From Radio Building to Rocket Launching

Sauber poses in his toolshed.

November 27, 2018

By Madeline Hueske ('19)

Paul Sauber (’44) always liked tinkering with machines. As a student living in DeSmet the early ’30s, he built a crystal radio set with a wire that went out his window into a nearby tree. The students weren’t allowed radios in the dorms, but a priest was so impressed with Sauber’s design that he let him keep the radio. “They told him if he was smart enough to make the thing, he could hold onto it,” recalls Sauber’s son, Phil. This ingenuity and wit stayed with Sauber for his entire life, until his passing at age 98.

Sauber graduated from Gonzaga with a degree in electrical engineering. He wanted to fly planes for the Air Force, but his bad eyesight rendered him ineligible. He chose to design the planes instead, taking a job at Boeing that he held until retiring in 1982. In the early phases of his career, he worked on B52 planes. They were breaking apart in flight because the ribs on the body of the planes weren’t spaced evenly. Sauber designed a facility where they could test the new specs on the planes in a search for “harmonic oscillation.”

Sauber, right, works on controls during a test at the Boeing facility. 

He also participated in several rocket launches. Boeing built the first few stages of the Saturn V rocket, and Sauber watched from the bunker at Cape Kennedy when it launched for the moon. During preparation for the Apollo 12 launch, Sauber had to make some last-minute adjustments. “The rocket was over 350 feet tall, so it was too heavy to take off,” says Phil. “My dad had to problem-solve on the ground to build up enough fuel and thrust to get that thing off the ground.” He shook President Nixon’s hand after the launch.

Sauber's NASA access badges for the Apollo launches. 

However revolutionary his work was for the world, Sauber’s family was more important. Sauber was married to his wife, Francis, for 74 years, after meeting her on a blind date while she was studying at Sacred Heart School of Nursing. Paul and Francis volunteered with many Catholic organizations, as well as the Boy Scouts and the Bellevue Food Bank. He was a skilled woodworker and his grandchildren fondly remember his handcrafted toys.

Sauber and his wife of 74 years, Frances, enjoy a glass of wine. 

“He really was a Mr. Fix-It. He was a great problem-solver and he carried that throughout his life,” says Phil. “On top of that, he was outgoing and charismatic and everyone was his friend.” His 98 years were full of adventure, love and charity, and he left a lasting legacy on his community.