He was known for his mottos: "Build a little, test a little, learn a lot."

He used to say that "engineering is 'plod, plod, plod' " and that "we ain't done yet."

Navy Rear Adm. Wayne E. Meyer, regarded as the father of the Aegis missile-defense system, drove testing of the technology at the former RCA facility in Moorestown and changed the face of naval warfare.

Last year, Aegis was used to shoot down a failing U.S. satellite, and it is the centerpiece of the White House's strategy to protect Europe and the United States from Iranian missiles.

A new Aegis-equipped destroyer that will bear Meyer's name - an honor rarely accorded the living - will be commissioned Saturday in a ceremony in Philadelphia. The 500-foot vessel was christened at an event attended by the admiral last year at the Bath (Maine) Iron Works and sailed into the city Friday.

But Meyer, who had said he "hoped to be around for the commissioning and decommissioning," didn't see the ship's arrival. He died of congestive heart failure Sept. 1 at age 83, leaving family - including his wife, Anna Mae, of Falls Church, Va., and his stepdaughter, Anna Seixas, of Cherry Hill - to take his place at Penn's Landing.

"One of the reasons my husband wanted the ship commissioned in Philadelphia was because that's where the program started," said Anna Mae Meyer, a city native. "Contractors from all across the area were part of" the Aegis project.

The gruff admiral "was very touched and honored to see the ship named after him," said Seixas, 33, a chemistry specialist who tutors students at Community College of Philadelphia. "He didn't speak much about it, but he was choked up.

"This was the culmination of his entire life's work. It's hard for us because he was so close" to seeing the ship commissioned, she said. "It wasn't meant to be."

To have the destroyer dedicated to him "was his crowning achievement," said Orlando P. Carvalho, a vice president and general manager at Lockheed Martin, which took over the Aegis development in Moorestown.

He "wasn't a military hero. He didn't receive the Congressional Medal of Honor," said Carvalho, who worked closely with Meyer. "He was a combat engineer who didn't just build ships for the Navy. He built the fleet. It is based on his vision."

Meyer had an unlikely background for a man who earned near-mythic status.

"He never forgot his roots, growing up on the farm in Brunswick, Mo.," Seixas said. "He always felt if you didn't know where you came from, you wouldn't know where you were going."

Meyer grew up in the Depression and began his Navy career in 1943 as an apprentice seaman at age 17.

"He wanted to help his father on the farm, but his father told him not to come home," Seixas said. He wanted his boy to pursue his dreams.

Meyer was commissioned an ensign in 1946 in the Naval Reserve and graduated that year from the University of Kansas with a degree in electrical engineering.

He built his knowledge of radar and missile defenses in the same way he would later build his Aegis system: step by step. He received a master's degree in astronautics and aeronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"He was the most unique person I ever met," Carvalho said. "He had the incredible ability to see three, four, and five steps ahead."

By 1948, Meyer had been transferred to the regular Navy, and he spent several years at sea. He turned down a destroyer command to work with the Special Navy Task Force for Surface Missile Systems in the 1960s.

The then-captain was chosen in 1970 to lead development of the Aegis Weapon System. He took on the challenge with relish, splitting his time between Moorestown and home in Falls Church.

Meyer made "very small, incremental steps," Carvalho said. "If he was a football coach, there is no doubt he would have spent the first three months of training camp making sure his players could block and tackle. He believed in the fundamentals."

Meyer also believed in staying ahead. "He used to say, 'You can't predict the future, so you better be ready for it,' " Carvalho recalled.

"He was saying, basically, that you'd better produce a design that can grow and go in different directions, and that's exactly what he left us."

Meyer's legacy also included "hundreds of professional sons and daughters" he mentored and inspired, said retired Rear Adm. Kathleen Paige, who worked with Meyer and was program director for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Program from 2003 to 2005.

"So much has continued because he raised so many of us," said Paige, president of Mark India L.L.C., a consulting firm in Arlington, Va. "He had an extreme impact far beyond what any person could do in the process of a career."

As admiral, he "walked through the factory shaking hands with people, asking them about their families. And when he came back, he remembered them," his wife said. "Just being recognized for doing a good job brings more satisfaction than money."

Meyer was made a rear admiral in 1975 and became founding manager of the Aegis Shipbuilding Project in 1977. The soon-to-be commissioned USS Wayne E. Meyer will be the 100th Navy ship equipped with the Aegis. Some U.S. allies, including Australia, South Korea, Japan, Spain, and Norway, have the system on their vessels.

Meyer retired from active duty in 1985 and became a consultant who worked closely with Lockheed Martin. He attended his high school reunion every Memorial Day weekend until about two years ago.

At the christening in Maine in October, "he teared up," Seixas said. "His health had not been great the past few years, but he was in glory."

Now the destroyer - which will offer public tours today, Wednesday, and next Monday at Penn's Landing - carries bits and pieces of his life.

"We wanted the ship to have his spirit," Seixas said. "We gave [the Navy] the ceremonial sword he wore with his dress whites, a bronze bust, tons of photos, hand drawings, and old paintings of him. Mom also sent them his pins and medals and his library."

Meyer's "passion, technical acumen, and war-fighting expertise served as the foundation of our Navy combatant fleet," said Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations. "His legacy will remain in the Navy forever."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.