A Trip With Gary Eller
From Proctor to Pickles Butte with stops along the way, Gary Eller has lived a remarkable life. His innate curiosity was fostered by a loving family and teachers who provided him the lightest of reins, allowing a scientist, an amateur folklorist, a historical/singer songwriter and much more to emerge.
What was Proctor like growing up? Absolutely idyllic. My playground was about ten square miles. “Bout where ya gonna be and try to be home by dark” pretty much was their parental guidance. In retrospect, I don’t regret a single thing about missing out on the amenities of the townies, even if I had been provided the opportunity to partake.
Please tell us about your family growing up. I was blessed to have many influential teachers but, without a doubt, the most powerful were my parents and grandfather, T.J. Frohnapfel. He lived under the same roof with us from the time I was born until he died a few weeks after I turned 16 and left for college (I often wonder about the timing of his death).
What are some things you remember about your grandfather? T.J. spent an enormous amount of time with me when I was little and taught me how to write, do simple math, identify every tree in the woods, whittle, spit and lots of other great stuff any young West B.G. Va. boy should know.
How about your parents? My dad may have been the only one of his eight siblings who graduated from high school; my mom (fifth grade education), I think, only had one sibling that got through high school and my grandpa, I’m sure, stopped school before sixth grade. Nevertheless, they instinctively gave me a Montessori education that set my course in life. Everyday I think of positive things small and not so small they taught me, often unconsciously on both their and my part.
What was grade school like? The Montessori experience continued in the one-room primary school, Highland. I attended grades 1-6 (I skipped two grades) and the school never had more than a dozen or so students in it while I was there. Ginny Bohrer, Steve’s mom, was a powerful influence on me at Highland.
High School? In High School, Vivian Van Dyne (ninth grade English) and Olin Hall (chemistry) were major influences.
College? I was fortunate to have uniformly wonderful science mentors for the next 40 years: undergraduate studies at WVU, graduate school at Ohio State University, and postdoctoral work at Georgia Tech. I worked with amazing people at Los Alamos, including close mentoring by several Manhattan Project pioneers and the Los Alamos generation after Manhattan.
What was the genesis of your science interest? Without a doubt, I was a Sputnik kid. I clearly remember watching Sputnik in the night sky when I was ten. That winter I sketched out a concept for a multistage rocket. I wish I could see what that design was today!
That led to experiments with black powder rockets, which inspired my interest in chemistry. My parents were amazingly supportive. I clearly remember a thermite reaction which was overly successful in my “lab” in the basement, which could easily have burned down the house. In high school, John Halley and few other townies also shared my interest in science, which helped. Somehow, I came out with all body parts functioning. Then I learned a bit about nuclear science, technology and trans-uranium chemistry and that led me directly to Los Alamos.
If there were a Mount Rushmore of twentieth century physicists, Enrico Fermi would be on it. You have a Fermi story.
I was in charge of a project dealing with “buried treasure” which was nuclear waste that went all the way back to the Manhattan Project. My supervisor thought he was doing me a great favor and took me to Fermi’s lab, offering it to me and my team as our work site. I looked around and realized that it was very outdated and not a place that would fit our needs so I turned it down. Not only did I turn down Fermi’s lab but I also turned down the chair that the great physicist sat in as he did his work.
You’ve stood on the shoulders of some giants. I didn’t deserve to be that lucky but, hey, you should take advantage of what life presents.
You’ve also been lucky in marriage. Teri was born in Albuquerque and moved to Los Alamos when she was five weeks old. Her dad was extremely talented and rare-a group leader who had only a high school degree. He ran the payroll department. He turned down a basketball scholarship to Notre Dame so he could bring an income to his parents, who lived on the south side of Chicago. Through Teri’s siblings and their parents, I got a unique insight into the early Los Alamos culture that would be difficult or impossible for most newbies to ever acquire.
Any keys to a successful marriage. We’ve been married 42 years (or 84 if you add Teri’s years to mine). Luck. Choosing well. Shared values. Sense of humor. Not having to be right all the time. Recognizing that you don’t have the power to change people, except by being there and being helpful. And, being bullheaded enough to not throw in the towel when the going inevitably gets rocky.
You are parents to two daughters. Rachel was born with a pencil in her hand and is a contemporary landscape artist in Boise (http://www.teannalachcom). She has gifted us with two granddaughters.
Daughter Audrey could have been a helluva engineer instead of a groundbreaking sociology professor (www.audreydevineeller.com). She lives in Duluth and has given us two grandsons.
You are also an amateur historian. I was inspired to write Strong Women of Idaho by learning about the amazing women of early Idaho. I noted that few of them had been adequately covered, if at all, in the written histories of early Idaho. The saying goes that history is written mostly by old white guys, and there is substantial proof in that. It’s no wonder that women get bypassed in the telling of history. I was also inspired by having an amazing four year-old granddaughter nearby (sixth generation Idahoan) who is already showing she is going to be a force to be reckoned with.
You began in West Virginia and have lived in many places. Please share some differences and similarities. I also lived in Ohio, Georgia, Washington, New Mexico, Australia for half a year, and now reside in Idaho. Between those experiences and digging into the background of historically-based songs, I’ve learned that human instincts and foibles are universal and that other than nuclear weapons, there isn’t anything new in the “news”. About every two generations, a bunch of folks decide the people before them were too stupid to do things right, and then proceed to make the same dumbass mistakes. We see it playing out in real time right now. Fortunately, history teaches us that these things are self-correcting, though sometimes not without a lot of pain. I think it is necessary to spend time (years not days) away from your roots to fully appreciate where you came from. A great example is how my West Virginia heritage has informed me musically and has such a great cachet in the musical circles I move in. It is disappointing how most folks living in Wetzel County undervalue the traditional music of Appalachia and particularly West Virginia. I have friends all over the country who would have loved to be exposed to old-time, bluegrass and hillbilly music as kids.
Please share some local lore you’ve learned just by observing.
When I was preparing one of my regional books, I learned much about Wetzel County, some of which even the local historians weren’t aware. For example, I crossed Williams Run (by the old cemetery) thousands of times, but I didn’t know there was a short line railroad up that creek to serve the logging of one of the last remnants of West Virginia’s primordial hardwood forest. The state was basically clear-cut by 1910.
When did you start playing music? I started playing banjo around age twelve (four-string tenor, not bluegrass or old timey five-string). When people ask how long I’ve been playing, I say about 60 years and “you would think I’d be better”.
Any recommendations for an aspiring musician? (1) Be lucky enough to be around good players who will take the time to show you stuff. My early mentors were Brady Colvin (Jim’s dad, the best fiddle and banjo player in Wetzel County), and Gay Schwing (Jack Eller’s father-in-law, who was a regionally significant hillbilly band leader in the 40s and 50s and was invited to relocate to Nashville); (2) practice, practice, practice; (3) listen critically to ALL kinds of music; (4) take some percussion lessons to solidify rhythm skills; (5) formal classic music lessons are fine but don’t let them lock you into patterns that you can’t break when you want to play other kinds of music; (6) never turn down a chance to participate in a jam session.
Any favorite places you’ve played? I’ve played sizable musical venues from Lexington, Kentucky to Darrington, Washington; my favorites are not the big ones but small, intimate concert venues. I’m a sucker for old 1920’s vintage theaters, historically significant locations, and tiny gigs deep in the Idaho backcountry where people actually show up to listen and share. An example is when I recently played at Big Creek and Yellow Pine in the great Idaho Primitive area on the edge of the largest area in the lower 48s (Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness).
What is your latest music project? Current CD/booklet I’m working on (#19 in the series): Stockhandler Songs, Stories and Poems of Early Idaho. Stock includes everything from cowhorses, draught horses, jackasses, cattle, hogs, and even camels. The project will include songs and stories about early black and Hispanic vaqueros- you probably didn’t know that through the 1800s they comprised about two-thirds of America’s cowboys.
Bill Stewart’s dad was a famous musician. Blaine Stewart played mandolin for decades in the legendary West Virginia country group, Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper, who were long-time members of the Grand Ol’ Opry. There is no telling how many times he played there over many years and, with the Coopers, would have played all over the U.S. and Canada. In my humble opinion, he is easily the most significant musician that ever came out of Wetzel County.
Any advice for Wetzel and Tyler County kids? General advice: Keep your eyes open and ask a lot of questions…it’s a big world. You can succeed in a huge variety of things if you are inquisitive, focused and work hard. There’s nothing wrong with staying in West Virginia for life, but there is something wrong about never “seeing the elephant” as we say out here in the west. You can live anywhere in the world and maintain your roots back home. Travel when you are young and unfettered. Get a broad base of knowledge both through education and experience. I firmly believe that life presents many open doors for everybody. However, some folks don’t recognize the doors, or are too timid to walk through. I encourage young folks to watch for doors and not be afraid to enter. If it turns out to be the wrong door, there almost always is an exit to a better door. One of the great things about Los Alamos, where I spent thirty years, was that there were wonderful doors everywhere. Every few years I seized a distinctly different job ranging from environmental restoration, high level nuclear waste management, long term plutonium storage to nuclear non-proliferation. I was able to do all that while living in the same house, and maintaining my roots back in West B.G. Virginia.
Thank you. It’s been an awesome ride.
An Interview By, John Yevuta