Engineer Walter Curlook was ‘Pied Piper of productivity’

Walter Curlook, seen in 1985, was a brilliant and tenacious man. Among his honours were an Order of Canada, two honorary degrees and induction into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame.

Dr. Curlook’s believed in generosity – sharing wealth to enlarge people’s horizons.

As a metallurgist, engineer and manager who spent his entire career as an executive at Inco when it was the world’s largest nickel miner, he understood how to create wealth as well as share it. Dr. Curlook held 14 patents for improvements to nickel refining and played a role in the establishment of a science centre, a college and a research facility for particle physics in Sudbury that has no equal in Canada.

Brilliant and tenacious, he never stopped working. After he retired from Inco, he became an adjunct professor in materials science and engineering (unpaid) at the University of Toronto and donated $1-million to set up two laboratories there for the study of minerals.

In his late seventies, he oversaw the construction of a nickel refinery for CVMR Corp., a Canadian mining company.

“He worked for us from 2005 to 2008, on the Jilin project [in China],” recalls Kamran Khozan, chairman and CEO of CVMR, in a phone interview. “We designed and engineered it in Canada, manufactured the parts and shipped it from here. It had to be assembled like Lego. Walter got the job done, under hostile conditions. His knowledge was not matched by anybody in the field.”

In the 1970s, Sudbury’s smelters belched thousands of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere daily, killing vegetation and poisoning surrounding lakes. Dr. Curlook’s most important contribution might have been overseeing Inco’s $650-million pollution-abatement program that ended with the air clean, new trees planted and northern grasses growing over slag heaps.

Dr. Curlook’s commitment to research paid off in increased productivity for a reduced work force. He introduced generous bonuses for anyone with a good idea to improve efficiency. The Globe hailed him as “the Pied Piper of productivity” in a 1985 article.

In the early 1980s he was part of a group of Inco executives who started Science North in Sudbury; Inco donated $5-million for capital costs. David Pearson, the facility’s founding director, recalls that Dr. Curlook was “very supportive of what the science centre might do to encourage children along the path of innovation and achievement he had followed.”

He also supported setting up Cambrian College and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), one of only a handful in the world, which he made sure was given space deep within Inco’s Creighton Mine.

Neutrinos are neutral subatomic particles that cannot be found and studied above ground due to interference from cosmic rays. George Ewan, professor at Queen’s University, was among the physicists who visited various mines in 1983 to find a place for the proposed neutrino experiment. “Walter was very keen to see the experiment there – the decision on the Creighton mine had to go through him,” recalls Prof. Ewan, who is now retired. “He invited us to make a presentation to the directors of Inco. He also had to explain to the people in the village and the mine what we were doing. At all stages, he was a tremendous help. He tried to see the future.”

That first experiment at the SNO solved a long-standing problem in neutrino physics and may yet win a Nobel prize.

Among his many honours were an Order of Canada, two honorary degrees and induction into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame.

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