Alfred Corbin, a longtime Fort Walton Beach resident, died Monday, May 21, at his home, surrounded by friends and family, after suffering a stroke. He was 91.
Alfred was a founder and former president of Metric Systems Inc., now DRS. Later he formed his own company, Technical Services Laboratory, eventually turning it over to his son Andrew.
He was a Navy veteran of World War II, with shipboard duty in the South Pacific aboard a submarine chaser near the end of the war. He trained in the Navy as an electronics technician and long credited the Navy’s E-schools with providing the foundation for what would be an outstanding career in electronics.
After his Navy service (he remained an inactive reservist and was later commissioned as an ensign), Corbin entered the University of Maryland to become an electronics engineer. On his first day there he met a local girl, also a student, manning an information booth for new university arrivals. He and Lois Anne Forrester dated for a couple of rambunctious college years and were married two days before Christmas in 1948. Corbin graduated from Maryland in 1950 with Lois and their infant son, the first of four children, looking on.
Lois died in 2012 after almost 64 years of marriage.
Alfred’s first job was with the Engineering and Research Corp. in Riverdale, Md., not far from where he and Lois had settled near her family home in College Park. Among other projects while he was there, he helped develop a flight simulator for the Boeing KC-135, the Air Force’s fuel-tanker derivative of the first jet airliner, Boeing’s 707.
In 1957 the family moved to Melbourne, and later Cocoa Beach, Fla., where Alfred worked for RCA at the Technical Laboratory at Patrick AFB in the early days of America’s space program. He specialized in telemetry systems – timekeeping and time-coordinating – across the Atlantic Missile Range.
In 1960, unhappy with a change in contractors at Cape Canaveral – he was by then working for Pan Am – Alfred moved the family to Fort Walton Beach, where he and Lois would remain for the rest of their lives, and took a job with Canoga Electronics. While there, Corbin was granted patents for a couple of control circuits, applying existing electronics technology to novel circuit designs.
When Canoga decided to close its operation here, Corbin and several co-workers decided to take it over and create a new company, Metric Systems. Within a couple of years of its founding, the partners merged Metric into a Texas holding company called Westec.
Alfred became Metric’s president in 1966. Within a few months, Westec collapsed in a stock manipulation scandal that sent four of its top executives to jail.
During his tenure at the top of Metric, Alfred served as co-chairman of the 1970 South Okaloosa County United Fund campaign.
Although Metric thrived under his leadership, the turmoil at corporate headquarters and the demands of the CEO job took Alfred more and more away from the engineering work he loved. To get back to “twisting wires,” as he called it, he started his own electronics engineering company, aiming mostly at interesting federal government contracts, in 1971.
At Technical Services Laboratory, Alfred developed such products as a chilled-mirror dew-point sensing system, still in use by the National Weather Service and the Federal Aviation Administration, and electrical power distribution panels still used by military units in the field.
Born to Joseph and Ethel Guntzburger in 1927 in Larchmont, N.Y., a wealthy New York City suburb, Alfred was the second of two sons. They lived in what he described as a “large, fine house” with “many servants and a nanny, of course.” That ended with the Great Depression. He was a toddler when his parents separated and his mother moved back to Manhattan, first as long-term hotel residents and later in apartments, all between Central Park and the Hudson River.
His mother got a job downtown selling insurance. She began dating Will Corbin, the brother of a co-worker. Will was an architect from Kansas who had studied at the University of Illinois and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They were married in 1940.
Will adopted Ethel’s sons as his own. Her relatives suggested that the boys also take his name; they would be better off with a non-Jewish name in a society that was often openly anti-Semitic. So as young teenagers, Alfred Guntzburger and his older brother Henry became Corbins.
When work took Will to the Chesapeake Bay area at the beginning of World War II, he liked what he saw. He and Ethel moved to Annapolis, Md., in 1943. Their sons, who had spent most of their education years at boarding schools, both came to consider Annapolis home, or as close to a home as they ever had.
Lois came from a poor farming family. They had moved from the Midwest (Okie-style, on a beat-up old pick-up truck) to College Park in the 30s, her father a cowboy/farmer with a master’s degree in agronomy whose work mostly took him away from the family.
So both Al and Lois came from what might today be considered at least slightly dysfunctional families. But Lois had grown up with a houseful of brothers and sisters, and a strong mother who held them all together, so she was prepared to satisfy Alfred’s lifelong craving for a real family. Together they put together a home life that screamed “Leave It To Beaver:” Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Sunday school, Little League, kids in the back of the station wagon at the drive-in theater. Family dinner was a nightly event (Alfred made sure he was home for dinner even if he had to return to work afterward), filled with conversation and laughter.
They always let their children make their own decisions, even through their unruly teenage years. Alfred was particularly gifted at offering a gentle, almost imperceptible, nudge in what might be a sensible direction, but he and Lois always respected their kids’ own judgment, even when it turned out to be hopelessly flawed.
Al bought the family its first houseboat (he had tried a couple of smaller boats earlier) in the early ‘60s, a homemade wooden barge with a shack on top that he found at a Perdido River fish camp. It became the Corbins’ weekend escape (always with friends or other families aboard), beached at a Santa Rosa Sound spoils island for swimming, picnicking or overnighting. Later, the houseboats got a little bigger and a bit more comfortable (a flushing head instead of a bucket) and entertained Al and Lois’s grandchildren when they entered the picture. Al always seemed happiest aboard the boats when some mechanical malfunction forced him to improvise some unlikely but clever solution in order to limp home. For many years later in life Al and Lois were active in the Fort Walton Yacht Club, banging into the dock (he was never a skillful captain) with a party crew aboard the houseboat to have dinner at the club.
Al was an inveterate punster (borrowing occasionally from the humor he had heard on the radio in the ‘30s and ‘40s, inevitably evincing from Lois an exasperated, “Oh, Alfie!”), and he loved a good joke, particularly those drawn-out “shaggy-dog” stories (always fit for mixed company, although frequently bearing a clever double entendre). His wit was sharp to the end. The stroke left him unable to properly swallow. In the hospital he said he wanted to drink a gallon of fruit juice. His daughter Susan explained that that was not possible. He answered: “I’m in Capistrano.” Susan, thinking he had crossed over into La-La Land, asked what he was talking about. “Waiting for the swallows to return,” he replied.
In the ‘70s, Al and Lois took up golf. She was a natural athlete and became a fine amateur golfer, winning ladies’ golf club championships. Although Al enjoyed the game and the associated camaraderie, he was never very good at it. But he kept trying. He would regularly announce before a round that he had discovered the secret to a good swing and then knock off one double-bogey after another. Over the years, they were members of the Lake Lorraine and Rocky Bayou country clubs, and they caravanned with golfing buddies to courses all over the South.
He also pitched in with enthusiastic support for Lois’s painting and sculpture, building frames, setting up displays, hanging exhibits. As an engineer given to the dictates of science, he was in awe of Lois’s artistic ability throughout their long marriage. Both were active members of Fort Walton Beach’s Arts and Design Society (ADSO).
Al had always been interested in old cars, from the first Model T jalopy he and his brother scraped up a few dollars to buy, to the 1934 Ford convertible rumble-seat roadster he owned until a couple of years before his death. (He had driven one just like it when he and Lois were dating.) He was active in the local Model A & T Club and the Playground Area Antique and Classic Car Club. He restored a handful of Model Ts – always his favorite automobile – and then moved to the Ford flathead V8s of the ‘30s. He was a fervent believer in the power of Bondo to solve all automotive difficulties. And never in his life did he own a new car for his own use.
Around 2010 he started repairing antique radios, advertising on eBay and Amazon (which forced him into an ongoing and stubborn struggle with his personal computer). He set up shop in his garage and charged a minimal flat fee for repairs, no matter how long the job took. He dealt only with vacuum-tube radios and wanted nothing to do with more modern solid-state models, even if he had been a pioneer in applying transistors when they replaced tubes.
Alfred authored three books. One was a text on the design and use of a tricky transistor circuit. In 2006 he published a history of electronics that he hoped might introduce software writers and engineers to the machinery that makes their jobs possible. He called it “The Third Element,” the development that created the triode vacuum tube and marked the birth of modern electronics.
Later, springing from his radio repair business, he published a handbook on antique radio repair aimed at users with rudimentary electronics skills; he updated and expanded it three times and was working on a sequel – advanced repair -- when he died. The repair books continue to sell on Amazon at the rate of a book per day.
Al’s religious inclinations were mostly out of deference to Lois and, at her behest, to set an example for his children. He regularly suited up to attend church on Sunday when the kids were growing up – Lutheran or Presbyterian, depending on Lois’s current preference. Al and Lois were early supporters of the fledgling Westminster Presbyterian Church, where he pitched in with the church’s construction. But he rarely spoke of religion, other than as a matter of historical or philosophical interest (and he did enjoy the occasional thought-provoking sermon). He believed unerringly in the Golden Rule – and did unto others accordingly.
Alfred is survived by his children, Will F. Corbin and his wife, Linda; Susan Corbin Blume; Andrew J. Corbin and his wife, Therese; and Julia Corbin Gordon and her husband, Greg, all of Fort Walton Beach; his grandchildren, Katie Corbin Walters and her husband, Jake, of Watford City, N.D.; Will Christopher Corbin and his wife, Mai, of Bangkok, Thailand; Lee Blume of San Diego, Calif., and Dana Blume of Long Beach, Calif.; Brian Corbin and his wife Sarah Burns, of New York, N.Y.; Ben Corbin of Washington, D.C.,; Claire Corbin, also of Washington; Michael Gordon and his wife, Meghan, of Fort Walton Beach; Justin Gordon and his wife, Jessica, also of Fort Walton Beach; Brett Gordon and his wife, Morgan, of Waukesha, Wis.; and Hank Gordon and his wife, Hannah, of Fort Smith, Ark.; and eight great-grandchildren.
He also leaves behind his special friend, Julie Martin of Fort Walton Beach.
The family invites friends and relatives to join us for “Al’s Final Happy Hour” on June 8 beginning at 5 p.m. (it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere) at Two Trees Restaurant at the Fort Walton Beach Municipal Golf Course to honor Al with bad jokes, lame puns, dry martinis, cheap cigars and Dixieland music.