From "powder monkey" to family patriarch, Carson City's Ray Widmar whistled while he worked and wended his way smartly through much of the past century.
Ray was a Depression-era powder monkey in Colorado coal fields, which means he set explosives and fired blasts to prepare work for miners. The job, which began at 4 a.m., required his diligence and a healthy respect for safety procedures. Surviving that subsequently took him into military service, which later led to a career in civilian service with the Navy.
Almost four decades ago, Ray decided to retire to Carson City. With him he brought his wife, Carlyn, his winning whistling ways and his determination to parlay his penchant for parenting into grandparenting full throttle. Something clicked along the way.
At age 96, this patriarch will again see his clan soon. Most family members began gathering in Carson City and environs for a weeklong reunion that began Saturday. Five of his six grown grandkids were coming, bringing their broods to the reunion hosted by Ray's son, Bob, and wife, Linda.
"Their favorite place to come for the family reunion is Carson City," said Bob, 71, who retired from his job at Hewlett-Packard and moved here a few years back to help care for his father. Ray had retired to Carson City in 1973, and Bob says his grown children now have fond memories of visiting Carson City after that.
The grandkids then called Ray "Peanut," a nickname from a previous generation bestowed by some of Bob's high school chums in the 1950s. It stuck when the older man embraced it openly.
"He's just been a great father," said Bob.
He also touted his dad's whistling bona fides, though the talent no longer carries the robust quality it did years ago.
"He wouldn't just whistle," Bob said. "He would imitate certain birds and animals. He called it warbling."
But Bob's greatest admiration for his dad stems from Ray's Army service and years in civilian work for the military. That in part is because Bob has an acute sense of patriotism and did a tour of duty himself in the Air Force. Such military service is a family tradition. For instance, Bob's son Eric, a major in the U.S. Special Forces, wasn't expecting to make it to the reunion because he is on active duty.
Ray's service before World War II was in the Army's 76th horse-drawn field artillery, Seventh Cavalry, at Fort Francis E. Warren in Wyoming. Ray still recalls the thrill and the occasional danger of figure-eight drills at a brisk pace as horses, riders and caissons practiced for or performed at Cheyenne Frontier Days.
After becoming a civilian employee at the Naval Supply Center in Oakland, Calif., Ray helped supply the Pacific theater during the big war. He remained there 30 years, winning promotions and receiving periodic safety commendations during those three decades.
Growing up, Bob received lessons in Ray's care-laden but can-do approach to life.
Ray joined his then-teenage son, for example, in learning underwater diving after Bob read "The Blue Continent," a book by Jacques Cousteau. "My dad bought me a dry suit - they didn't have wet suits back then," he said.
The pair recovered hundreds of golf balls, Bob said, diving in waters just off the Pebble Beach golf course. Eventually Ray fashioned a device to seek gold while diving in rivers.
"It worked like an underwater vacuum cleaner," said Bob, accumulating placer gold from river beds and crevices. He said diving skills also led to Ray doing underwater photography as a companion hobby. Ray was pictured doing just that on a Skin Diver Magazine cover.
When Ray reached Carson City, his lifetime of whistling paid additional dividends. From the late 1970s until 1986, a whistle-off contest was put on by the Carson City Chamber of Commerce. Ray took second place one year, Bob said, and each year met folks from all over.
"We had contestants from Mexico, Canada, England, Australia and the Hawaiian Islands," Ray once wrote of the event. One contestant from Oakland became a particularly close friend.
He was Simon Argevitch, a well-known whistler who wowed audiences by filling his mouth with several cigars while performing. Ray and this cigar-chomping pal sometimes performed together.
Simon once sent Ray and his wife, Carlyn, pictures of him appearing in the company of Johnny Carson, Bess Myerson, Phil Silvers and others who were that period's leading entertainers, photos kept among many that the family treasure.