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Originally published Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Boeing exec helped flight museum thrive

During four decades as a Boeing engineer and executive, Robert E. Bateman worked on some of the company's most recognizable planes, including...

Seattle Times staff reporter

During four decades as a Boeing engineer and executive, Robert E. Bateman worked on some of the company's most recognizable planes, including the B-52 and the 747. He led one of the company's more unusual experiments — the construction of sea-skimming hydrofoils.

But Mr. Bateman's most visible influence on Seattle may be seen at the Museum of Flight, which he helped grow from a small gallery into one of the largest aerospace museums in the world.

Mr. Bateman, a longtime Capitol Hill resident, died in his sleep Sunday (March 23) while recuperating from a back injury. He was 84.

Along with other old Boeing hands, Mr. Bateman campaigned to save the Red Barn — Boeing's original manufacturing plant, which had been abandoned by the company and was threatened with demolition in the 1970s.

The building was moved to the south end of Boeing Field and transformed into the Museum of Flight's original wing in 1983. As an active member of the museum foundation's board from 1984 to 1998, Mr. Bateman led fundraising campaigns and planning for additional galleries and airplanes for the museum, which now draws 400,000 visitors a year.

"He was a gentleman. You could count on his word. He supported the museum in every way through his lifetime, and he had a true love of aviation," said Ralph Bufano, former chief executive of the museum.

Born in 1923 in Butte, Mont., Mr. Bateman moved with his family to Seattle, where he graduated from Queen Anne High School in 1941. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve and attended Purdue University as part of the Navy's V-12 program, which trained prospective officers. He graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

At Purdue, he met Sarah Elizabeth Hayes, whom he would walk to classes. One day, as they passed the student dorms, Mr. Bateman told her, "You're not going to believe me, but I'm going to marry you."

He was right. Mr. and Mrs. Bateman enjoyed a 61-year marriage, and they traveled to dozens of countries.

Mr. Bateman maintained a lifelong attachment to Purdue, raising money and making annual visits to speak with engineering students. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1992, and in 2005 he received the Order of the Griffin, one of the university's highest honors.

"He was one of our most distinguished and loyal alumni," said former Purdue President Steven Beering.

During his long career at Boeing, Mr. Bateman rose through the ranks of engineers to become a trusted executive placed in charge of major initiatives.

In 1976, as a company vice president and general manager, he was tapped to head a new division constructing hydrofoils — boats that zip across the water and rise off the surface on winglike foils. Boeing built dozens of hydrofoils for research, military and passenger service, but orders for the expensive craft eventually dried up.

Mr. Bateman retired from Boeing in 1988 as corporate vice president for governmental and international affairs.

Despite his many accomplishments and awards, Mr. Bateman's family and friends described him as a consistently humble man.

He liked to look on the bright side of problems, encouraging his children to handle challenges "one rock at a time," recalled his daughter, Lucy Ray, of London.

Besides his daughter, Mr. Bateman is survived by his wife, Sarah Bateman; son Paul Bateman, of Mill Creek; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by son Robert "Reb" Bateman.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at Christ Episcopal Church, 4548 Brooklyn Ave. N.E., Seattle. A "reception of happiness" will follow at the Museum of Flight.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Museum of Flight, Purdue University Foundation, Navy League of The United States and Alphi Chi Omega Foundation.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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