Immigrant Stories: Driven by loneliness to find ‘belongingness’
Intro: George Stranahan is a photographer, author, physicist, teacher, restaurateur, entrepreneur, community organizer and philanthropist. To learn more about George and Patti Stranahan’s philanthropy go to http://www.manausfund.org. Note: This story is a collaboration of the Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Immigrant Stories Project, led by Walter Gallacher.
Stranahan: My family is Irish. They left Ireland after the Potato Famine and went first to Scotland and then landed in Boston. My grandfather was night clerk at the Hotel Tremont. He made enough there to put his little brother, Bob, through Harvard.
Bob graduated from Harvard at age 18 and opened a bike shop with my grandfather. It was there that they met a bicycle racer from France whose name was Alfred Champion. A lot of the bicycle races in those days were motorized, and my granddad and my uncle and Alfred Champion got involved in trying to build a better engine and in the process invented a sparkplug that they named Champion. Their sparkplug lasted longer and ran much better than anything on the market. Before Champion, sparkplugs had to be changed every 2,000 miles.
It was about this time that Henry Ford was getting started in Toledo, Ohio. They went to Henry and convinced him that they had a better plug than he could manufacture, and they agreed to sell to him at cost. So they broke even with Ford but they made a fortune selling replacement plugs.
Uncle Bob was the aggressive businessman, my grandfather was just a good guy who put him through college. My dad was the only son, so when he was old enough, he joined the family business and eventually became Champion’s vice-president of aviation sparkplug production.
Gallacher: So when you got old enough was the sparkplug business something you were interested in?
Stranahan: I was born in 1931 and grew up during the Depression. We lived in a little house in Perrysburg, Ohio. The business was building when I was a kid, but it wasn’t there yet.
But when I graduated from college the business was thriving, so I wrote my Uncle Bob a letter describing my skills in physics and my willingness to be a part of the family business that had been so good to me. Uncle Bob didn’t reply.
Stranahan: And I just thought, “Well, I guess you don’t want me or don’t need me. So I’m gone and thanks for the dividend.”
Gallacher: I’ve read that you knew, at an early age, that you wanted to be a scientist.
Stranahan: Yeah, I actually knew at age 12 what I wanted to be and why. In those days, we got Colliers, Look and Life magazines, and I saw this ad for Bell Labs with a big long empty table and a scientist sitting with his beakers and flasks and I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”
Gallacher: Were you a loner as a kid?
Stranahan: Yes, I was absolutely a loner, and that empty table said, “This is how you want to be a loner.”
Gallacher: And then you went off to boarding school, which you didn’t like much.
Stranahan: Yes, I was 13 when I was taken down to the train station and put on the train with a “goodbye.” I had no choice in the matter. It was cruel and wrong.
Gallacher: I never have understood sending kids away in their teenage years.
Stranahan: I felt pushed out and abandoned, a foreigner from Ohio in a Connecticut prep school. Then I was super-lonely. I had developed no social skills and had no idea how to be a friend or start a conversation. So I learned how to be lonely.
Gallacher: What did you fill that loneliness with?
Stranahan: I did little solitary things — read, tinkered and fussed. And then I met two guys at school who liked to tinker and fuss, and we built a thriving little business together.
Phonographs and radios were forbidden at the Hotchkiss School, so we built receivers out of army surplus tank radios that we ordered. Then we sent our radio signal through the brass strips in the dorm’s flooring. Students could connect a headphone wire to the brass strip and another to the radiator in their room and listen to music. We charged a monthly fee for that service.
We also smuggled in cigarettes and figured out how to distill alcohol out of aftershave, so we were pretty busy. But then kids started showing up drunk to English class, and we were the suspects. The administration didn’t want to appear autocratic so they turned the matter over to the student council.
I remember walking into the council meeting for our hearing, and I took a quick survey of the council members. They were all customers. We skated.
I graduated from the Hotchkiss School four years later with a 61 grade point average, 60 was passing. They told me how high to jump, and I jumped just high enough, nothing more.
That was my pattern for a while. I went to Cal Tech and didn’t really fit there. I got married and started a family and applied to grad school at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. I got drafted out of school and into the Korean War and served two years and came back after that to finish up.
Gallacher: When did you discover Colorado?
Stranahan: My parents were skiers, and in 1949 they were reading a story about a new ski area called Aspen. When I saw it for the first time, I thought, “This is heaven, someday I’m going to end up here.” So when I was in grad school in Pittsburgh, I decided to take the family to Aspen for the summer and escape the heat.
For $400, I rented a four-bedroom house in Aspen with a jeep for the whole summer. I soon realized that I wasn’t studying physics. I brought my notebook and pencil, but I was hiking and fishing. I realized then that physics wasn’t a solitary thing. It’s a relationship between language, math and human interaction. I learned I couldn’t do it on my own.
Gallacher: So you had figured out that science isn’t the lone person at the long table.
Stranahan: Exactly, I realized that if I wanted to study physics in Aspen I needed other physicists. I arranged a meeting with Bob Craig, who was the new director of the Aspen Institute, and convinced him that I could create a physics center if he could get me the land. He agreed and, in 1962, we opened, and that’s where I spent most of my summers.
So in 1972, when my marriage fell apart, I left my job at Michigan State and moved to Aspen with my three boys. My wife kept the two girls.
Gallacher: What was your role at the Physics Center?
Stranahan: I was the executive director. I made sure we had grants, wrote papers and had participants. But I was most interested in figuring out how to build a scientific community that works together, cares together and shares together.
Gallacher: It sounds like you were trying to create something that you had been missing in your life?
Stranahan: There’s probably something to that. The lonely kid grows up, I guess. I stopped doing physics and spent most of my time trying to figure out how we could do more together as scientists.
Gallacher: Did you ever think you were going to be a community organizer?
Stranahan: No, but looking back I was.
Gallacher: Yes, there are plenty of examples of your community building in the Roaring Fork Valley. There’s the Aspen Community School and the Woody Creek Community Center.
Stranahan: I found a place in Woody Creek early on and built a cabin, and then I started to realize that I had an obligation to the land, to preserve it and keep it free.
So as other land came up for sale, I bought it to preserve the neighborhood. Bob Craig and I decided that we would make Woody Creek a place that was about the land and not who owns it. I kept getting this land to try and keep it empty. I’m sure some people saw it as foolish but I was gripped by it. I owned the land, but the land owned me.
It wasn’t just vacant land. We also kept houses and made them available to people who were doing good work, like teachers. It was a community.
Gallacher: Speaking of community, talk about the Valley Settlement Project in that regard.
Stranahan: Valley Settlement is patterned after the early settlement houses in Chicago that were based on the idea that immigrants are new to this country and don’t know how to live in our cities and towns. They need help figuring it all out and getting “settled.” They need a sense of belonging to a community. If we welcome them and help them “settle,” the lonely people aren’t lonely anymore.
In the Valley Settlement Program, parents are actively engaged in their children’s education and their own. They become parent mentors and teachers in the classroom. They are a vital part of the school community, and from that comes empowerment and a sense of belonging.
A strong community is about belongingness. When you look that word up in the dictionary you find, “the quality of being important or essential to something or someone.” When we have belongingness we are important to each other. When you believe I am important to you, I become more important to myself. Belongingness is a word I am trying to use a lot these days.
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