Attorney donates $100,000 for Reach Center exhibit

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 15, 2014 

Leslie I. "Les" Brecke was recruited in the 1940s to work on a secret operation that would shape the Tri-Cities and change the world: the Manhattan Project.

"He was in graduate school at the University of Michigan in the department of physics. He was approached by DuPont, 'How would you like to join a new and exotic field of science?'" his son, Allen Brecke, recently told the Herald.

Les Brecke was 22 at the time. The young scientist's work took him from Chicago to Tennessee to New Mexico and finally to Hanford, where he stayed for decades before retiring in the early 1980s. He died in 2007.

Now his son is making a donation that will help ensure his father's contributions and those of his colleagues won't be forgotten, pledging $100,000 to the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center's Manhattan Project exhibit.

Brecke, a prominent local attorney who was named Tri-Citian of the Year in 2013, also is leaving another $100,000 in his will for maintenance and upkeep.

All that is in addition to $50,000 previously donated to the interpretive center by Brecke, a longtime supporter of the Reach who's helped lead fundraising.

The Reach center is set to open this summer at the west end of Columbia Park. A 14,000-square-foot main level will feature two galleries, a multipurpose room, a film viewing room, a great hall, offices and a store. The center also has a 10,000-square-foot basement.

The Manhattan Project exhibit is designed by helveticka, a Spokane-based firm. It's envisioned to eventually anchor a larger exhibit -- assembled over time as funding comes together -- telling the fuller story of the Hanford site.

The Manhattan Project was the place to start.

The project was a turning point in history -- both on an international scale and here in the Tri-Cities, said Lisa Toomey, Reach center CEO.

"The story of what happened in this community, as part of the Manhattan Project, is unique and fascinating. It's an amazing story when you think of what they were able to mobilize in such a short period of time," she said. "We want people to know the role this community played in World War II."

The Reach has $100,000 for the exhibit in hand, with the first installment of Brecke's pledge and $75,000 from other sources, including donations from CREHST museum members.

The total price tag for the exhibit isn't finalized, but it's estimated at $100,000. The remainder of Brecke's pledge could go for enhancement or expansion, Toomey said.

Les Brecke was the son of Norwegian immigrants and had a humble upbringing in the Fargo area, his son said.

He was a quiet man, but opened up a bit in his later years about his involvement in the Manhattan Project, with Allen and his two sisters, Leslie and Ann, each getting tidbits.

He was sad every Aug. 9, remembering the day the Fat Man bomb, built with plutonium produced at Hanford, dropped on Nagasaki. "He never forgot," Allen Brecke said. "... It was clearly a feeling that he was sorry that it had to end up that way."

His father was a hardworking man with good judgment and integrity, who made lifelong friends working on the Manhattan Project, Allen Brecke said.

After Les Brecke died, some Hanford history buffs asked to go through some of his things and found treasures, including his handwritten notes from his employee orientation for DuPont.

Allen Brecke keeps as prized possessions some mementos from this father's time at Hanford, including a certificate from Aug. 6, 1945, signed by the U.S. Secretary of War, saying the elder Brecke "participated in work essential to the production of the atomic bomb, thereby contributing to the successful conclusion of World War II." A plaque given to Les Brecke upon his retirement paid tribute to him as "Mr. Plutonium."

Allen Brecke loves the Tri-Cities, and "the interpretive center really showcases our area. ...What made us what we are was the rapid influx of the population to complete the Manhattan Project and continue through the Cold War years. That is our story," he said.

"(My dad's) participation ... I think it's pretty cool," he said.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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