Zeal for learning guides Roy Anderson

He's gone from the Air Force to engineering, art, teaching, music and sports.

Roy Anderson, right, at work recently with his ukulele class in the basement of the Carnegie Center. Students are, from left, Glen Savage, Marty Smith, Marilee Schiff and Karla Broughton.

Roy Anderson, right, at work recently with his ukulele class in the basement of the Carnegie Center. Students are, from left, Glen Savage, Marty Smith, Marilee Schiff and Karla Broughton. Photo by Donna Lasater.

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Roy Anderson discusses his life, in his studio near the Walla Walla Regional Airport.

Roy Anderson is a modern-day Renaissance man.

His pastimes include engineering, art, music and coaching soccer. His latest venture is teaching raw novices how to play the ukulele, which he does at the Carnegie Center.

But before he reached Walla Walla and his pack of uke pupils, his eagerness to learn and pursue new experiences took him in all directions across the Western Hemisphere.

“My dad was a mining engineer. I was born in Lima, Peru and home-schooled. Dad worked in the tungsten mines in Bolivia,” Anderson said.

He spent most of his time in South America in Bolivia. “I started out speaking Spanish more than English. Now I’ve forgotten it,” he said.

“Just before junior high school we moved to Denver. Going to school was really an experience,” Anderson said. “I didn’t know any slang or cuss words and the school was full of gangsters who used to laugh and make fun of me. I was home-schooled and the most naive person you could find. It was like I was taken out of the jungle and thrown into civilization. But I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I was never insulted; I really didn’t know what they were saying to me.”

The family moved to a mining camp outside of Spokane in Metaline Falls, Wash., where he graduated from high school in 1959. “I spent all my days fishing, I still love to fish,” he said.

“I got a bachelor’s from Gonzaga and master’s from the University of Idaho in Civil Engineering. In between I was in the Air Force for five or six years and got out as a captain.”

When he enlisted, he asked his superiors if they could use a civil engineer. They could, and he was hired as a base engineer at Oxnard Air Force base in Camarillo, Calif. It was close to Malibu and the beach, where he met his wife-to-be, Joyce.

After he and Joyce got engaged, he was sent to the isolation of the Aleutian Islands, “to keep an eye on the Russians,” he said.

Once that assignment was completed, he was sent back to Oxnard where he ended up building the chapel where he and Joyce were married in 1967.

As Roy had obtained a new position at Westover Air Force Base in Springfield, Mass., the couple combined their honeymoon vacation with their journey to the East Coast. It started out as a one-month vacation, but it was extended another month. They spent the time camping out of the back of a pickup truck, seeing the country.

Roy was to join a team of civil engineers who inspected various systems and repairs on Air Force bases. He arrived at their headquarters and reported in. “I walked in, snapped my heels with my shiny shoes. They said, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I just came from Alaska,’” he said.

The team had no idea he was going to be working with them, so they told him to take another month off while they got the paperwork straightened out. So the couple's honeymoon increased to three months and they continued traveling through Maine and New Hampshire.

“I loved the military, but every other assignment was isolated and I couldn’t take my family. That’s not good for the family,” Anderson said. “My dad had vision problems; he decided to get his doctorate in geology, deciding a blind man can teach.” Father and son ended up attending University of Idaho at the same time.

Both Roy and his dad graduated in 1969, Roy with his master’s and his father with his doctorate.

While he was looking for his thesis topic, he came across the Walla Walla Corps of Engineers, who needed help with a project. They offered him a GS-7 position with them.

“They needed a study of the freeway that goes to Portland. They were having problems building it. My job was to solve the foundation problems,” he said. Afterward, they asked him to continue working for them.

“I had interviewed all over the country and not one job offer. These were giant, huge projects the Walla Walla Corps of Engineers were working on — building dams — you’ll never get opportunities like these,” he said. So he stayed.

He was part of the construction of the second powerhouse at Ice Harbor dam. Then he worked on construction claims.

Anderson retired from the Corps in 1995 but he’s always involved in something.

“I told Joyce I was going to be an artist. She gave me this odd look and said, ‘You don’t like art.’ I came back and said I’d rented a building out at the airport. She said, ‘Why?’ That’s our art studio — we’re artists,” he said.

He went on to teach drawing at Walla Walla Community College. Drawing is the basis of his paintings. He has some color vision impairment and can’t do oils. “For oils you have to know colors,” he said.

Anderson starts his watercolors in black and white and then colors them. “I don’t worry about the colors. I see art like building a house. It’s hard work, doing the drawing, getting the values in there. You do the sketches first, then the coloring is the joyful part.”

Anderson’s paintings focus on portraits of people, his students and soccer teams he coaches.

“Art is a giveaway. I love doing people and then I give them the painting,” he said. This brings the students and those he coaches a great deal of happiness. He also enjoys painting still lifes, guitars, vegetables and fish.

Music is another thing Anderson loves. In the late 1950s to early 1960s, “the folk music craze was getting started. All of us young kids were just in love with it. Everybody had a guitar. My roommate was a fabulously gifted player. I went to a pawn shop and bought a little guitar.”

When he was in Alaska, Roy played his guitar quite a bit to pass the time.

He has learned that music is very compatible with painting. As a painter he had plenty of time to practice. A painting needs to remain undisturbed while it’s drying, he said, so he spent that time playing the guitar.

Later, he took a few music classes and devoted the rest of the time to practice. “That helped me to keep the paint dry,” he said.

His grandchildren started taking ukulele classes in grade school so he bought a couple of ukuleles to give them. A ukulele has four strings that are strummed to produce a crystalline sound much like a harp, he said.

Anderson became fascinated with the ukulele and began another journey to educate himself about it.

“I was never really any good — I just learned by ear,” he said. “I never did take any lessons.

He now shares his love of the instrument with the students in his ukulele class at Carnegie Art Center through the City of Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Department.

The ukulele students, excited about the new skills they’re learning, requested a jam session. So they now jam together Mondays at 6:30 p.m. at Carnegie.

“There’s no better way to learn than to teach,” he said. “I love learning. When I decided to become an artist, the learning process was wonderful. Now the music has grown into something of its own. I get obsessive, I have to force myself to put it down.”

Karlene Ponti can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com.

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