Three 2019 Living Treasures Of Los Alamos Announced

IMG_0822 (2).jpgPhoto by Maire O’Neill/


Living Treasures of Los Alamos has announced the three 2019 Living Treasures. They are Robert “Bob” Benjamin, Joel Dahlby and Denny Erickson.

Living Treasures was created to celebrate the enormous role that so many senior citizens have played in the history of Los Alamos. Through their voluntary efforts they have come to serve as models and mentors providing inspiration with their involvement, commitment, perserverance, hope, heart and wisdom. They are the folk heroes who live among us. 

A special ceremony to honor Benjamin, Dahlby and Erickson will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 28 at the Betty Ehart Senior Center.

The community is invited to attend.

For additional information, visit

Robert Benjamin - Copy

Photo by Jim Gautier

By Kyle Wheeler
Los Alamos Living Treasures

Robert “Bob” Benjamin moved to Los Alamos with his wife, Susan, in 1973, during a period when the Laboratory and the schools were hiring. Bob has a doctorate in physics and Susan has a graduate degree in education, so both received offers of employment. Both were raised in the eastern United States but were enchanted with the beauty of New Mexico and thought Los Alamos would be a great place to live. Bob grew up during the Sputnik era and was very much interested in physics and engineering. At that time, children with aptitude toward the sciences were encouraged to consider careers in those fields.  In addition, the historical significance of Los Alamos had an impact on Bob.

The Benjamins have two children, Josh and Alana. Bob realized when they were young that he would miss out on a lot of time with his children if he continued to work full time, so he cut his hours during their childhood and was able to spend a lot of time with them. This was rare for men during the 1970s and ‘80s. He loves children and learning, arousing others’ curiosity and helping others. When he was three years old and his baby brother was born, he happily helped with certain tasks to care for the baby. Also, using his toy fire engine, he “taught” his aunt to parallel park when he was four years old. Naturally, when his own children were babies and toddlers, he immersed himself in their care and upbringing. When his children went to school, he went along too as a parent volunteer to teach students various lessons in the classroom, from attribute games to Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities (based on his book, Spills and Ripples) to inventions. He continues these lessons and demonstrations during summer programs as a community volunteer at the libraries and science fairs. He brings a great love of science in all its variations to students and adults alike. He looks forward to teaching another generation of youngsters with his toddler grandchildren.

Another way that Bob has involved himself in the community is at the Jewish Center, where he and Susan have been long-time members. Bob taught Sunday school for about eight years. In his gentle style, he engaged the children to understand and appreciate ethical issues through questions. He was also involved in the Board of Directors at the Jewish Center at two critical times in its history and continues to be a reliable volunteer.

Bob has demonstrated his love for Los Alamos by serving seniors at our senior centers and leading discussion groups on important and relevant topics. He has been involved for many years in a discussion group called “Spiritual Eldering” or “Breakfast of Elders,” which is based on conscious aging principles described in “From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. In addition, he was a founding member of the Los Alamos Community Foundation, whose mission is to promote local philanthropy by Los Alamos residents and those with strong connections to the county.

Many people in Los Alamos may know Bob through his playwriting. He passionately believes that plays should not only entertain but also should spark conversation. He dabbled in playwriting for a number of years before retirement. Then Jeanne Stein, a Living Treasure in 2001, asked him to write a short play that she could perform at the Bradbury Science Museum where she was a docent. He composed a one-act play about Edith Warner, who ran the teahouse at Otowi Bridge during the Manhattan Project years. The play, Sunrise at Otowi Bridge, was later produced at a summer Los Alamos ScienceFest, playing to sold out audiences.

In collaboration with Los Alamos Little Theatre and the Los Alamos Historical Society, Bob was a co-founder and one of several playwrights for the Atomic Theatre Festival in 2011, which performed a staged reading of his play, Galileo’s Footsteps. The festival featured a series of dramatic plays with atomic-related themes, which sparked spirited conversation about complicated people and events.

Since then he has written numerous plays with marvelous characters that audiences can easily identify with. His plays often have quirky characters who deal with sensitive issues such as aging or caregiving. Some are presented as readings at the senior centers, where he solicits feedback from the audience for lively discussion and script improvement. The audience discussions afterward are always interesting for audience members and for Bob, revealing how we all respond to intriguing, complex situations and how these situations may affect us or our loved ones. The Los Alamos Little Theatre produced two of his full-length plays (Time Enough and Not Quite Right) and ten of his short plays. Bob’s plays have been fully produced in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Off-Off Broadway in New York, and eight other states. Bob’s pursuit of a second career as a playwright has provided our town with entertaining theater, and the work he does locally is as a volunteer and royalty free as a gift to his home community.

Over seven years ago, Susan was diagnosed with cancer. She and Bob have been very willing to share what they’ve learned about dealing with a cancer diagnosis and how to navigate the difficulties of the many details involved. Bob has been an avid attendee of a caregiver support group in Santa Fe; then he helped launch one in Los Alamos. He strongly supports the patient/caregiver myeloma support group founded by Susan. The groups have been a beacon for many other caregivers, patients, and friends of people with cancer.

In talking with Bob, a theme emerges, one of a kind and gentle man who is genuinely interested in others, asks questions of people, and strives to start important conversations, often with humor and whimsy. He finds happiness serving others and expressing love through service, starting with his love of his wife and children. Over 45 years, since moving to Los Alamos, he’s expanded his interests to entertain and serve seniors and the larger community while continuing to serve family. Bob has inspired others with his leadership, commitment, and involvement in a wide range of community endeavors.

Joel Dahlby - Copy

Photo by Jim Gautier

By Kyle Wheeler
Los Alamos Living Treasures

Joel Dahlby was born in December 1935 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he lived for the first six or seven years of his life. His family then moved to Waverly and a year later to Ellsworth, both communities on the western edge of Wisconsin. In those rural communities, he attended a one-room school for about a year and then larger schools once the family moved to Ellsworth. The Dahlby family had a few dairy cows and Joel helped with the milking twice a day. In college at a branch of the University of Wisconsin, he majored in math and chemistry and minored in physics, but he found that there were no jobs nearby, even at places like Honeywell, where laid-off workers would be the first to be hired back when jobs became available. One of Joel’s professors had a friend who worked at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and gave him an application. He applied for a position and the lab hired him as an analytical chemist in 1958. Within a very short time, he was hired, got his clearance, and was learning on the job things he never would have learned at the university. Until that time, he had never been far from home because the cows needed milking twice a day.

When Joel first moved to Los Alamos, he intended to stay about a year and then return to Wisconsin. Life here was different and as a young single man he didn’t have much to do other than work and wait for his next paycheck. One day a co-worker suggested he help cut down trees on Pajarito Mountain, which at that time had only a few ski slopes, a few rope tows, and was completely run by volunteers. Joel met Bob Thorn, who taught him everything there was to know about chain saws and got busy felling trees every Saturday. Pajarito Mountain is where he met Helen, who became his wife a few years later. She was also a volunteer worker on the ski hill, stacking wood into piles for burning in the autumn. She was an excellent skier and Joel could ski on the beginner’s slope. She took him to the top of Lumberyard and he proceeded to fall all the way down.

Joel and Helen raised three children in Los Alamos, Karen, Douglas, and Alysia. Between working at the laboratory and raising a family, Joel didn’t do volunteer work. However, when he retired from the laboratory in 1995, he started to volunteer in three main areas. First, he got involved with Habitat for Humanity of Española Valley & Los Alamos, Inc., which at that time was building indoor bathrooms and bedrooms for homes in the Española valley. Almost every Saturday between 1995 and 2005, Joel worked with Bert Dennis and John Tubb and the three of them built improvements to many homes in the valley. This small group of Los Alamos retirees improved the quality of life for many people.

Bert had a daughter who worked for Visiting Nurses and she knew people who needed ramps to access their own homes, yet these people could not afford to buy the materials or hire a contractor to build them a ramp. So Joel joined a small team of retirees, and between 2005 and 2017, helped build 50 to 100 ramps. Bert designed the ramps and all the time and materials were donated. Most ramps were built in the valley but the longest ramp is in Los Alamos, on 35th street near Diamond Drive.

In 2000, Joel began driving people to medical appointments in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Española. The Lions Club started a program when one of its members, Mrs. Croley, realized how much of a need there was for transporting Los Alamos residents to out-of-town medical appointments. Later, the Los Alamos Senior Center took over the coordination of the program; they maintain and call a list of volunteer drivers. Joel has been driving about once a month.

Since 2000, Joel has been hauling materials (cabinets, windows, and any useable materials) to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore in Española. That usually involves one or two trips a week, in his 1980’s truck, with materials that the ReStore can sell to raise money for building homes for people in need. The materials from Los Alamos are in demand and sell very quickly. For 19 years now, this has been essentially a one-man effort except for occasional help from Helen, who even helps him load the big items like refrigerators. As he loads his truck he is sensitive to the possibility of sadness as someone parts with a favorite carpet or piece of furniture. He is the only volunteer pickup driver and uses his own resources to fund his support of the mission and vision of Habitat for Humanity, which is a world where everyone has a decent place to live. Yvonne Atencio, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Española, estimates Joel has put in almost 5,800 hours over his years of service.

Once a month LA Cares distributes food to needy families in Los Alamos and for about five years now, Joel has been hauling truckloads of food from a warehouse to a distribution center. In 2000, shortly after the Cerro Grande Fire and working with Sargent Chacon of the Los Alamos Police Department, Joel became a member of a “citizens’ patrol,” doing a four-hour shift each week keeping an eye on neighborhoods affected by the fires. In addition, he works each Friday afternoon at the police department fingerprinting individuals. He cleans sidewalks with his snowblower around his neighborhood; he actually built a snowplow for the family’s farm tractor in 1954 and plowed all the neighbors’ driveways for several years.

Most of the things Joel does and has done are things he can do by himself or in a small group. He tends to work quietly and behind the scenes, calling no recognition to himself. He speaks about how privileged he is to have regular income from his laboratory retirement so he is available to help others. He says that the grace of God gave him good health and the ability to do these things for others. Of all the things he’s done, however, he keeps coming back to how eye opening it was for him to wait in the lobby of the hospital for veterans in Albuquerque whenever he drove a patient there. He saw all kinds of veterans going in and out, some with crutches, some in wheelchairs, with all kinds of medical issues, and he was really struck by the sacrifices they made for him. “Anything I do,” he says, “seems to be pretty small compared to what they did for me.”

Dennis Erickson - Copy

Photo by Jim Gautier

By Kyle Wheeler
Los Alamos Living Treasures

In January 1972, following a challenging cross-country trip through heavy snow and extreme cold, Denny and Mary Lou Erickson drove the wintry road to Los Alamos for the first time. Their two young children, Matthew and Wendy, were with them as they made the harrowing drive up the front hill road. Like many newcomers to Los Alamos at that time, they spent their first weeks living at the Los Alamos Inn until they rented a home in White Rock.

Denny and Mary Lou were raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and were high school sweethearts. Following their marriage, they moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where Denny was a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Tennessee. Midway through his doctoral research at Oak Ridge, the family, which now included toddler son Matt, moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so Denny could complete his research with his dissertation professor, who later “sent” Denny to Los Alamos. Daughter Wendy was born in Chapel Hill.

Denny and Mary Lou’s third child, Scott, was born in Los Alamos, after which Mary Lou declared Los Alamos as their permanent home. After giving birth to three children in three different states, she was not planning to move again. The Erickson family has lived in White Rock ever since. Early on, they became members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where Denny started his community service by joining and chairing the board of Self Help, Inc., a non-profit agency initiated at Bethlehem in 1969 to provide short-term emergency assistance to residents of northern New Mexico. Within a few years from its inception, Self Help had become a supporting partnership of several local churches as reflected in its board membership, from which Denny developed enduring relationships with other board colleagues such as Living Treasures Chick Keller and Jim Little. This year, Self Help celebrated 50 years in Los Alamos.

In the latter stages of his 35-year laboratory career, Denny was tasked to organize events to commemorate the laboratory’s 60th anniversary. He sought out Nancy Bartlit, a long-time member of the Los Alamos Historical Society and another Los Alamos Living Treasure, to plan an event featuring living laboratory directors. Following the successful event, Nancy ensured Denny’s continued involvement in the Historical Society. He served as a member of the society’s board of directors and multiple terms as its president during a time of transition from a small community non-profit to a nationally recognized organization. With former County Councilor Sharon Stover, he co-chaired the society’s ambitious “History is Here” fundraising campaign, which provided resources to expand programs, extend the museum campus, revitalize exhibits, and collaborate in the development of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. The campaign received many generous donations, including the gift of the historic Hans Bethe House on Bathtub Row. He also initiated a partnership between former Lab Director Sig Hecker and the society’s Bathtub Row Press, which led to the 2016 publication of Hecker’s important two-volume book, Doomed to Cooperate.

In late winter 2006, Denny retired, volunteered for public service, and joined a county advisory committee in the early stages of the Trinity Site Revitalization Project. The project involved a unique partnership between the county and Los Alamos Public Schools in joining their properties on the south side of Trinity Drive for commercial development. Those then-blighted grounds, filled with 1940s Quonset huts and other outdated buildings left over from Manhattan Project days, housed support services and administrative functions for both the schools and the county. The project began with construction and relocation of joint facilities in a basin east of the airport, now called Pajarito Cliffs, proceeded to site demolition, and concluded with construction by Smith’s Food and Drug of the upscale Smith’s Marketplace. The Marketplace, which opened in 2014, was the first of its kind in Smith’s operations in New Mexico and reflected unqualified confidence in Los Alamos. This venture, providing diversified shopping options for the people of Los Alamos and northern New Mexico, has exceeded expectations for all parties including a new revenue stream for our schools.

In 2007, Denny joined a county steering group to work with an urban planner to revitalize White Rock’s commercial core. An intense, community-driven process resulted in the White Rock Center Master Plan/Economic Development Strategy. The master plan, which Denny described as “a masterpiece of urban planning,” was adopted by the County Council for implementation in 2008. Over an eight-year period, Denny and some 35 other citizen volunteers operated as a committee in collaboration with elected officials and county staff to implement the master plan. Denny formally championed implementation until the committee’s retirement in 2016, providing focused leadership needed to complete the county-supported projects called out in the master plan. County projects completed during the committee’s tenure include transformation of a section of NM 4 into a welcoming boulevard, construction of an award-winning Visitor Center from which Atomic City Transit shuttles tourists to and from Bandelier, a walking trail along the Cañada del Buey, placement in Piñon Park of a wonderful new branch library in combination with a remodeled youth activity center, and a remodeled White Rock Municipal Complex with an inviting and expanded senior center equipped with a commercial kitchen. The master plan’s concluding project was to be development of a tract of land north of NM 4 transferred to the county by the Department of Energy. Now in active development, this project, known as the Mirador subdivision, will provide homes, loft apartments, and new commercial space. According to a county staffer, much of the master plan “could not have been carried to fruition without [Denny’s] untiring leadership.”

In multi-project efforts such as the White Rock Master Plan, complementary opportunities present themselves. Inspired by a suggestion from the implementation committee, the county’s Art in Public Places Board brokered a contract between the county and San Ildefonso Pueblo that allowed pueblo artists to create and place six larger-than-life pottery replicas along the improved stretch of NM 4. The replicas were created as a historic sequence, beginning with a rendition of an ancient pot and concluding with a large platter replica in honor of world-renowned potter Maria Martinez. Denny, in his comments at the 2016 dedication ceremony, referred to the collaboration with San Ildefonso artists as “an exercise in goodness” because it recognized the talents and contributions of our special neighbors.

Denny has championed many projects that promote the wellbeing of people and communities. He credits his time in the laboratory where he honed his abilities for leadership, collaboration, and working across organizational boundaries. Not surprisingly, these abilities have been productively applied in his public service efforts. Those of us who live here today can be grateful that Denny and Mary Lou drove up that snowy and harrowing front hill road so many years ago to make their home in Los Alamos.