Bob Waxman, a pillar of St. Mary’s County and the Naval Air Station Patuxent River community, died last Thursday at the age of 93, leaving behind a legacy of civil service.
Over half a century, Waxman shepherded operations at Webster Outlying Field in St. Inigoes through numerous attempts to close or consolidate it, and has been hailed for the massive growth and success of the base’s operations under his leadership.
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my good friend and a great American, Bob Waxman,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) said in a statement.
“Under his leadership, Webster Field saw unprecedented growth and expansion and survived five rounds of base closures and realignments,” Hoyer said. “I worked closely with Bob to prevent the closure of Webster Field, and I can say with confidence that the installation would not be what it is today without his leadership and his tireless efforts to grow its business and ensure that the federal government knew how essential the base and its work was to the military.”
Waxman, raised in Baltimore, moved to St. Mary’s in 1949 and began his career with Naval Air Station Patuxent River in 1951, after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II and returning to study electronic engineering at University of Maryland on the GI Bill.
The civil engineer quickly elevated through the ranks. In 1953 he was promoted and transferred to the Navy Air Navigation Electronics Program, soon taking over the program after most of his office’s employees relocated to work with the Federal Aviation Administration in Atlantic City, N.J.
The self-described “benevolent dictator” served as the technical director long after NANEP’s move from Pax River to Webster Field around 1960, and through numerous name changes. In a 2018 interview with The Enterprise, Waxman said NANEP’s budget grew from around $300,000, when he first took over, to $600 million by the time he retired in 2006.
Now, Webster Field is home to $1 billion businesses.
“He provided a leadership environment where his engineers could go out and bring the work in … and provide the communication electronics capabilities to the warfighter that the warfighter needed, and we did it rapidly,” said Pat Woodburn, a retired civil servant at Webster Field, who worked with Waxman for 35 years, starting in 1974.
Those contracts extended beyond the U.S. Navy — Webster Field was providing electronics and communications systems to the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army and the White House, Woodburn said.
“Typical Navy production of a planned system takes a year — but we were doing things in months, and sometimes weeks, and getting them to the warfighter,” Woodburn said.
“Bob’s tireless advocacy and passion for Webster Field ensured that thousands of jobs in Southern Maryland were protected,” Hoyer stated. “He was known affectionately by his colleagues as the ‘Mayor of Webster Field,’ and he cared deeply about the base and its employees.”
Waxman “believed in Webster Field and their mission,” Woodburn said. “I have no doubt that that organization is there today because of his efforts to make sure that it survived. Bob would say it was about survival.”
After Waxman retired as the aircraft division deputy for avionics competency in 2006, he immediately went on to work as a senior adviser at MIL Corp. for another 10 years. He met his wife at the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center, and together they raised five children.
Waxman’s former colleagues have said he was fair, humble and always stood up for his people.
“He brought bold leadership skills. He wasn’t always the most lovable guy, but you had to respect him, because if he believed in something, he was going to fight to the death,” Woodburn said.
“His office was always open,” Betty Poe, who worked as Waxman’s secretary from 1975 until Waxman’s retirement, said. “He was very professional, he was very fair and open-minded — if you had an issue or problem, he was someone you could talk to about it.”
Poe said she and Waxman continued to stay in touch after his retirement — every year for his birthday on Oct. 19, Poe said she baked him a chocolate eclair cake, a dessert he loved.
Waxman’s wife, Ruth Heilbrunn Waxman, said her husband was “proud of his friendship with Steny. Steny called him every year on his birthday.”
The two separated in 1994, but never divorced. Ruth Waxman remembers him as an avid sports fan, and dedicated to “his beloved NESEA,” or the Naval Electronic Systems Engineering Activity, she said.
Waxman’s fondness for sports led him beyond his Sunday games — he helped get tennis courts installed at Webster Field, and on their lunch break, Woodburn said they would play tennis and softball.
“I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my time at Webster Field,” Waxman said in an interview last year. “Did I make all the right decisions? No, I made mistakes; but I think people understood that I tried to do what was right for all of us. I’m most proud of the fact that we succeeded. I enjoyed my career and not everyone can say that. I’ve been very lucky.”
Waxman is survived by his wife of 65 years, and his four children and 10 grandchildren. Waxman’s son, Eric Waxman, died late last year, Ruth Heilbrunn Waxman said.
After his cremation, Bob Waxman’s family held a private memorial service “and wishes to extend its gratitude to all the friends, caregivers and colleagues who remained in touch and visited Bob often,” his son, Bruce Waxman, wrote in an email.