Jerry Michelin Sears: Collaborator, furniture maker, atomic vet
Aug. 1, 1940 – May 27, 2020
Atomic Vet Jerry Michelin Sears, born to Nate and Fern Sears in Bell, California August 1, 1940, died peacefully of complications of radiation in the Berkeley home he rebuilt in 1995. Joining the Navy at 17 years old, Jerry was transferred to the USS De Haven DD727 for “mission on picket duty” during the Operation Hardtack 1 Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Test series in the Marshall Islands. Before his 18th birthday, he had witnessed, at close range, over 20 atomic bomb tests.
After his Navy duty, Jerry became a machinist, building satellite parts including intricate hinges. After the moon landing, the aerospace contracts ended, and Jerry was asked to make gun parts. He said he would not build weapons. He was fired and blacklisted in the industry.
Moving to northern California in 1968, Jerry changed professions and became a finish carpenter, saw filer, fine furniture maker, fisherman, and avid reader. He had magic hands, made magic with wood and collaborated on art projects with Mary White for 32 years. He studied Gurdjieff and worked in his wood shop until shortly before his death. He enjoyed his friendship with Peaches the Love Bird, Vinnie the Canary. Jerry is survived by four children, Jeff, Jennifer, Ian and Seth and going fishing. In 2018 Jerry wrote a short story: J’s First Cruise, a recollection in the voice of a 17 year old navy recruit under the bomb tests.
Slide show of Jerry’s life, using Jerry’s favorite music made by Mary White, with invaluable help and photos from Carolyn Oterhout, Jerry’s sister, and Victoria Sears, Jerry’s second wife.
“Hot Potatoes” video about Jerry’s experiences as an atomic vet
A short film by Christina Bertea and Mary White
We set out to do a short film about the history of neglect by our government of service people who were exposed to radiation in the early atomic bomb testing in the 1950’s. Exposure to radiation continued in the first Gulf War via weapons using depleted uranium, and continues in the current wars the US is engaged with. But we realized it would just be more bad news in a seemingly bottomless pit of bad news that leads us all to feeling overwhelmed and powerless to effect change.
In our interviewing, atomic vet Jerry Sears emerged as an unsung hero whose story might be a beacon for others. From his exposure to forces beyond comprehension in 20 atomic bomb tests he witnessed at age17, and his willingness to override his own sense of what was right in order to obey authority and “not get in trouble,” he somehow transformed into a man willing to take a principled stand and accept the consequences.
In our own lives, are we not all being traumatized by our awareness of the horror and devastation being wrought on the people and place of other countries such as Iraq, in our name? (…to our planet, for our comfort.) If we really are all connected, all related, all part of one cellular organism as some scientists and mystics suggest, we cannot help but feel on some very deep–perhaps unconscious–level, the suffering of others.
Will we be able to make the evolutionary leap that Jerry did, to a place of absolute commitment to principled action in spite of the personal sacrifice that might entail? What might that look like in each of our lives?
Jerry worked as a machinist when he left the Navy, making parts for satellites. When the spaceship he made hinges for landed on the moon, the company he worked for no longer had a contract to build space parts. The supervisor asked Jerry to build gatling gun parts for Viet Nam. He refused and said he would not participate in building weapons to kill people. He was fired, blacklisted by machine shops in Southern California and moved to the Bay Area.
Jerry did learn another trade. He became a highly accomplished custom furniture maker, a true artisan in wood. And, he met Mary, collaborating with her on many sculpture projects.
Click below to watch Hot Potatoes:
Photos of Jerry Michelin Sears