David Blee could have been anything he wanted to be, so long as the job involved people. David, who died suddenly and tragically early at 66, was dynamic in everything he did — and he did nothing better than people. He could lead them, inspire them, cajole them, entertain them, and just offer the best company possible.
Bright red-haired and gregarious, David combined his people skills with high purposes. His highest purpose was providing for his wife Mary Elizabeth “Mary Biz” and their three children. But his other purposes were promoting the nuclear industry, Thoroughbred racing and breeding, and opera. He was the founder and chief executive officer of the United States Nuclear Industry Council (USNIC) in Washington; vice president of the famed Runnymede Farm in Paris, Ky., a board member of the Kentucky Equine Education Project and co-chairman of its political action committee; and secretary of the Opera Camerata of Washington.
David, who died on Dec. 29 in Lexington, Ky., was in the middle of these great enterprises when his life was cut short by a severe reaction days earlier to an antibiotic prescribed to treat a minor infection, according to family members. He maintained two homes: one near Runnymede Farm and the other, the family’s primary residence, in Washington, the scene of many of his triumphs.
If you walked into room full of people — there for a meeting or a party, a musical performance, or somewhere you would encounter a gaggle of people who appeared spellbound – in the center you would find David, listening, as much as talking, but always somehow commanding the conversation. He was superb company; among the most companionable of people.
David was also a one-man lesson in how to get things done. When he founded USNIC 15 years ago, he opened what amounted to a second front in his efforts to promote nuclear energy and its benefits. He concentrated on the nuclear supply chain and reactor technology, particularly new technologies and small modular reactors. He worked with the national laboratories and often ran conferences in conjunction with them. I was on hand for advanced reactor sessions at Argonne, Oak Ridge and Idaho.
David graduated from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania with a degree in economics. But politics captured him, and he worked on Capitol Hill for Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and later he became an assistant secretary in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Energy.
The critical union between politics and technology was incubated in David’s mind and it was to become the foundation of USNIC. He knew everyone on Capitol Hill — or so it seemed if you walked there with him — and he knew all the entrepreneurial people in nuclear engineering and business. He was wise in what might not have seemed wise at the time.
David did not fight the old, tired fights about nuclear power; the kinds of arguments which have bedeviled the technology. You would not find him debating critics, correcting misinformation, or muting his arguments to please a fringe constituency in the industry. David was about exploiting what worked, what would work, and what could work with the right shove.
He worked for the industry, particularly with what in the trade is known as “new build,” and avoided wars of attrition for what could not be saved.
David spread the reach and success of USNIC globally, taking trade delegations of American nuclear entrepreneurs to markets in Europe, Asia, even Africa.
The creation of USNIC was an auteur performance. As its CEO, he offered a vivid example of how one person can make a big difference with a small, lean organization, nimble and unfettered.
Early in the life of USNIC, David asked me to be the front person at the meetings, chairing them and leading discussions. I soon realized that he was better at it himself. He knew the industry and the players and was a performer par excellence, never dominating but always moving things forward wisely and humorously.
At the end of USNIC’s grand annual dinner in Washington, David would ask me to deliver what he called “the charge:” a few words of bellowed enthusiasm to send the revelers away, believing that the morrow would be a brighter day. The real charge in so much was, of course, delivered by David Blee, leader extraordinaire.
His memory burns on with incandescent heat and beauty. Charge!