Martin and Eileen Brosnahan first met in a home economics class at Lead High School. Eileen was struggling to piece together an old, broken blender. Martin, with his natural knack for fixing things, stopped to help and had it working in no time. The two soon began dating and, four years later, just two months after Eileen graduated, they were married.
Martin got a job with the area’s largest employer, the Homestake Gold Mine. Today, he can tick off his various jobs at Homestake like a grocery list: “I was an underground miner, a motorman and a hoist operator. Then I went to the construction department, then the metallurgical department. Finally, I was an electrician, first underground and then in the radio shop. I've been all over.”
Eileen joined Homestake two years later as a roving clerk typist. “I filled in everywhere, from legal to scheduling to the sawmill to the timekeeper’s office,” she said. “It was a good experience, because I learned what every department did, rather than just one.” After a few years, Eileen accepted a permanent position in Homestake’s personnel office.
Martin and Eileen bought a home in Lead and had two sons, John and Andrew. With steady jobs at Homestake and a growing family, the couple envisioned themselves living in Lead for the rest of their lives.
But as decades passed, Homestake faced mounting problems. There were ample gold reserves, but the cost of extracting gold from the deep levels had become too high for the mine to be profitable. The mine, which had sustained generations of families since 1876, was closing.
Beginning in 1998, the company started laying off its 1,800 employees. In the personnel office, Eileen worked with those employees to process their severance pay, benefits and retirement. “There were hundreds of jobs lost, and I heard each person’s story. It was a difficult time.”
Martin was laid off in 2004, and Eileen’s time at the company was dwindling along with the number of employees. The family had a choice to make. Should they find jobs elsewhere? Or try to make it work in the only place they’d ever called home?
“Staying here, that was the best decision we ever made,” Martin said.
Martin found a job with Halliburton Energy Company and made an hour commute every day from Lead to Colony, Wyoming. Still working in the Homestake offices, Eileen began to hear about a possible new future for the underground space. The National Science Foundation had taken notice of the Homestake mine, eyeing it as a possible future sight for the United States’ deep underground science laboratory.
“It was so unique,” Eileen said. “From a gold mine to an underground research facility—who would have ever guessed?”
At that time, the laboratory was only a proposal. Still, a team of particle physicists, former Homestake employees and state politicians joined forces to make Lead a feasible, attractive location for a future laboratory. The effort gained momentum, and Eileen was asked to join the team as the human resource manager.
“We weren't picked as the official site yet,” Eileen said. “I came in thinking, ‘This may not happen, but we’ve got to give it our all.’”
So, on a Friday afternoon in September 2007, after 29 years with Homestake, Eileen processed the paperwork to lay herself off from the company. The following Monday, she walked into the same building and signed the paperwork to become the fifth employee of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority.
The wheels of politics and financial support turned slowly, but the effort to turn Homestake into a science facility would become a reality with the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF).
It would take an enormous amount of work to transform the site for science. In 2008, Martin returned to the facility, up to the task. “With all the different projects, from deep underground to the surface, I’ve always liked fixing things,” Martin said. “If something’s broke, you go fix it. And that’s what I’ve always done here.”
Not long after, a third Brosnahan joined the team. In 2013, their son Andrew joined SURF as a mechanical engineer.
“The lab was a new beginning, for the mine and for myself,” Eileen said. “Instead of laying people off, we were hiring people and watching it grow. We have expanded so much, from me being employee number 5, to now having 180 full-time and 14 temporary employees.”
After four decades at the facility, Martin and Eileen Brosnahan will retire in April 2022.
“We’re thankful that we had the pleasure to work here and be a part of the lab. It’s been an honor for us,” Eileen said. “Leaving all the people, that will be the hard part. We’re like a family.”
But with each day, their retirement wish-list gets a littler longer.
“We just want to go see things,” Eileen said. “We’ll send each other a picture of a place one of us wants to see, and the other will say ‘Let’s go for it!’ And the list just keeps growing. I hope the good Lord gives us many years of retirement, so we can do everything we want to do.”
Before their adventures begin, Martin said they plan to spend their summer right here in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “Right here, together, that’s the best place to be.”