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Richard M. Zehr, 93, retired chief engineer at Viatran

Richard M. Zehr, 93, retired chief engineer at Viatran

Aug. 25, 1926 – Jan. 23, 2020

Richard Morrell Zehr, retired chief engineer at Viatran Inc., died Jan. 23 in Canterbury Woods, Amherst, where he had been a resident since 2016. He was 93.

Born in Niagara Falls, the eldest of three boys, he was the son of George Zehr, chief engineer at the Schoellkopf Power Plant.

He and his brothers all became engineers. Norman was president of Ingersoll-Rand International. Stanley designed jet planes with Rockwell International.

At the age of 14, he designed and built a sailboat and took it out on Lake Ontario with eight members of his Sea Scout troop. They were bound for Toronto when they hit a large log in the water. With the help of a Canadian sailor, they repaired the damage and continued to sail the boat for many years.

He graduated early from Niagara Falls High School in January 1943 so that he could enlist in the Navy for World War II.

Signing up for the Navy V12 program to become a naval engineer, he went to Northwestern University, where he played flute in the Navy band and was a member of the track team, running the mile and two-mile events in the same meets. His best time in the mile was 4 minutes, 30 seconds.

When the war ended, he received an inactive commission in the Navy and enrolled in the University of Illinois, which his father attended. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and maintained his Navy commission, serving in the Naval Reserve for 20 years.

After college, he became an engineer at Bell Aerosystems in Wheatfield, where he worked on missile control and inertial guidance.

A paper he submitted, suggesting the use of the gravity field to steer a rocket, led to the development of an important project at Bell and now is an integral part of satellite technology.

In the 1960s, he joined Oxford Engineering, working on commercial and government projects for 10 years.

He then accepted a position as electrical engineer at Viatran on Grand Island, which manufactured transducers that control the flow inside pipelines and other hydraulic systems. He was promoted to chief engineer.

After devising a remote control system for the transducers, he became known as the father of transmitters. He held several patents on what are still standard devices.

During the Blizzard of 1977, he was stranded on Grand Island for two days in the Grand Island Fire Company headquarters. After that, he rarely missed a day of work.

He retired in 1991.

A longtime North Tonawanda resident, he took his family on camping trips and enjoyed hiking, skiing and sailing.

His wife of 43 years, the former Doris Nelson, died in 1992.

He was remarried to the former Janet Wasson Zimmerman, a North Tonawanda Middle School science teacher, in 1994.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Jeffrey; a daughter, Janet S.; a stepson, Joseph Zimmerman; two stepdaughters, April Mundhenke and Melanie Smith; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, in Redeemer Lutheran Church, 265 Falconer St., North Tonawanda.

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