'I don't think I'll ever acquire everything that Leo has, but I try to observe everything I can.'
Leo Boyd's apprentice
Three mornings a week Leo Boyd arrives for work at Northrop Corp.'s Electronics Division in Hawthorne, where he works on the sophisticated gizmos that he pioneered 40 years ago. At age 81, he isn't about to retire now.
"For me, when I reached age 65, I thought, well, 70 would be a good time to retire," said the white-haired, bespectacled craftsman. "Then I got to be 75 and now I'm 81."
Boyd first retired at age 65 in 1972. But when Northrop needed his skills and experience, Boyd agreed to stay on. After a one-month layoff to revise his Social Security status, he was back on the job.
"I agreed (to work) on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday because it gives me a long weekend," said the soft-spoken Boyd as he sat in his office.
Boyd builds and repairs a host of complicated devices for aircraft and missiles, including navigation and laser systems. He also instructs others in his craft and considers teaching to be his greatest career achievement.
"I've enjoyed working with younger people," Boyd said, noting that some of his apprentices have already retired.
Not that Boyd is the oldest employee at Northrop. The corporation also employs an 83-year-old aircraft mechanic at its Lawton, Okla., subsidiary and has "at least four others" who are 80 and older, according to Tom Kaminski, a spokesman for Northrop's Electronics Systems Group.
And other South Bay aerospace firms also count on the skills of elderly workers to pass along their knowledge to others. Rockwell International employs an 80-year-old and an 83-year-old at its El Segundo offices, according to a company spokesman. And Hughes Radar Systems Group in El Segundo has three employees who are in their 70s, a company official said.
But Boyd has acquired a certain reputation during his 56 years in the defense industry. Co-workers say that he brings a combination of Old World craftsmanship and New World technical savvy to his job. Shan Shinde, Boyd's supervisor, called him "one of a dying breed."
"Leo once came up with a slogan for the design engineer: 'If it can be put on paper, we can build it,' " Shinde said.
"He's very good, he's very precise, and he's very patient," added Boyd's newest apprentice, 57-year-old Bob Yamaguchi. "I don't think I'll ever acquire everything that Leo has, but I try to observe everything I can."
Boyd says that he enjoys each task or moves on to another. "I've always made it a point that whenever a job I had became work I found something else to do." And his dedication to his job once prompted him to forgo 400 hours of earned vacation.
"They said take it off or lose it," said Boyd. "I told them to write it off; there was part of me in (the project). It was something I wanted to work on."
With his goatee, steel-rimmed glasses and white smock, the Long Beach-born Boyd looks the part of a no-nonsense European craftsman. The look is by design, he acknowledged.
"We had some German technicians consulting on a project who insisted on calling me a 'master craftsman,' " Boyd said. "One of them kept calling me 'master,' but he said, 'You need whiskers.' So I grew them."
Boyd started his career as stage electrician for MGM Studios, working three years on film sets, including those of the first "Tarzan" series. In 1930 he joined Douglas Aircraft Co. as a tool designer and, for two years in the '40s, took evening classes in drafting and math at UCLA. He did not earn a degree, and he does not regret it.
"My real concern is the mechanical assemblies--we refer to it as hardware--putting them together and making them work," he said. "I seem to like that better than sitting down and drawing something."
Boyd stayed with Douglas until 1946, when Northrop hired him as an engineer in the mechanical development lab at a time when "everything was so new . . . that even the engineers didn't know how to do it," he said. When the work called for improvisation, Boyd proved equal to the task. He once used a black widow spider's web to make delicate cross hairs for microscopes and other equipment used for precise measuring.
In 1947, Boyd began work on a guidance system for the Snark, the United States' first intercontinental missile, and over the years he has been involved in some capacity in most of the Northrop Electronics Division's major projects. For instance, he helped build a test navigator for the B-1B bomber and worked on the navigation system for the MX strategic missile. At present, he keeps busy working on a navigation system for a classified strategic aircraft.
Boyd said that thoughts about the destructive uses of the missile and jet components he works on do not enter his mind. "I never gave it much thought," he said. "It was a job to do. Tooling was in my mind. My interest was: How do you do it?"
Boyd concedes that working beyond the traditional age of retirement is not for everyone. "So many people have worked hard, and they are looking forward to retirement." But he considers keeping busy important to his life, and he recommends that elderly people take up a hobby. "You've got to keep your mind occupied. Otherwise you start feeling every ache and pain."
Widowed eight years ago, Boyd now lives alone in Seal Beach. He has two sons and a daughter, 10 grandchildren seven great grandchildren. To relax, Boyd visits his three brothers in Northern California.
Boyd considers himself in good health and expects to live at least as long as some of his family members. "My whole family is healthy. My oldest brother is 91 and still going strong."