It is with deep regret that we alert readers to the passing of R. Barry Ashby, longtime “Federal Triangle” column author and Washington insider. In addition to all of those tangible things, Barry was a friend, and we will all miss him.
I learned of his Dec. 3 passing over the holidays after completing the January issue. Most readers loved Barry’s wit and wisdom, while some found his particular brand of politics distasteful. In either case, I always regretted not being able to get Barry to tell more stories about his vast experiences, including personally knowing several presidents. He was a true Washington insider, and many readers did not understand this.
Since Barry would not write columns about himself, I felt that I owed readers a bit of this information as we wish him a fond farewell. He relayed several stories from his formative years that likely fostered his political interests. These included a memory of all-he-could-eat ice cream on V-J Day, a World War II soldier attending his second-grade class to learn to read and write and losing his second-grade teacher after she was informed that her soldier fiancé had been killed in Germany.
Here is an excerpt from something Barry wrote to me a few years ago, in his own words.
"I graduated from engineering school with no idea what a working life may entail but soon found that rocket-motor design and development was very satisfying. I learned that designing, building and testing solid-propellant rocket motors was great fun.
"When I married in 1961, my new bride and I moved to suburban Washington, D.C., away from coal country, where I did the same sort of work for a little company based in Alexandria, Va. My job assignments were the same except the motors were small and used for steering control on space vehicles. It did not occur to me that my employer got these development and production contracts because the “big guys” in the industry laughed at the notion of these little “toy motors” being worth their attention.
"I can honestly say that I have blown up more rocket motors from 1961 to 1963 than anybody in America. At the start of the space age, satellites and manned vehicles were steered with these little motors. These successes prompted the U.S. Army at Redstone Arsenal to direct a contract to my employer, Atlantic Research Corp., for development of Redeye missile propulsion, which is still used today (Stinger) and is probably the most successful of all anti-aircraft missiles.
"Concurrent with this work, I started a plastics company to manufacture several plastic component parts for Redeye and other military weapons. This was at the time of urethane plastic evolution into military use and, within a few years, civilian applications. My partner (who later was a founder of Amtrak) and I sat in the kitchen and made parts that he then delivered to my employer for QC inspection. We made all types of plastic parts, mostly for aerospace users, and I then received a patent for a reinforced plastic grain-storage silo (Sphilo).
"I was sitting in George Bush’s office the day he became Director of the CIA. Later, we were asked to provide electronic security for the Carter Presidential campaign.
"About that time, I was asked to represent the sole U.S. maker of nuclear warheads on Capitol Hill, which I did for the second half of the Cold War. My major business evolved into representing private industry with new technologies that were particularly useful to the defense and intelligence communities. My consulting firm has represented over 250 companies in these endeavors.
"It was quite rewarding. The Director of Office of R&D at the CIA and I became friends, and it was a compatible relationship. We had lunch every month, and I would introduce new stuff to him from my clients. He would suggest that I call “Fred Smith,” who might need help in Washington.
"I have never been a government employee, but I did my part. One example was modifying garage-door openers that terrorists in the Middle East were using as switches to detonate IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The modification allowed us to change the tune after the bomb-maker got them, which prevented the devices from going off.
"It is interesting that I began writing a monthly column, oriented toward Washington, in the early 1970s at the invitation of my friend and mentor, Charles T. McClelland. I have been writing it ever since, and I dearly love doing it.
"I was fortunate to have had lunch at the White House and visit with President Reagan. I later attended his funeral and sat with Margaret Thatcher.
"More recently, as my technology consulting business slowed, a friend and I started a moonshine business that allows illegal shiners get square with the law by helping them get legal and licensed. This has now spread into an apothecary business that uses shine as a tincture.
"And lest I forget, I am a volunteer at National Park Service (Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse Battlefields) to be an interpreter of the historic events near where I live. My family settled in “the Valley” (Shenandoah) in the 1640s, so I consider myself a native and want to share the inspirations and magic that is America."
I hope this brief glimpse of Barry Ashby’s life and experiences will help everyone appreciate all that he did for his country and our magazine. His was a life well-lived!