Charles Toth, an engineer who worked on Saturn moon rockets at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East and later developed a method for extracting aluminum from clay, died Wednesday at his Metairie home. He was 83.
Toth was born in Gyor, Hungary, where he lived under Nazi rule during World War II and survived frequent Allied bombings.
“They grew their own food; they raised their own chickens,” said William “Bo” Reily IV, his son-in-law. “The Nazis basically took everything they produced.”
When the Soviet Union took over Eastern Europe after the war, Hungary fell under the control of Communists. In the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule, Toth’s school, the University of Pannonia in Veszpré m, was attacked by Russian tanks, which invaded Hungary to put down the rebellion.
A shell fired from a tank blew up in Toth’s room, leaving him with shrapnel wounds, Reily said. With the help of friends, Toth fled the country and arrived in the United States.
The émigrés, who were airlifted to safe spots all over the globe, “were a pretty well-educated group,” said Toth’s daughter, Caroline Toth Reily. Toth, who had received a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Pannonia, took English classes at Bard College in New York when he got to the United States, she said.
In 1958, he started working as an engineer at what was then a Chrysler facility at Michoud. He stayed at Michoud until after the moon landings in the late 1960s, his son-in-law said.
“I loved hearing him tell stories of his youth,” Bo Reily said. “It was like living history.”
Toth also took classes at Tulane University when he came to New Orleans. It was at a meeting for international students there that Toth met his future wife, Olivia Davila, a Nicaraguan law student who came to Louisiana to study the Napoleonic Code, Caroline Reily said.
Toth’s process for extracting aluminum from clay never really caught on commercially because there were so many existing facilities dedicated to the most common extraction method using bauxite.
His process had the advantage of being environmentally cleaner and requiring less energy. Also, bauxite has to be imported into the United States, while the kind of clay used in Toth’s process is readily available. But against the headwinds of costs and competing with the entrenched bauxite process, his Louisiana-based Toth Aluminum always struggled to find investors.
Although his clay-to-aluminum process was his life’s work, Toth also liked to engage in one pursuit that was forbidden when he lived behind the Iron Curtain: travel. He and his family traveled extensively, and he also liked to spend time at his St. Tammany Parish farm.
In addition to his wife and his daughter, Toth is survived by a son, Charles Ernest Toth; a sister, Maria Toth; and five grandchildren.
Visitation will begin at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd., followed by a graveside service at 11 a.m. at Lake Lawn Park Mausoleum.