Sherret Chase still active as he nears 100
Sherret S. Chase, whose research in forestry led to his co-founding of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development (CCCD), lives on a mountainside in the Town of Olive. Although he will turn 100 next spring, he still walks without a cane, takes cross-country road trips with his daughter, Helen Chase, and offers advice to Catskills powers that be. Helen holds two masters degrees, in geography and international administration, and has given years of service to many community groups, including the town council. She is currently president of the Historical Society of the Town of Olive.
At a cottage on the family property in Ashokan, Sherret and Helen talked about the Chase family’s connections to the Woodstock and surrounding area, Sherret’s coming of age in mid-century America, and his ground-breaking research as a geneticist and corn breeder.
Carmelita Chase Hinton, Sherret’s aunt, was a Bryn Mawr graduate who worked as a secretary to Jane Addams of Hull House, the famous settlement house in Chicago. It was at Hull House that Ralph Whitehead, aristocratic Ruskin devotee, first conspired with Hervey White, Socialist and maverick, to found an arts and crafts community. In 1902, they chose Woodstock as the location for the Byrdcliffe Colony. Carmelita, also with Socialist leanings, went there to visit and ended up with a house called Camelot.
“Auntie Carmelita went walking one day,” said Sherret, “and hiked from Woodstock toward Bearsville, toward Wittenberg, through the Shultis farm, through Winchell’s Hollow and down over to this side. She found a farm that had been abandoned, except for Angelita Winchell, an old woman still living there. Carmelita suggested to her parents they might consider buying this farm.” Which they did.
Carmelita and her husband, Sebastian, were educators. He and his brother developed the jungle gym as a teaching tool, although “kids that used it didn’t realize they were being taught geometry,” according to Helen, who also reported that both men eventually committed suicide. Carmelita later taught at the innovative Shady Hill School near Boston and founded the Putney School, a progressive boarding school in Vermont.
While Carmelita was living at Camelot, Sherret’s father, Clement, also rented a cottage at Byrdcliffe. He was an engineer who had been given the task of strengthening the railroad bridge that crossed the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie — the bridge that is now the popular rail trail, the Walkway Over the Hudson. By the time Sherret was born, in 1918, the family had moved to Wayne, Pennsylvania, so Clement could work on Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Bridge, which had the longest single span of any suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1926. The family spent summers on the farm in Ashokan, visits that Sherret credits with developing his appreciation of the mountains, flora, and fauna of the region. When Clement died while inspecting the underpinnings of the Franklin Bridge in 1933, the family moved to Ashokan.
The summer after Sherret’s freshman year at the University of Arizona in Tucson, a call came from Carmelita, reporting that his cousin, Bill Hinton, had seen a lecture at Putney on mountain climbing in British Columbia. Bill had asked to join that summer’s expedition as a packer, hauling food and supplies up the mountains, and one more packer was needed. Sherret was game. He and Bill crossed the Klinaklini Glacier, bridged Tumult Creek, and were members of the first expedition to scale Mount Silverthrone.
As Sherret was leaving for British Columbia, his mother suggested that on his return he transfer to Yale, where he could study forestry. “While I was gone, she went to New Haven and entered me in Yale,” said Sherret. “I didn’t know till I got home. I thought it was wonderful.” When he graduated in 1939, he went to Cornell to work on a doctorate in botany. His thesis was on aquatic flowering plants of the Najas genus, unusual in that their flowers are pollinated underwater.
Grad school was interrupted by World War II and service in the Army Air Corps. “I was sent to flight school, but I had trouble landing planes,” confessed Sherret. “I dropped out and was entered in navigation school. I like maps and like to know where I am. That was a better choice for me than being a pilot.” His crew was about to ship overseas when Sherret decided to get married.
At the age of 17, he had met 13-year-old Catherine Compton, called Kenny because a younger brother could not pronounce her first name. A chance meeting at a mutual friend’s house began, recalled Sherret, when “Kenny came in with a bag oranges, looked at me, tripped on the rug, and spilled the oranges.”
Helen continued the story of her parent’s romance: “Mom was 19. Dad was standing with some classmates from Yale. Mom walked up and said, ‘You must be Sherry Chase.’ They had a lot of friends in common and had been hearing about each other through the years. They corresponded after that but only saw each other about four times before getting married. When we were growing up, the names Kenny and Sherry were very confusing to our friends’ parents.”
Sherret was not granted leave to go to his own wedding, but the ceremony was arranged at a venue near the army base in Savannah, Georgia. “His whole crew went AWOL for the wedding,” said Helen, “and no one missed them.”
In December 1943, the newly married Sherret headed off to Italy, where he served as navigator on 50 bombing missions, most of them focused on oil fields in an attempt to disrupt the supply of oil to Axis forces. He was sent to Houston in late 1944, to train crews for B-52 bombers, which the U.S. was in the process of launching. Kenny joined her husband in Houston, and their first child, Catherine, nicknamed Cici, was born on August 7, 1945, between the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“We were close to the atomic effort,” said Sherret. “My wife’s uncle was head of the Manhattan District, the first organization created toward building the atomic bomb. My cousin Joan Hinton was a physics student and an expert on cloud chambers. She went to Los Alamos during the war and worked with Robert Oppenheimer. We knew something strange and decisive was underway, but we didn’t know what it was.”
When the nuclear bombs were dropped, killing at least 129,000 Japanese people, the end of the war came as a big relief to Americans. In the aftermath, Sherret agreed with those who suggested it might have been better to demonstrate the bomb on an uninhabited island, “so the Japanese could come and see what was done. But the war overrode all other thoughts. It was a difficult decision.”
Sherret was released from the service and returned to Cornell, where his bottles of Najas root tips and flower stems preserved in alcohol were still in storage. He conducted research alongside future Nobel prize-winning botanist and geneticist Barbara McClintock. Upon graduation with a Ph.D. (and a second child, Helen), he received job offers from Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Iowa. He had become interested in corn, and the Iowa job seemed to offer the most flexibility, so he moved his little family to Ames, Iowa, where three more children were born.
“He was teaching at the cutting edge of genetics,” noted Helen. Sherret’s investigations into haploids of corn — plants with a single set of chromosomes — contributed to a revolution in plant breeding, accelerating the speed of selection for desirable characteristics and producing purer strains. To support the growing Chase family, Sherret accepted a job with DeKalb AgResearch, a producer of hybrid seeds, later bought by Monsanto. As a research geneticist and director of international seed operations, he supervised corn breeding for North American and international markets such as Argentina, India, and Australia. The ultimate goal was the increase of crop yields. In a proposal, Sherret stated that freeing our time from intensive food production is what allows civilization to progress.
“Other people have picked up my work on haploids,” he said, “making my work eminently practical. Now there are at least five major groups using the method.”
In 1965, Sherret went to Harvard on a fellowship in forestry. When his paper on the needs and potentials of the Catskills was reprinted in a Margaretville newspaper, the local response led to his deeper involvement with the region. Sherret and Kenny, their kids now grown, settled on the farm in Ashokan in 1987.
A second installment of this interview will deal with Sherret’s initiatives in the Catskills and his thoughts about the future.