Buried History

Does radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project and Cold War still lurk near or under the dorms at Washington University?

first published in the Riverfront Times, May 27, 1998

Photo from a 1952 Wash U Alumni Bulletin shows two engineers burying radioactive waste from the cyclotron in the South 40.


An official Washington University photograph from 1952 shows two engineers — who donned lab coats and gas masks for the occasion — dumping radioactive waste out of galvanized steel trash cans into a hole in the ground. Other photos from the same series show the duo setting fire to the waste. The photo caption identifies the burial site as being behind then-Chancellor Arthur Holly Compton’s residence. The university published the photograph in its Alumni Bulletin to assure the public that radioactive waste from the school’s atomic cyclotron was being disposed of properly.

What may have been considered proper nuclear etiquette in the 1950s, however, is subject to question nowadays, and the answers have proven to be more than a little elusive. Indeed, nobody really even knows exactly what is buried on the South 40 of the Washington University campus, where dormitories are now located. But for decades, recurrent stories have alluded to the internment of radioactive waste at the site. Late last year (1997), after the university began building a series of new residence halls, in the southwest corner of the tract, a spokesman for the university dismissed the allegations as unfounded.

“We’ll categorically deny all of that,” says Fred Volkmann, the spokesperson. “I can assure you that everything that was there was removed, but that, at the time it was removed, it had no measurable radioactivity. I don’t think that you’ve got a story.”

Washington University alumnus Martin Walsh, however,  thinks otherwise.

“I don’t know if there is anything there or not,” says 62-year-old Walsh. “But why the hell would they run us out of there in 1955?”

In the spring semester of that year, a university administrator ordered members of his military drill group, the Pershing Rifles, to avoid the area, Walsh said. Before the edict, Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) cadets had roamed the woods near the corner of Wydown Avenue and Big Bend Boulevard on nocturnal maneuvers. When the university forced an end to these forays, Walsh worried that he and his comrades might be disciplined for lighting campfires or worse. “To be frank, we had trouble with fellows who took binoculars and wanted to look into the girls’ dorms at Fontbonne College,” says Walsh, referring to the then-exclusively women college south of the site.

Instead, the administrator warned the cadets that the site had been used to bury radioactive waste created by the cyclotron — the university’s World War II vintage atom smasher.

Walsh’s memories of the incident were jogged recently by the sight of the new dorms going up at the location. He speculates that the sinkhole, over which the new dorms have been built, is filled with 60 feet of dirt. Walsh, a civil engineer and former St. Louis building commissioner, expresses concern that excavation work could possibly have brought some of the radioactive waste back to the surface. 

Although documents eventually furnished by the university tend to support its contention that radioactive materials dumped on the campus in the past were not hazardous, nothing indicates they were ever removed, as Volkmann claims. Moreover, substantiation of the university’s position depends heavily on two former cyclotron staff members who provided, at best, sketchy recollections. Both men possessed only partial knowledge of the cyclotron’s operational history because they began their careers long after the machine had been placed in service.

The university further cast doubt upon itself by restricting access to Chancellor Compton’s files. In another instance, a relevant dissertation, which could disclose important details, has somehow been misplaced or lost by the university.

By any reasonable standard, the record of radioactive waste disposal on campus is incomplete. Nonetheless, for more than 40 years, the university has assured the public that there is no danger.  [Former] University Chancellor William H. Danforth, for example, made such a statement in a letter to local environmentalist Kay Drey in 1978.

Drey accepted the chancellor’s word then; she is less sure now.

“If the materials were so short-lived that they would have decayed in a short period of time, why were they buried in the first place?” Drey asks. “And if they were short-lived, why were they dug up decades later? What proof is there that they were dug up? Where were they sent, and when?”

A long forgotten legacy

The legacy of radioactive waste, which Walsh stumbled onto as an ROTC cadet in the mid-1950s, began long before his college days.

In September 1938, Arthur Hughes, then chairman of the physics department, began preliminary inquiries into how to expand Washington University’s role in the burgeoning field of nuclear physics. By this time, American scientists were aware that recent discoveries had advanced the knowledge necessary for Germany to build an atomic bomb. This led to a sense of urgency among researchers before the United States entered World War II.

After Hughes recommended that a cyclotron be built, the Rockefeller Foundation provided a $60,000 grant. Additional funding for the project had already been committed by the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology of Washington University Medical School. The institute was named after the founder of Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, the company that ultimately supplied the Army with the refined uranium necessary to build the atomic bomb.

During its construction, the university publicized the 80-ton, electromagnetic device as the latest medical weapon in the battle against human disease. Researchers, indeed, used the radioactive isotopes created by the cyclotron for experimental cancer therapy. From the beginning, however, the medical applications overlapped with military interests. By early 1942, only a few months after its completion, Washington University scientists had already started employing the machine for secret atomic-bomb work under a contract with the federal government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development.

Using the 50,000-watt cyclotron, a Washington University team bombarded hundreds of thousands of pounds of uranyl nitrate, which had been refined at Mallinckrodt, to create microscopic quantities of plutonium. The cyclotron staff then sent the uranium and plutonium to the University of Chicago to be separated. By this point, the specially created Manhattan District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had taken over the supervision of the atomic-bomb program, which later became known simply as the Manhattan Project.

Secrecy surrounded the entire endeavor. Scientists acquired pseudonyms; the nascent bomb became known as “the gadget”; coded log-book entries referred to uranium as “band-aid box, “gunk” or “special stuff.” The secret work at Washington University continued for the next two-and-a-half years. But another eight years would pass before the university itself openly discussed the radioactive cyclotron waste.

Finally, in October 1952, the university’s Alumni Bulletin published a photograph showing the two cyclotron engineers dumping radioactive waste on the southern part of the campus, hoping to assure the alumni and the public that radioactive waste from the cyclotron was being disposed of properly. Within a few years, however, the school changed its policy and began shipping all of its irradiated materials in special containers to an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) site in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

This decision to move future waste off campus dovetailed neatly with the university administration’s plans to build student housing in the vicinity of the radioactive burial site. When construction began in 1958 on the tract behind the chancellor’s residence, university officials tried to find out where the waste had been dumped by asking the two cyclotron engineers who had posed for the photographs. Details of those interviews are contained in internal memorandums, which the university allowed a reporter for the The Riverfront Times to read but not photocopy. The following account is based on information culled from those memos.

The late John T. Hood Sr., who ultimately became director of cyclotron operations, was one of the two engineers known to have been questioned. He and his colleague, Bradbury Phillips, were the two individuals who had earlier been featured in the Alumni Bulletin photos. Before his death in 1996, the university called on Hood to answer questions about the early disposal practices at the cyclotron facility. Hood invariably calmed concerns over the issue using his personal knowledge.

However, an Aug. 18, 1958, internal university memo indicates Hood was absent from the campus during his military service and on return could not remember exactly where the waste had been buried. According to the memo: “Mr. J.T. Hood, electrical engineer at the cyclotron, helped with some of the waste disposal work although he was in the Army during a large fraction of the interval of interest. … Mr. Hood has surveyed the terrain in the neighborhood of the burial ground and reports that it has been altered as to make the identification of the exact burial spots impossible.”

By 1958, Phillips, the other source on which the university relied, had moved to the University of Colorado. In a written response Phillips provided his recollections on the subject. He, too, prefaced his words with doubt.

“That’s a rough set of questions,” wrote Phillips. “I’ve racked my brain all day trying to recall the answers. It must be close to ten years since our first burial. As an initial date somewhere in 1949 or 1950 sticks in my head. I don’t think any burials were made later than early 1955. After that we shipped the stuff out in 50-gallon paper-board barrels.”

Phillips also expressed uncertainty on the number of burials in which he had participated, guessing that total to be between five and eight. He suggested that log-book entries be checked to verify the number of burials, but there is no mention of whether the log books were ever examined. The engineer then attempted to locate the burial sites on a rough map of the area. He stated, however, that a more accurate diagram of the burial locations had been drawn up by the cyclotron staff in the past. Investigators failed to find that diagram, according to one of the memos. When a search team uncovered a discrepancy between Phillips’ recollection and their records, they chose to accept Phillips’ version rather than their own. Investigators subsequently dug test holes and scanned the area with a Geiger counter, detecting only normal background levels of radiation.

But trying to pinpoint the exact burial sites on a 40-acre wooded tract of land proved futile.

Phillips estimated the size of the dumping ground as 50 to 70 feet in diameter. “The ground fell off to a ravine running north and south, which intersected the old creek bed,” he wrote. “Trash and dirt were filled in from the east side of this ravine. Our procedure was to bury at the foot of this hill so the next few loads would cover it. Within a week, this surface was 8 to 10 feet under the surface of the trash and dirt.” Phillips’ description is similar to what a sinkhole would look like that was being used as a landfill, which is what the university used the property for in those days.

The burial rites for the radioactive waste followed a pattern that rarely deviated. According to Phillips, the waste was dumped and then burned “so that the final volume of material never exceeded 2 cubic feet. All laboratory glass was broken. With one exception, no containers were used. The exception was a one-gallon can; its contents were poured into the hole, and the can punctured. All other waste was uncontained.”

Most of the radioactive waste was paper used to prevent surface contamination at the cyclotron facility, Phillips wrote. Included among the buried artifacts, however, were a few 8-by-10 pieces of brass. “We never buried large amounts of (radio)activity and any long-lived (materials) had been set aside to decay to low levels before burial,” wrote Phillips. Although the half-lives of the materials were allegedly determined in advance of disposal, Phillips confessed he didn’t know what exactly he was burying. “I would say the bulk of the radioactive material was unidentified,” he wrote.

Nothing in Phillips’ account alludes to the waste ever being dug up and removed as the spokesman for the university now asserts. Moreover, the cyclotron engineer’s chronology only covers the last six years that radioactive waste is known to have been disposed of on campus. Contrary to Phillips’ statement, the cyclotron began operating in early 1942, not 1945. The omission leaves a seven-year gap for which there is no apparent record.

Whereas, Phillips claimed radioactive materials were buried as few as five times in six years, another cyclotron technician’s estimates suggest that disposal may have occurred more frequently. The late Albert A. Schulke, who began working at the cyclotron during World War II, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1952 that it wasn’t unusual for the accumulated radioactive waste to fill three standard-size rubbish cans in a two-month period. Schulke’s estimates — added over a 13-year period — indicate the possibility of 234 separate waste-disposal occurrences.

Similar to Phillips’ account, Schulke vouched for the benign nature of the waste, although the 1952 news story mentions that cyclotron burial squads took the precaution of wearing respirators to keep from breathing radioactive dust. The nuclear gravediggers were also reported to have dressed in rubber boots and gloves and handled radioactive materials with long, “non-magnetic” tongs. Several years later, Schulke complained to another reporter of recurring pain in his fingers caused by radiation burns he received in 1948. The cyclotron technician, nevertheless, praised the safety of burying the waste on the South 40, an area he considered secure. “We can be sure no one is ever going to build there, and dig up the waste materials,” said Schulke.

After the war, Washington University published a booklet that boasted of its role in the production of the first atomic bombs. The work included the following statement:

“Certain investigations of a scientific nature, not yet released, were carried out for the Metallurgical Laboratory. Among these was an investigation which constituted the dissertation for the degree of Ph.D awarded to Harry W. Fulbright.”

The Metallurgical Laboratory was the code name for the secret atomic-weapons research facility at the University of Chicago, where Compton oversaw the first controlled nuclear chain reaction on Dec. 2, 1942. Although Chicago acted as the hub for the research, Washington University supplied the initial plutonium.

Fulbright’s dissertation, which would provide precise details of how early cyclotron experiments were conducted here, appears to have never been declassified. The doctoral paper is absent from the catalogue of Olin Library at Washington University. It’s missing from the physics department library on campus, too. A search of two national databases turned up nothing more than a brief citation. Fulbright, who is now an emeritus professor at the University of Rochester, says he doesn’t even have a copy.

In his written reply to an inquiry by the Riverfront Times, Fulbright wrote: “I have carefully gone through my papers without finding a copy. … In the late 1940s, while at Princeton University … I recall vaguely having received a partially declassified copy.” Fulbright further stated that the goal of his experiment at Washington University was to establish a nuclear energy scheme for plutonium 239. I think the average reader would fine it dry as sawdust.”

The subtleties of sawdust, of course, are infinitely more discernible than atomic particles. Discarded radioisotopes can come in hundreds of varieties and contaminate soil, water or air. The resulting radioactivity may decay in minutes or days or last forever.

“When uranium or plutonium undergoes fission, there are about 700 or 800 different ways that those two pieces can come into existence,” says John W. Gofman, a professor emeritus at the University of California Berkeley. Gofman, who took part in the Manhattan Project research at Berkeley, later became an outspoken critic of the nuclear power juggernaut. Gofman cites strontium 90 and cesium 137 as two common radioactive isotopes that could be created during fission. Each of these substances possesses a half-life of approximately 30 years. This means half of the radioactivity emitted from these isotopes decays within three decades. So any strontium 90 or cesium 137 created during World War II would still be emitting more than one-fourth of its original radioactivity today (1998).

But Arthur C. Wahl, a former Washington University chemistry professor, insists that low-level radioactive waste created by the cyclotron, during World War II and the postwar era, would pose no current health or environmental danger. He is less certain, however, about the exact location of the waste. “I don’t know about it,” says Wahl, who is living in retirement in Los Alamos, N.M. “I’ve been questioned about this before by environmentalists and so forth. This (the dumping of the radioactive waste on the South 40) was done before I was associated with the cyclotron, if it was done at all.”

Wahl joined the faculty after the bomb hit Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. By this time, Compton had already accepted the chancellorship, although his role as a Manhattan Project consultant would continue covertly for more than a year. In addition to Wahl, Compton recruited Joseph W. Kennedy directly from the Los Alamos laboratory, where both had worked on the atomic bomb under J. Robert Oppenheimer. Earlier in their careers, the two scientists had collaborated with Glenn T. Seaborg and Emilio Segre at the Berkeley radiation laboratory of Ernest O. Lawrence. Compton also drafted a bevy of other talented chemists from Los Alamos, including Lindsay Helmholtz, David Lipkin, Herbert Potratz and Samuel Weissman.

Arthur Holly Compton

In part through Compton’s military connections, the university began nuclear experiments financed by the Office of Naval Research in 1946. Then in 1947, the AEC contracted the university to produce isotopes not obtainable at nuclear reactors. Other research on campus involved investigating the possibility of creating nuclear-powered aircraft, warships and submarines. Meanwhile, the university constructed a radiochemistry laboratory adjacent to the cyclotron with $300,000 from an anonymous donor, according to the February 1947 issue of the Washington University Aumni Bulletin.

Besides military work, the cyclotron continued to serve medical researchers and also private corporations, including Anheuser-Busch, Phillips Petroleum, McDonnell-Douglas, Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) and General Electric.

Not surprisingly, by the time Walsh entered Washington University’s civil-engineering program in the mid-1950s, the military-industrial complex was well-ensconced on campus. No one then doubted the propriety of this menage a trois anymore than they questioned the disposal of radioactive waste on the South 40. But Walsh does remember receiving a warning from professor Kennedy, the co-discoverer of plutonium. “I had him for Chemistry 101 and Chemistry 102,” says Walsh. “He said, ‘We buried a lot of stuff (radioactive waste) up there. You guys shouldn’t be going up there.’ He told us that after a lecture, when I asked him about it.”

Within two years of issuing the caveat, Kennedy himself died of cancer.

By 1960, the federal government established the first comprehensive radiation standards. For materials that cause genetic damage, the guidelines set protective limits 100 times higher for the general public than for atomic-industry workers. Five years earlier, T.C. Carter, a British researcher, had pondered the genetic consequences of radiation exposure in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

“In my opinion, we cannot today make any useful quantitative assessment of the genetic consequences of exposure of human populations to ionizing radiations at low dosage rates; we know far too little about human population structure and the induction of mutations in man,” wrote Carter. “But we know enough to be apprehensive about genetic dangers!”

Compton included this quotation in his memoir, Atomic Quest. It appears in the chapter titled “Hope.”






When Security Itself Becomes a Threat

Republic Services, owner of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake landfill,  employs a security guard service with historical ties to the CIA, DOE and State Department.  

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The motto emblazoned on its vehicles is “Securing Your World.”  But G4 Security Solutions’ job in Bridgeton, Mo. is a tad more parochial: It guards Republic Services’ polluted property.  The gig sounds like little more than a standard rent-a-cop deal. But there are reasons to suspect otherwise.

As the underground fire continues to burn unimpeded towards the radioactive waste at West Lake, things have heated up on the surface as well.

Vigilance became a corporate imperative following protests staged by the Earth Defense Coalition on March 31. In the wake of that demonstration, Republic, the owner of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill, pledged to prevent future disruptions of its business from occurring, and G4S Security Solutions is responsible for keeping that promise.

The protest shutdown Republic’s trash sorting operations at the location for 12 hours, after environmental activists blocked the entrance of the troubled landfill, demanding the EPA relinquish control of the site and handover the clean up duties to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The security company finds itself in the middle of a battle between private interests and public health. Despite its central role in the controversy,  G4S’s presence has garnered little attention until now.

Patrolling the perimeter of the West Lake Superfund site is the most obvious part of G4S’s job description.  Whether the security company has additional duties related to protecting Republic Services’ interests is unclear. But if the history of the security company’s operations are any indication, G4S’s role at West Lake may involve more than just manning the guardhouse at the front entrance.

That’s because the British corporation inherited the cloak and dagger reputation of Wackenhut Security, after merging with the notorious American espionage firm in the early 2000s.  The cost of that buyout was pegged at $500 million.

Besides offering guard services, Wackenhut specialized in intelligence gathering, and keeping tabs on millions of American citizens suspected of being left-wing subversives or communist sympathizers.

George Wackenhut, a former FBI agent, founded the company in the 1950s during the McCarthy era.  In the intervening years, Wackenhut Security grew in size and influence, scoring hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts from federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and U.S. State Department. By the early 1990s, Wackenhut Security was known as the “shadow CIA,” because of the clandestine services it offered to the intelligence community both at home and abroad.

G4S, Wackenhut’s successor, was founded in 2004, when the British multinational security company Securicor merged with a Danish counterpart, Group 4 Falck.

Today, G4S Security Solutions is inextricably tethered to Wackenhut’s tainted legacy. Its British parent company boasts more than 60,000 employees in 125 nations, and is reputedly among the largest employers in Europe and Africa.  Closer to home, its American operation has the dubious distinction of being the employer of Omar Mateen, the mass murderer who killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at an Orlando nightclub last year.

Not surprisingly, G4S Security Solutions denies any culpability for that horrid act.  The Jupiter, Florida-based company, after all, can attribute the mass shooting by its longtime employee as being a random act of violence. It’s not quite as easy to deny the nefarious legacy of Wackenhut Security, however.

G4S now owns it.

By the mid-1960s, Wackenhut was known to be keeping dossiers on more than four million Americans, having acquired the files of a former staffer of the House Committee on Un-American activities. In response to congressional reforms in the post-Watergate era, Wackenhut donated its cache of blacklisted individuals to the virulent anti-communist Church League of America in Wheaton, Illinois, but didn’t give up access to the information. The league cooperated closely with the so-called “red squads” of big city police departments from coast to coast  that spied on suspected communist agitators.

By the early 1990s, Wackenhut was the largest provider of security services to U.S. embassies around the world, including U.S. State Department missions in Chile, Greece and El Salvador, where the CIA was known to have colluded with right-wing death squads.

Wackenhut also guarded nuclear sites in Hanford, Wash. and Savannah River, S.C.  and the Nevada nuclear test site for the Department Energy and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.

As the company gained more power, it recruited an influential board of directors that included former FBI director Clarence Kelley and Defense Secretary and CIA deputy director Frank Carlucci. William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, served as Wackenhut’s lawyer before joining the Reagan administration.

There is also evidence during the Iran-Contra era of the 1980s that Wackenhut worked for the CIA to supply the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with dual-use technology that could be utilized to make chemical and nuclear weapons.

It could be argued that G4S Security Solutions’ current services at West Lake are unrelated to its predecessor’s tainted past. But many of the residents of St. Louis whose lives have been impacted by Republic Services’ radioactively-contaminated landfill would likely not agree that history is inconsequential.

They already know better.



The Mayor’s Partner

Gerhard J. Petzall, a former law partner of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, was a director of Spectrulite Consortium Inc., which owned and operated an Eastside plant contaminated with radioactive waste.  After the problem came to light, the company forced its union work force to strike, filed for bankruptcy, and then reorganized under a different name, selling half the business to a foreign conglomerate. 

I collared outgoing St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay at the Earth Day celebration in Forest Park back in 2013 and asked him for a spot interview. He  told me then that he didn’t have time to go on camera for even a few minutes to talk about St. Louis’ longstanding radioactive waste problem.  He was too busy that sunny Sunday afternoon promoting some other well-intentioned environmental cause. It might have been recycling. As a result, the mayor does not appear in our documentary, The First Secret City.

But Richard Callow, the mayor’s longtime political consultant, does make a cameo appearance in the film. Aside from representing the mayor, Callow has also been a local spokesman for Republic Services, the giant waste disposal company that owns the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill Superfund site in North St. Louis County. In that role, Callow has acted to tamp down public concerns about the severity of the environmental and health problems related to the troubled landfill.

Callow, however,  is not the only link between the mayor and the radioactive waste that has plagued the region since it first began piling up as a byproduct of Mallinkcrodt Chemical’s work on the Manhattan Project.

As it turns out,  Gerhard J. Petzall — the mayor’s former law partner — has past ties to the now-defunct Spectrulite Consortium Inc., a company that owned a plant  in Madison, Illinois contaminated with radioactive waste from the Cold War.  Missouri incorporation records  show that Gerhard J. Petzall, a senior partner in the politically-connected law firm of Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake, sat on the board of directors of Spectrulite for years and continued  act as an attorney for the company until 2009.

By that time, Slay was in his second term as St. Louis mayor. Slay was a partner in Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake for 20 years prior to becoming mayor.

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The problems at Spectrulite began in 1957 when the foundry was owned by Dow Chemical Co. Dow processed uranium at the plant between 1957 and 1961 under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Dow’s work caused radioactive debris to accumulate on overhead girders — where it was ignored for decades. In 2000, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw a partial radioactive cleanup at the Spectrulite plant.

The Department of Energy conducted the first radiological testing at the facility in March 1989, which showed elevated levels of Uranium-238 and Thorium-232. A story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the previous month had spurred the government to do the testing. The story was based  in part on the earlier research of Kay Drey. In 1979, the St. Louis environmental activist had interviewed a terminally-ill truck driver who had delivered uranium ingots from Mallinckrodt Chemical in North St. Louis to the Dow plant in Madison. The truck driver attributed his lung cancer to his occupational exposure to radiation in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The plant at Weaver and College streets operates today as Magnesium Elektron of North America, a non-union company and a subsidiary of Luxfur Group of Great Britain. After going bankrupt in 2003,  Spectrulite’s owners sold the company, but continue to hold a stake in the operation and the property itself.

Oddly enough, Spectrulite  remained an active corporation in Missouri — with Petzall’s name appearing in its annual reports long after the business had filed for bankruptcy in federal court in East St. Louis, Ill.  The records show that Petzall continued to be listed as a director of the corporation until 2003, and his name still appeared as a counsel for the by-then non-existent company until 2009.  Spectrulite never operated its manufacturing plant in Missouri. The plant was located across the river in Illinois. But the bankrupt, Illinois-based company, which had been sold to a foreign concern, remained an active corporation in Missouri for six years after its apparent demise; proof that there is life after death at least in the legal world.

Mayor Slay leaves office next week, after serving an unprecedented four terms.  Petzall, the mayor’s legal mentor,  will celebrate his 86th birthday in June.