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2018 Los Alamos Living Treasures: George Best, Cheryl Pongratz And Ruth Williamson

on March 29, 2018 - 12:33pm

COMMUNITY News:

Living Treasures of Los Alamos was created to celebrate the enormous role that so many local senior citizens have played in the history of Los Alamos.

Through their voluntary efforts they have come to serve as models and mentors providing inspiration with their involvement, commitment, perseverance, hope, heart and wisdom. They are the folk heroes who live among us. The formation of Living Treasures of Los Alamos was spearheaded by Rosalie Heller in 1999. To learn more, click here.

This year, Living Treasures of Los Alamos will honor George Best, Cheryl Pongratz and Ruth Williamson at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22 at Crossroads Church, 97 East Road.

The public is invited to attend the ceremony and reception, co-sponsored by Los Alamos National Bank. 

About this year's Living Treasures:

George Best

George Harold Best was born in 1920 and grew up in a suburb of Chicago. The second of five boys, he says he has been “second best” all his life. In 1942, after receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in physics from Purdue University in Indiana, George was recruited as a commissioned officer in the US Navy and introduced to the sophisticated technologies in use by the Navy. At the war’s end he continued his education, earning a Master of Science degree in 1948 and a doctorate in physics in 1949, both from Northwestern University in Illinois. During his time in the Navy, George spent time in Washington, D.C, at Harvard and MIT, and at specialized schools in San Diego and Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to a destroyer in Pearl Harbor and his ship joined naval operations supporting troop movements in New Guinea while he was on it in 1943 and 1944.

George married Elizabeth Fish in 1944 and they raised three children, daughters Martha and Sarah and a son, Guy. Martha lives in Australia, and Guy and Sarah now live in the Santa Fe area. George, Elizabeth, and Martha moved to Los Alamos in 1949; their arrival was delayed because of a still common problem: lack of housing! Upon their arrival in Los Alamos George discovered two things: first, he had been very close to Los Alamos in 1939 or 1940 when he was en route to the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron in a large bus filled with scouts and their leaders from the suburbs of Chicago. The route included a crossing at the Otowi suspension bridge, which is still preserved next to route 502. The driver had all the passengers walk across the bridge to reduce his load, then he proceeded very slowly over the bridge. The scouts were on their way to the Puye cliff dwellings in Santa Clara Canyon before going on to Philmont. The second thing George noted on his arrival in Los Alamos was that some of the graduate students and staff from Purdue were here; they were people who had suddenly departed Purdue while he was getting his education there.

As George and Elizabeth’s family grew and housing became more available, they moved to several locations in the community, finally settling in 1956 in the house where George still lives. George worked at the laboratory until his retirement in 1983 and has been involved in many organizations within the community over all the years he has lived here; in fact, he has put in more than 6,100 lifetime hours of volunteer time. In the early days, his son’s Cub Scout Pack needed leadership, so he volunteered. Following a fire near S-Site in the 1950s, George’s Cub Pack planted seedlings in the area to help reestablish the forest. He served on the board of East Park Pool during its planning and construction. He helped create the slopes at Pajarito Mountain and helped establish and lead the Unitarian Church in Los Alamos. He has served on boards too numerous to list, taught classes to beginning computer users in the 1980s when personal computers were relatively new, and volunteered at blood drives. He conducted tours of the locations where Georgia O’Keeffe did her paintings at Ghost Ranch and worked at the Valles Caldera National Preserve greeting visitors, and he has done paleontology work related to Seismosauris dinosaurs in the Ojito Wilderness area. Today he welcomes visitors at Bandelier National Monument where he is one of the most beloved and popular volunteers. George donates an average of 225 volunteer hours per year at Bandelier alone and has accumulated over 1,600 hours to that one organization.

George has a natural curiosity and says he has always enjoyed what he’s been doing. He has been a volunteer in some capacity most of his life and has been especially active since his retirement. At 97 years of age, he is one of the most senior volunteers for the Los Alamos Volunteer Association. He has a quick smile and personable nature and he personifies what it means to be a volunteer. No one in this town lucky enough to know him would ever think of him as “second best.” © Kyle Wheeler

Cheryl Pongratz

Cheryl Olivia was born to William and Dorothy Fuchs in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1945, and grew up in Rhode Island; Arlington, Virginia; and Waukeegan, Illinois, with four brothers and one sister. The family took car trips each summer to south Texas or the south side of Chicago to visit relatives; in Texas the children could roam their grandparents’ farm and enjoy the wide-open spaces with their father’s parents. In Chicago they learned how to get along in a big city with their mother’s parents. And the car trips provided an opportunity to see the United States from the newly built Interstate Highway System.

Cheryl attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree, and where, at a dance, she met a first-year graduate student in physics who was attending the University of Maryland. His Name was Morris (Morrie) Pongratz, and they dated long distance for two years before getting married on April 8, 1967. Cheryl worked in the early days of their marriage, as Morrie’s small stipend, while plenty for him, was not enough for a wife, too. She got a job teaching science, first in Hyattsville and then Bowie, Maryland, before they moved to Los Alamos in March 1973. They had two young daughters when Morrie was offered a position that included health insurance. Sadly, their daughter, who was born with congenital heart disease, died before the young Pongratz family arrived in Los Alamos. They decided to go ahead with their plans to move to Los Alamos for a year or two, and now, 45 years later, they are still here, and both have contributed immensely to the community (Morrie was named a Living Treasure in 2011).

In 1974, son Dan joined his sister Karin and the family busied themselves with raising the children, working, and being active in the Catholic Church. Cheryl continued her work as a science teacher before turning to school administration in 1981, which she truly enjoyed. During that time, she earned a master’s degree in educational administration from the University of New Mexico. She enjoyed working with the teachers and the children in the classrooms. During her working years in administration, she was an assistant principal at Pueblo Junior High School and later Los Alamos Middle School. Later she was principal at Aspen Elementary, the middle school, and the high school. Cheryl also was the assistant superintendent of schools until her retirement in 1999. She was always involved with kids, her own as well as their friends, and was very involved in anti-drug movements through the schools and the community.

Cheryl recommends retiring on the first day possible and trying something new. She retired one week before her grandson (now 18) was born. She loves to travel (her husband doesn’t because of all the travel he did for his work), so she travels with friends, visits family, and tries to get to a “big city” once or twice a year. She recommends stretching the boundaries and trying new things, and she had no plans to sit around the house after working for 32 years. After “retirement” she started working for the Northern New Mexico Network for Rural Education, where she worked with schools to improve science and math education and school administration. She loved visiting the teachers and children in many of schools throughout northern New Mexico.

In October 2000, she fell off a ladder and seriously broke her foot, which required surgery to fuse the bones. Because of the severity of the injury, she was unable to drive and stand as much as the NNMNRE work required, so she took some time to recover and was often seen around town driving her motorized scooter, which took her everywhere and which she enjoyed so much she worried she might become overly dependent on it. Eventually, when the foot had healed enough that she could truly walk on it again, she gave up the scooter. But she didn’t slow down. She has always been involved in numerous activities.

Cheryl is the epitome of caring. She has dedicated her life, both professionally and through volunteer programs, to education, mental health programs, and raising money to fund much-needed programs for underserved populations. She has worked with Kiwanis to raise money for scholarships for graduating high school seniors, for smoke detectors for new families as they leave the medical center, and for “Senior Appreciation Night,” among others. She is an experienced grant writer and the grants she has written and applied for support the mental health needs of many Los Alamos citizens. She speaks passionately about her work at the Family Council, where she is the “paperwork czar” and worries about the needs of the working poor and people who can’t get the services without the benefit of Medicare. She and Morrie were charter members of the Los Alamos Public Schools Foundation, which raises money for various education projects, and one or the other of them has been on the board ever since it was established. Every year, there is a fundraiser for LAPS Foundation, and last year they had a “Thanks a Million” theme party to gratefully acknowledge the fact that the foundation had raised and distributed a million dollars to education projects in Los Alamos. 

Cheryl is one of those people who works quietly behind the scenes yet contributes much to our community. If she hears of a tragedy, she offers assistance and support to the beleaguered; if someone needs emotional support, she finds a way to help, offering a friendly ear and supportive heart. She has served on the board of the Family Strengths Network, which provides help for young families, many of whom have no close relatives living nearby. She has also served on the Community Health Council and the DWI Planning Council and the board of the Homeowners’ Association where she lives. She is a “doer,” a problem solver, and an organized person who knows how to get things done.

Cheryl and Morrie celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2017. We are lucky that they chose to make Los Alamos their home. © Kyle Wheeler

Ruth Williamson

There are several themes that emerge as most important in the life of Ruth Williamson: faith, family, friendships, music, and a spirit of generosity.

Ruth was born in Vermont in 1936, the daughter of an American Baptist minister. She lived most of her growing-up years in a small town in Illinois. From early childhood, music gave Ruth a sense of self-worth, because it was the one thing she could do better than her “much more talented and much more popular” older sister. She refers to herself as “a hopeless and unapologetic music addict.” It is clear that music has brought much happiness to her life and the lives of those around her.

Although her family didn’t have the resources to pay for 50 cent private piano lessons, they could afford 25 cent class lessons and supported her efforts at the piano, violin, clarinet, and trumpet. During her high school years, Ruth earned enough money at after-school jobs to pay for organ lessons in a nearby town She and her friends shared Sunday afternoons gathered around the piano, singing until their voices gave out.

For her junior and senior years at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, Ruth and her friend (also named Ruth) were the first “K” College students added to the piano teacher roster at the Kalamazoo College Institute of Musical Art. Thus, began Ruth’s career teaching piano, which would span 32 years. Ruth is convinced that she has learned as much from her students as they have learned from her.

Ruth’s first job out of college was as an elementary music supervisor for a school district in Pennsylvania where she traveled to 12 schools in the Allegheny Mountains, teaching singing to 40 classes a week. One class, a special education class filled with active, loving, and appreciative children, was the source of a joyful revelation to Ruth. When the children were involved in their musical activities, Ruth felt they knew that they were as wonderful, as smart, and as capable as everyone else.

During that first year out of college, Ruth married Ken Williamson, whom she had met in Midland, Michigan, and thus began a new and wonderful phase of Ruth’s life. After Ken received his masters and PhD degrees in chemical engineering from Penn State University, the couple moved to New York where Ken worked for Union Carbide. In 1961 they moved with their young son to Los Alamos, and Ken began his work with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Their two daughters were born in Los Alamos.

Ruth’s volunteer activities have covered many decades and involved many age groups. She organized and directed a youth choir at Bethlehem Lutheran Church that made several tours throughout the southwest with a new Christian musical each year. At a children’s hospital in Texas, a girl who was blind and deaf spent most of her time making loud noises. But each time the music began she sensed the vibrations of the instruments and voices and became quiet. This and many other experiences impacted the choir members, some of whom had never traveled far from home.

Ruth also found that music can be therapy. She has had many opportunities to work with youth and adults who are mentally, visually, or physically challenged. She calls these people “handicapable.” A young man who sustained head injuries and partial paralysis in a car accident needed to relearn how to walk, talk, and do all the things we take for granted when we are healthy. A special memory of Ruth’s work with him was the day she arrived at his home and was told that because of their work at the piano, he could now hold a drinking glass in his hand. A year later he was able to play in the student recital a simplified version of the piece that had been playing on the car radio at the time of his accident. During the several years that Ruth served as volunteer music therapist at the New Horizons NM Head Injury Camp, this young man was able to help accompany the singing on his guitar. Ruth describes this as the healing power of music.

Ruth has led weekly music activities at the Day Out Adult Day Care Center for almost 20 years. Participants sing, talk, laugh, and reminisce, and the music stirs memories of past events and emotions. This continues to be a highlight of her week, and she considers each person a treasured friend. In other Los Alamos music related activities Ruth initiated and scheduled weekly noon musicales at the Los Alamos Lab Cafeteria. With Mary Lois Kerr she co-founded the Los Alamos Piano Teachers Association (now the Los Alamos Music Teachers Association). She served as treasurer of the Los Alamos Concert Association and as President of Student Concerts Inc., which brought concerts into the schools. She played trumpet with the Los Alamos Sinfonietta, piano with the Los Alamos Community Winds, and has played several benefit concerts as a member of the Hot Flashes Two Piano Quartet, the Vested Interests Two Piano Quartet, and the Bach to Blues Piano Duo. She has served as choir accompanist and substitute director for the United Church choir and the Los Alamos Home School Chorus.

In 1989, at the age of 53, Ken died of cancer, and Ruth’s life took a dramatic turn. She describes him as “the best husband in the world,” and she knew that the happiest part of her life was over. In dealing with her grief she decided that perhaps her remaining years would make some sense if she increased her efforts to bring happiness to others. She set herself a goal of trying to touch one life a day with a card, a phone call, a visit, a ride to an appointment or concert, a food item, or perhaps just a listening ear or a word of appreciation. She says it was purely a survival technique, but that something so simple can easily become a habit. Ruth spent many years writing letters for people who could no longer do that for themselves. In several cases, she remained pen pals with correspondents after the person she originally wrote the letters for had passed away. As another part of her grief work, Ruth became a Hospice volunteer for 10 years with the Los Alamos Visiting Nurse Service, and with additional course work, became a bereavement counselor for many of those years.

Ruth and Ken raised three children: Ken, a doctor in Texas; Kim, an artist in Oregon; and Karen, a musician in Colorado. She has four grandchildren, two step-grandsons, and two step-great-grandsons. Ruth has touched so many lives with her music and small and large kind gestures. But she insists that she is the person who has benefited from the friendships she’s made and the people she has met along the way who have enriched her life. © Kyle Wheeler

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