Helping Neighbors – Enriching Lives: Los Alamos’ Newest Living Treasures

By Janet “TJ” Taub

 

On Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, L. Dick Tatro, Jeanne Butler and Douglas & Ruth Helmick Lier will be recognized and honored as the newest members of Living Treasures of Los Alamos (LTLA.)
 
The ceremony and reception, sponsored by Los Alamos National Bank, will commence at 2 p.m. in the Betty Ehart Senior Center. The public is warmly invited to attend.
 
This event is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of individuals who have so greatly enhanced life on the Hill. Friends, family and co-workers are encouraged to participate in the ceremony by sharing stories and remembrances about each new Treasure. Living Treasures of Los Alamos pays tribute to seniors whose activities have made a notable difference in the quality of life for community residents.
 
These remarkable individuals are role models and mentors, providing inspiration as they demonstrate commitment, perseverance, hope, heart and wisdom. Their contributions are wonderfully diverse but they share a common outlook which is to live life to the fullest.
 
LTLA honors these special people by sharing a glimpse into their lives and acknowledging their unique and inestimable contributions. More information about the Living Treasures program may be found at www.livingtreasureslosalamos.org. Please join friends, family and LTLA in recognizing Dick, Jeanne, Doug and Ruth as they are acknowledged as Living Treasures of Los Alamos.
 

L. DICK TATRO Photo by Jim Gautier

Dick Tatro is a quiet, unassuming man whose calm exterior belies the wealth of varied experience, expertise and contributions to community that he has built over a lifetime.
 
Born in Ogden, Utah, Dick was third in a family of eight children and describes his childhood as being “a pretty normal life”. He first attended Weber College in Ogden, UT but eventually transferred to the University of Utah where, in 1952, he earned his Bachelors degree in physics.
 
Following graduation, Dick took a job in Los Angeles, working for an appliance-testing lab run by Southern California Gas Company (SCGC). SCGC purchased and tested residential and commercial gas appliances, possibly to assure they met industry standards, weren’t dangerous, responded to feedback making gas appliances more attractive to consumers – or all of the above. Among other things, Dick recalls baking cakes to see how evenly they browned! He notes the work was ‘interesting enough’ but it wasn’t what he wanted to do and he definitely didn’t want to make Los Angeles his home.
 
After a year in California, Dick accepted a summer job from a friend who ran the post office at Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone Park. While there, he was befriended by a professor and his wife from State University of Iowa (SUI) who offered to help Dick pursue an advanced degree in physics. Dick earned his masters and took some PhD coursework at SUI but was tiring of school, so when a headhunter spoke to him about Los Alamos, Dick interviewed for and accepted a job at the lab. He arrived in Los Alamos early in 1957 and joined J Division where he essentially spent the next 33 years until his retirement. He specialized in neutron diagnostics of weapons tests. “It was interesting work and meant I traveled a lot!”
 
Another friend he made at Fishing Bridge was a young woman who would become his wife. The post office operated out of the general store where Pat LaLuzerne worked. By 1957 Pat was teaching elementary school in Denver. Dick made several trips to Denver and that October, they were married. 55 years and five children later they are still happily residing and participating in Los Alamos.
 
Dick has shared his energies and expertise with the community for a very long time. His skills stem from an extensive and varied list of jobs held from the time he was a child. One of his first work experiences involved home building. His Granddad was having a home built and often took Dick to the work site. There he gave Dick something to do – use a wheelbarrow, pound a nail. Dick earned 25-cents for a half day’s work – 35-cents if he worked ‘extra hard’!
 
During high school he assisted with school plays, ushered at concerts, took tickets at games. Other jobs over the years included setting pins in a bowling ally, washing dishes in a bakery, work in an ice cream factory, drawing blood and doing lab tests in a clinical lab.
 
Before Habitat for Humanity built homes, the organization focused on home remodeling and reconstruction. Starting in approximately 1988, Dick began to volunteer his skills – he knew enough about building techniques to put up drywall, hang a door, replace a window and more.
 
As Habitat changed, Dick and “just a few of us older guys” went off on their own and began to specialize in specific services such as building ramps to homes for wheelchair access, grab bar installation in bathrooms and hallways, adding railings to porches, and more. Their ‘clients’ pay for materials if financially able to do so, but there is no charge for labor, tools, lunch or transportation. The White Rock United Methodist Church’s Outreach Committee has been very generous and has often been able to purchase materials and supplies for those unable to do so.
 
The ‘guys’ learn about their clients mostly from Visiting Nurses staff who see various needs first hand and contact the group for assistance. Over the years Dick and the others have worked in Los Alamos, the Pojoaque Valley, Abiquiu, Velarde and Chupedero.
 
Every other Sunday Dick rides his bike and picks up ‘stuff’ around nearby Barranca Elementary School. “You know kids,” he says, adding, “It seems like a natural thing to do because I have time on weekends in particular”. He volunteers with RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program) helping with traffic control for walking, running or bicycle races in town; assists with the blood drive, the festival of trees and the lunch program at the Senior Center. Dick also helps around the senior center taking on tasks such as furniture repairs – he notes it’s a County facility, “but if they can’t get to it I can.”
 
For the past seven years, Dick has served on the Los Alamos Retired and Senior Organization (LARSO) board, the non-profit organization which contracts with Los Alamos County and Federal and State agencies to operate the Betty Erhart Senior Center in Los Alamos and White Rock.
 
Dick says his granddad may have been the biggest influence in terms of ‘helping your neighbor’. His grandfather ‘did a lot for the people in the neighborhood’ and was always trying to help somebody. Clearly his philosophy was passed on to Dick who says he’s always been interested in assisting people and likes to stay busy. Los Alamos has certainly been the beneficiary of that heartfelt interest!
 

JEANNE BUTLER Photo by Jim Gautier

Born on an Iowa farm, 4-H member most of her life, driven to helping others, and someone who would be lost without her annual, extensive vegetable and fruit garden – Jeanne Butler is a mid-westerner through and through.
 
Jeanne grew up in Franklin County, IA, attending school in the nearby town of Hampton. Her early goal was medical missionary work, helping people through nursing. She attended Yankton College in Yankton, SD for two years, then Northwest Institute of Medical Laboratory Technique in Minneapolis, MN.
 
Summer ecumenical work camp experience with Sioux Indians left Jeanne with a desire to work in an Indian hospital. Following graduation, she was hired as a laboratory and x-ray tech at PHS Indian Hospital in Wagner, SD. Two years later she moved to St. Olaf’s Hospital in Austin, MN – an experience that prompted a career-change decision. She saw how doctors treated nurses versus med techs and decided not to pursue nursing.
 
In 1965, Jeanne joined the Peace Corps. She thought her medical training would be the skill utilized, but medical work meant city living and she preferred a rural area. She became a 4-H Club organizer in Sarawak, Malaysia, working with two distinct groups – the Ibans (former head hunters!) and the Malays.
 
“It was wonderful”, she said, noting the two cultures were quite different. Ibans lived in ‘long houses’ with multiple families and were quite democratic – women and children had a voice in decision-making. In contrast, the Malays were male-dominated. The two languages differed too but schools were in English so children often translated for adults and Peace Corp workers. Jeanne taught sewing, cooking and was provided with baby chicks for poultry projects. Her favorite part of the experience was, “just being with the people and their way of doing things. I probably learned more from them than what we taught.”
 
In 1968, Jeanne joined the Poudre Valley Hospital in Ft. Collins, Colo. and in 1971, completed her Bachelors degree in microbiology at Colorado State University. She remained at Poudre Valley as a microbiologist until 1974. One Christmas, a friend from church invited Jeanne to dinner where she met the woman’s nephew, Gil Butler, on break from post doc work at Argonne Labs. Jeanne and Gil learned they had similar interests but it was another three years before they met again.
 
Jeanne moved to Tucson and joined St. Mary’s Hospital. By then, Gil was a nuclear chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and, for a while, they pursued a long distance relationship. Gil encouraged Jeanne to ‘check into Los Alamos.’ She found a job with the University of New Mexico Cancer Research and Treatment Center in Albuquerque and following training, moved to Los Alamos to work in the Pion Treatment program at LANL. She and Gil were married the following year.
 
Gardening is an absolute passion for Jeanne and in 1981 she ‘retired’ to garden, harvest, can, preserve and ‘outwit’ hungry wildlife, as well as volunteer as a 4-H leader. In addition, she and Gil soon became foster parents and over the next four years fostered three girls and a boy. In 1985, they adopted their daughter, Tamryn, and their son, Randal, in 1988.
 
When Tamryn entered a Junior High contest to get parents involved in local organizations, Jeanne joined the board of Homeless Services of Los Alamos (now LA Cares) to volunteer with the Food Bank. She volunteers to this day and has served as co-coordinator of the monthly food distribution for several years.
 
Most food is donated, the bulk from local people through letter carrier, Boy Scout and other organization-sponsored food drives. Financial contributions help purchase food in short supply, diapers, formula and, occasionally, pet food. Food boxes contain about 25 items and all recipients must have a Los Alamos address. When Jeanne joined the food bank in 1998, it prepared 15-25 boxes per month. Today, it helps 75-90 families, down from 100+ a few years ago. Clients include elderly and handicapped residents, retirees on fixed incomes and single mothers working for minimum wage while supporting children.
 
Between 11 p.m. and midnight on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights prior to box distribution, Jeanne and Gil pick up vegetables, and occasionally bakery items, from Smiths. It takes a full day for Jeanne and other volunteers to move over a ton of food from storage areas, pack and label boxes. Jeanne also coordinates a limited number of box deliveries to people who don’t have a car or cannot drive.
 
In 1986, Jeanne became involved in the United Church Thrift Shop, has served as co-chair for over 20 years and volunteers monthly to sort/price donations. She recruits church participants for Church World Service’s annual Crop Walk (25 percent of proceeds go to Food Bank), and has judged knitting/crochet entries at the County Fair.
 
Jeanne says her parents were always involved with community activities, as was her Grandmother – a 4-H leader until she passed away. Jeanne’s kindergarten report card noted she was too helpful (tying children’s shoelaces) and she should stop that practice! “It seems like I need to be of service to other people. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t do that,” she says.
 
Jeanne has been described as ‘always phoning, delivering, dropping off, picking up’ and doing it while ‘staying calm, unhurried, incredibly patient’ and ‘totally unflappable.’ A note Jeanne found, written in her Grandmother’s hand, said, “Service is the rent we pay for our space on earth.” Jeanne has clearly taken that philosophy to heart.
 

DOUGLAS & RUTH HELMICK LIER Photo by Jim Gautier

Doug and Ruth Lier are both of Scandinavian descent and perhaps that partially explains how they fit together so well. Doug notes his heritage is Norwegian and Danish, and Ruth descends from ‘Viking kings’! Maybe that bond also fires the apparently boundless energy and interests they share and pour into the community – much to the betterment of Los Alamos for the past 60 years!
 
Green Bay, Wis. was home to Doug Lier until he left to attend St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. where he earned his Bachelors Degree in Physics. Following graduation he joined the Navy’s Officer Candidates School. Due to his background in physics and math, Doug was sent to Sandia Base in Albuquerque for training as a nuclear supervisor. He served out the remainder of the Korean War in the Far East as a nuclear supervisor aboard Navy carriers. He later joined the Los Alamos laboratory as a joint task force member, then as a lab staff member in J- and P-Divisions, and ended his 36-year lab career in the directors’ office.
 
Ruth Helmick Lier grew up in Des Moines, Iowa and at 22, was happily completing her Masters Degree in Microbiology when she learned the Los Alamos school system was seeking a science teacher. She wasn’t particularly interested in pursuing that opportunity but her father suggested she take the job! She taught in Los Alamos for two years, then was awarded a one-year Fulbright research grant for pollen analysis in Norway. She returned to Los Alamos and taught for three more years and in 1955, organized the first Los Alamos School science fair.
 
Doug and Ruth met in Los Alamos shortly before Ruth took a new job teaching biology and anatomy at Phoenix College. When they were both in Los Alamos, Ruth said Doug was ‘not a reliable date’. He couldn’t tell her when his work involved travel – he simply didn’t show up! When she moved to Phoenix it was a 560-mile commute from his apartment to hers. He proposed on a 113-degree day in Phoenix and they were married in Des Moines during a blizzard – temperature minus-30 degrees. “The hot and cold of it,” says Doug, smiling.
 
Once back in Los Alamos, Ruth worked at the technical library in research bibliography doing reference for high temperature chemistry and physics until 1959 when their first child was born. She left the lab but remained a substitute teacher for junior and high school science classes. Ruth later returned to the lab in the plutonium facility as a chemical technician but eventually transferred to the technical training group to helped organize the IBM’s computer training program. In the mid-1980’s she became the Education Director at the Bradbury Science Museum where she initiated family-friendly evening programs on topics such as Dinosaurs; developed a 2-hour Saturday morning program with lab scientists who shared their areas of expertise with 5th graders; and she helped design the current museum. Ruth feels science museums are the thing of the future.
 
Both Doug and Ruth have volunteered in the community for decades and many of their efforts have been directed towards youth, for example, scouting. When their daughter’s Girl Scout troop needed a project, Ruth suggested a nature trail. She worked with the girls to identify an area (the Quemazon Nature Trail), identify flowers, obtain Forest Service assistance in labeling plants and build the trail.
 
Doug says he thrives on working with youth and scouting continues to be a big part of his life. He was scout master for boy scout troop #193 starting in 1957. In the 1960’s he volunteered numerous times when he learned scouts in the area needed adult participation in a Philmont Scout Ranch long distance trek – 14-days with ‘considerable piece of action each day.’ Doug participates in scouting one way or another to this day and has many memories of interactions with young people that have particular significance when years later they recall an experience with Doug that had special meaning in their lives.
 
The Los Alamos County’s 4th of July parade stems from the Lier’s desire to create a daytime activity for children as prelude to evening fireworks. Independence Day in Norway includes children dressing in native costume and marching around neighborhoods waving Norwegian flags. Ruth decided this was a great idea to adopt and in 1965, initiated a parade with 10-15 neighborhood children who walked or rode tricycles around the Villa/Walnut loop dressed in red, white and blue. They kept to the sidewalk and Doug went ahead to clear obstacles. Sometime later, Ruth’s sister suggested carrying transistor radios so Ruth called Daryl Burns at KRSN. He eventually agreed to play marching music from 9:30–9:45 a.m. on the 4th so children could march carrying radios blaring John Phillips Sousa! In 1976, the YMCA sought a special Bicentennial project and Ruth suggested the first community-wide 4th of July parade. That parade took place with almost 600 children! Police blocked the streets, Fire Chief Albro Rile put an old fire truck in the parade, and a tradition was born. The Lier’s assisted with that parade for the next 22 years.
 
During the 1960s, Doug helped initiate the lab’s SARA program (Service Academy Research Associates) that connected faculty and senior technical students from the service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Merchant Marine, Coast Guard) with scientific staff in the lab doing special research projects. One objective was to bring youth into the system so in later careers they would remember Los Alamos and contributions it makes to the world. Local people who provided housing loved these students because they left bedrooms neat and you could bounce quarter off the bed!
 
Athletics has always been a part of the Lier’s lives. They love the water and are both master (competitive) swimmers. “It buoys you up”, says Doug! They were members of the original swimming club that had high school pool time between 9 and 10pm “after you went skiing and ice skating – a bunch of us did that for quite a few years”, notes Ruth. Doug has been involved with of East Park Pool since it opened and still participates in work parties to open and close the pool. He was also instrumental in the creation of Barranca Pool and president of the Barranca Pool Association involved in negotiating for land, designing and building the pool. He continued to help maintain the pool and they both enjoyed it for over 30 years.
 
25 years ago Doug helped instigate a mini-triathalon with Bill Hudson and since then holds records on the number of starts and finishes. (He defeated some SARA cadets – being in good shape and living at 7,400 feet above sea level could be a match with younger but sea level-residing competitors!)
 
The Liers were early members of the Los Alamos Ski Club. Doug served on its Board of Directors, was president 1959-60, and remains an avid skier to this day. He notes the move he helped orchestrate from Sawyers Hill to Pajarito Mountain – to become a family ‘backyard ski opportunity’ – has succeeded beyond any early club leader’s dreams.
 
Ruth served six years on Los Alamos County’s Art In Public Places Advisory Board. She sought greater diversity in the types of art selected for the County – forms beyond paintings. When art was considered for the aquatic center she pushed for stained glass and a mural. She suggested a water sculpture for the Bradbury Museum (and notes the County still lacks a piece of kinetic art!)
 
Doug says he always picks up trash and three years ago they organized a neighborhood clean-up from library to the homes at 2500 Central Avenue. Ruth is a charter member of a local P.E.O. group (Philanthropic Educational Organization) that supports women through scholarships, grants, awards and loans. She served on the New Mexico PEO State Board of Directors including a term as President. She volunteers at the Los Alamos Medical Center lobby shop. She has given talks on yellow wild flowers of Los Alamos. She and Doug give talks at the Senior Center, 16 thus far, on their travels from Antarctica to the Sahara, Asia and more. They have been very active in the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, both have taught Sunday school and they still volunteer. They are long time members and supporters of the international Folk Dance Club and the Los Alamos Geological Society. He sings with the Lads of Enchantment Barbershop group, she assists Visiting Nurses with their annual daffodil fundraising program and this doesn’t begin to cover it all for either Lier.
 
Where does their leadership and drive for community service come from? Doug says his family was “deeply and integrally” involved as a part of living. His father was very involved in the community in Green Bay and found funding for the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field.
 
Ruth’s family ‘likes to be involved’. “We see changes to be done and we try to get involved and get things done,” she says, adding “we signed Magna Carta, were on the Mayflower, signed the Declaration of Independence, established Iowa by homesteading and wrote the Iowa Constitution.”
 
“We love Los Alamos,” they say and that certainly has been to the community’s great advantage for six decades!
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