, it seems like the lab has drastically changed from how it used to be. Where once the electronics for the experiments were all built in house, nowadays a lot of the work is done by the universities, and that has changed the technician’s role. Many of my colleagues have retired or are about retire. Communication at the lab could be better — much of the time, I feel ignored.

KC: Early on there were a lot of opportunities for a lot of new things. With that came an animosity from some people. They felt like we were getting extra opportunity over them without realizing that this is the first time we were getting an opportunity. You saw a buddy system being formed over the years, or you saw opportunities were given more readily to some over others. You saw that there were things you truly had to try to prove to show your qualifications, and you were always dealt with with more scrutiny, especially in positions of authority. You had people who implied, “I like you and everything, and you’re good, but you’re just not as smart as me.” They’d look at that as being a scientific fact. You see that opportunities for some are abundant and others not so much.

JG: I felt that whenever we started to really stand out, the opportunity was taken away. Many of us weren’t allowed to grow. It stagnated our professional growth. I think over the last 20 years, I’ve had many opportunities thrown at me, and every time they come, I’d take them and run with them to completion.

Given the position I hold, I really should have been invited to more “inner circle” meetings. I’ve never been invited. I’m told after the meeting what the jobs are, and I decide how to order the work and the best way to get it done. I think people in general seem blind to the contribution made by my generation. My generation of minority colleagues is done, and I feel like the lab is moving on, not looking back.

KC: Dr. Edwin Louis Nichols, who had a consulting firm in Washington, DC, once came to the lab to talk about diversity in the workplace. He said that the U.S. is unique in that we have the best in the world here, and all we have to do is learn how to use our best to the fullest capacity, and things would happen.

And I think Fermilab has to come to that place, an understanding that egos have to be put down, that you’re not the only one with a big brain. Everyone has something to offer and contribute to help make the lab strong.

Use the best of who you have. You don’t have to make special allowances or anything else. If someone’s good at what they do, use them. Let them be good at what they do.

In your 50 years at the lab, which experience is the best, the most memorable? 

KC: Planting the hay fields for the bison in the early 1970s. We plowed different fields and planted different types of hay for the bison. The hardest work I ever did was baling hay. It helped me make a career decision while I was out here. But to see that they’re still here, still going, is pretty cool.

Also, August Mier would come out to the fields once we plowed them and look for artifacts like arrowheads and pottery shards. He was a Batavia resident, and he eventually donated about 100 of the artifacts he discovered on the site to Fermilab.

JG: My best experience was when I was recruited by the DZero experiment to fabricate its detector electronics. The group had fallen behind schedule, and they needed someone to coordinate the building and procurement of electronics — get to know the vendors, get the projects made, write the fabrication specifications. Marvin Johnson interviewed me and said, “Hey Johnny, this is what we need you to do. Do you think you can do it?” Of course, I had never done it before, so I said, “Well, I guess I can get it done.” I spent 10 years at DZero working at those kinds of projects. I saw a lot of satisfaction come out of that.

CD: Building and designing electronics controls and interfacing electronics for the tooling machinery used to help fabricate the large wedge-shaped panels for the muon chambers on the CMS detector at the Large Hadron Collider. We built machines for Fermilab and our international collaborators to build the muon chambers. I was also in charge of keeping the computer numerical control machines in the Fermilab Village running. They had a big role in a lot of component fabrication. It takes a lot of people, manpower, to build these detectors.

What advice do you have for young people of color who want a career in science?

CD: Pick a career, do something you love, and it won’t be like work. Over the years, I have heard too many people saying they hate their job. If they hate their job, it’s going to be reflected in their work. So, if they do something that they love, it’s not going to be like work. I’ve been here all these years. I’ve never had to do the same thing every day. Don’t be satisfied doing one thing. Try to learn as much as you can.

JG: Whatever opportunity comes your way, even if you don’t know how to do it, figure out how to do it. Do whatever you need to do to learn how to do it. Don’t say you can’t; you paint yourself into a bad situation that way. Keep on improving your situation. Don’t expect to get a whole lot of extra help. You’re going to have to be your own person. If you can do that, then you’ll probably be OK.

KC: Enjoy what you do. Enjoy the people. One of the greatest strengths of Fermilab is the people, that you are able to meet from other parts of the world, finding out how much we are the same, more than we are different. Also, know that you’re always going to need to learn. It’s an academic campus atmosphere, and it’s pretty cool that way. My biggest regret was that I didn’t continue my formal education. But being here at Fermilab has been an education in and of itself. That’s been pretty cool in what we’ve been able to see, the kind of science that’s being done. It’s been pretty amazing that way.