Joe Ben LaGrone, Panola College

Joe Ben LaGrone, a native of Deadwood, has been inducted as a Notable Alumni by the Alumni Association of Centenary College of Louisiana. LaGrone, a 1961 magna cum laude graduate of Centenary, was recognized for his professional and leadership accomplishments that have spanned 5 decades throughout the U.S., the Far East and parts of Europe. While at Centenary Mr. LaGrone, son of the late Temple D. and Zona Mae LaGrone, was a member of Omicron Delta Kappa - honorary leadership society - and Alpha Chi - honorary academic society. As a senior at Centenary, he successfully competed with students from the U.S., Canada and Mexico and received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for graduate studies.

While doing graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Mr. LaGrone was selected on a national competitive basis for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) Management Intern Program. From that time in 1962 until his retirement in May of 1995, he was involved in every major AEC and Department of Energy (DOE) program including responsibilities for basic research, all energy sources, design and building of nuclear weapon components, enrichment and sale of uranium for commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S, Europe, the Far East, and for the enrichment of uranium for reactors that power the U.S. Navy's nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines.

Mr. LaGrone rose from a trainee position to a Senior Executive Level VI - the highest career level in the Federal Service - and during his 17 years as Manager of the San Francisco and Oak Ridge Operations Offices he led and managed some of the largest and most complex operations of the DOE, including world class production and manufacturing facilities, the National Strategic Petroleum Reserve and some of the world's premier research and development laboratories including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, the Jefferson National Accelerator Center and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Annual budgets for these responsibilities ranged from approximately $ 2.5 to $ 3.8 billion. Throughout this period he built a national reputation for leading and successfully effecting change, developing numerous innovations, growing and developing future managers and other staff and was at times, in addition to his regular responsibilities, chosen by various Secretaries of the DOE to fix some of the Department's most troublesome projects.

Along with the honor bestowed by Centenary College, Mr. LaGrone has been recognized throughout the White House, Congress, States, the DOE, and the private sector for the breadth, depth and success of his leadership and managerial capabilities. On several occasions he was given - and successfully executed - some especially difficult and nationally visible assignments including: served as Acting Deputy and Acting Under Secretary of DOE for 8 months in 1981; organized and led a National Special Project Office that reformed the Low Income Weatherization Program, these sweeping changes had a quick, dramatic and positive impact on the plight of many since the rules were simplified, liberalized and management of the project was substantially improved. Mr. LaGrone was later assigned the National Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) in 1983 and completely revamped this project that was mired in management, political and other problems that had created national and international concerns about the reliability of the SPR. The changes that Mr. LaGrone instituted resulted in a successful project which at the height of the Gulf War (Desert Shield/Desert Storm) sold and delivered about 21 million barrels of crude oil to refineries to demonstrate to the nation and the world that the U.S. had the capability to rely upon its strategic oil reserves in the event of supply interruptions.

In addition to winning the prestigious Woodrow Fellowship, Mr. LaGrone's professional accomplishments have earned him other national awards and international recognition:
U.S. Congressional Fellow - selected based upon national competition and served on the
staff of the ranking member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and the staff of the
Joint Committee itself. Distinguished Executive Rank Award - selected from among all Federal Senior Managers during the first year of this programs existence. Award was approved and presented personally by President Carter in a Rose Garden Ceremony. Secretary's Gold Medal Award - DOE's highest award for leadership and managerial achievements. Secretary's Exceptional Service Gold Medal Award - presented for his work as Acting Deputy and Acting Under Secretary. Doe's Meritorious Award - presented for accomplishments in Diversity. The National Distinguished Service Award from the Federally Employed Women's Organization - their highest award. The Governor of Tennessee's Award for numerous initiatives to assist and enable individuals with handicapping conditions. A Letter of Appreciation from the Government of Kuwait for providing meteorological towers and other equipment to help deal with environmental problems created by Iraqi sabotage of oil wells. Numerous national and regional awards by small businesses including women and minority owned and small disadvantaged businesses. A Resolution of Appreciation from the City of Oak Ridge for creating over 3,000 new jobs.

Mr. LaGrone was among a handful of federal officials who conceived and led the movement to begin the cleanup of nuclear wastes and to institute effective pollution prevention programs at DOE sites. He was the driving force in TN, KY, MO, and OH that brought together Federal and State officials, labor and special interest groups to address these serious environmental problems. He combined these efforts with policies of openness, candor and direct access to himself by federal and contractor personnel, public officials, labor leaders, the general public and the news media.

After retiring, Mr. LaGrone worked in the private sector in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and later formed his own consulting company. The Socogee Corporation whose principal clients are engaged in national defense, homeland security, energy, and environmental clean up. Mr. LaGrone is also involved in a number of volunteer activities:

  • Served as a member of the Board of Directors, Museum of Appalachia.
  • Mentors individuals who are unemployed or underemployed by assisting them in counseling, job searches, resume preparation, interview skills and communication skills.
  • Provides advice and advocacy for elderly and under represented individuals to help them resolve issues with government entities at all levels. 

LaGrone is a 1957 graduate of Carthage High School and a 1959 Honor Graduate from Panola College. He credits his Panola professors, particularly William E. Stephens, Jr., with teaching him the fundamentals of surviving and succeeding in college. "Steve taught me about academic discipline and how to study! That has always served me exceedingly well. President M. P. Baker, Dean Travis Williamson, Helen Williamson and Rosalind Ulmer formed the rest of that critical mass that ignited my curiosity and drive. What I learned from them prepared me for the very challenging academic atmosphere at Centenary and enabled me to learn and to compete successfully with some of the best of the best. I especially owe an enduring debt to Centenary. It readied me for that next big step in life by opening and expanding insights into those events and currents of thought that shape the landscape of our fabric - specifically, a curiosity about ideas and people, politics, philosophies, economics, literature, art, religions, social norms and structures, and cultural values - themes of intellectual thought that I first encountered with Vernon Wooley, a high school teacher far ahead of his time! He taught me Spanish and had those wonderfully gifted insights into human behavior that imparted to me the essentiality of understanding and dealing fairly and compassionately with everyone."

"My parents filled my head with enduring principles and set the compass that's guided my life. What I learned from them on that farm along the banks of Socogee Creek is the core values and key lessons that have always been central to whom I am."  Joe Ben and his wife, the former Peggy McDaniel and daughter of the late Herman and Gertrude McDaniel, live in Oak Ridge, TN. They have 3 children and 3 grandchildren.