2023 Living Treasures Of Los Alamos Are Joyce Nickols, Don Cobb And Barbara Calef

Joyce Nickols/Photo by Jim O’Donnell


Editor’s note: Los Alamos Living Treasures was created to celebrate the enormous role that so many senior citizens in the community have played in the history of Los Alamos. This year’s Living Treasures are Joyce Nickols, Don Cobb and Barbara Calef. They will be honored at an invitation only ceremony Sept. 10 at Fuller Lodge

Joyce Nickols is a hands-on person, in every aspect of life. Her life and experiences have led her to the truth that the older you get, the more important relationships become. She believes one should do what they’re good at and Joyce is good at many things.

She grew up in a family of seven, the fourth of five children. Her father ran his own business repairing radios and later televisions, while her mother taught school. Joyce was educated in a one-room country school when in second grade. Her mother taught second grade in Lowell, Michigan until she retired. Nickols is the last remaining member of her family. She worked for a year to pay for her formal education at Western Michigan State (now Western Michigan University) in Kalamazoo.

Joyce was afflicted with wanderlust and found her way to San Francisco. She lived with her sister while working to attend the University of California, Berkeley. She finished there with a bachelor of science in medical technology.  In 1958 she met and fell in love with Norris Nickols at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, which was casually referred to as “the Rad Lab.” Norris was working on his Ph.D. in experimental physics, and she was lucky enough to secure a job as a tech in the same group. She was called a nuclear microscopist. They were married the same year.

Joyce and Norris were joined by daughter Michele in 1962 and son Todd in 1966. Todd is presently the executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society. Joyce has four grandchildren. The young family moved to Los Alamos in 1968. While working at the laboratory, Joyce attended night school and earned a master’s degree in medical science. She will tell you that she didn’t enjoy living here when she first arrived in Los Alamos, but now would live, “Nowhere else.” 

Her volunteer work began as a member of the Beverly Glen Democratic Party in California. One friendship in particular made it clear to Nickols that everyone didn’t have the same opportunity to purchase a home. She worked hard stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors in support of Proposition 13. Her time was well spent, making a difference in fair housing. She brought that enthusiasm to Los Alamos, where she worked to educated others about free and fair elections. According to State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richards, “Joyce took the role of ‘voter educator’ incredibly seriously and knew that the turnout of our elections would only be as good as the work we did to turn voters out!”

Many projects became a passion for her like the Empty Bowls project to benefit Self Help. She reports having made many bowls in her garage with friends. This program has continued for more than thirty years. That then led to years of school supply drives, for back to school, which still take place today.

Another of her volunteer activities came after being a member of the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos since 1968. After a 55-year membership, Joyce had held almost every board position and has been a member of many committees. She volunteered to help a friend with memorials for the church because she felt it was important for the family. She chaired the memorial reception committee for many years and still participates.

Joyce is a big supporter of the Pajarito Environmental Educational Center where she enjoys being a docent. She enjoys educating newcomers and visitors about the area. She believes it takes a while to appreciate the grand outdoors in this arid environment. She likes to encourage new visitors to PEEC to enjoy our beautiful skies, our canyons, our mesas, and our mountains.

She encourages everyone to stay engaged and to keep active in life in any number of capacities. What does she love most of all about volunteering?

“Perhaps, most of all, I love the people who have chosen to live here. They are hard-working, they take their volunteer work and politics as a civic duty, and they are usually people of good ethics and morals,” she said.

Don Cobb/Photo by Jim O’Donnell

Don Cobb is the epitome of the John Wesley quote, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

He is a small-town boy from Iowa born in 1943. While his dad was in the military at war, he lived with his older brother, mom and grandparents. They later moved to Rockford, Illinois where he attended middle and high school and became fascinated with science.

His education includes a bachelor of science degree in physics from Northern Illinois University and a master of science degree and a Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics from the University of Iowa. He was named the first Distinguished Graduate of Harlem High School, Loves Park, Illinois.

He married Connie Olson in 1963 and arrived in Los Alamos with Connie and two-year old daughter Paula, in 1970. Several months after arriving in Los Alamos, Connie still didn’t seem to be acclimating to the high altitude; soon she discovered they would be joined by another daughter, Allison. Don and Connie became members of the Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1970. Don served on a variety of church committees and outreach. He later went on to work with the Interfaith Alliance, which includes members with no church affiliation and members of a variety of faith backgrounds. Here he co-founded a support committee to assist refugees when re-located to New Mexico. His work continues with his support of local grass-roots community efforts, assisting with backpack drives for refugee students, and assisting with back-to-school drives in the summer and coat drives in the winter.

Don was a Deputy Director at the laboratory and served the LANL Foundation from 2005–2014. Together, he and Connie started a scholarship program with the LANL Foundation in 2015. Their work for the “greater good” will always be remembered with an endowment for education. Connie passed away in 2018, after 55 years of marriage.

Don has served on the board of the United Way of Northern New Mexico for almost 10 years (2006–2015), making lives better for many New Mexicans. “You learn about people that are really passionate about so many different things,” said Cobb. “It’s really uplifting just to engage with this broader community.

”In 2015 his work led to the formation of the Los Alamos Community Foundation, with co-founder David Izraelevitz. He spent two years learning about non-profit potential and helping to secure National Accreditation. He served until 2021 as a board member and today, LACF is on the cusp of becoming the volunteer hub of our community.

While humbled by the recognition of the Los Alamos Living Treasures Award, Don says that most rewarding is the opportunity to meet and engage with so many wonderful people throughout this community.

“I love the diversity of interests and culture that reside in this community,” said Cobb. “If you come here, there’s almost any interest that someone might have. They will find a kindred spirit who is passionate about the same thing, and willing to share.”

This year, Cobb agreed to join the Board of Directors for the Los Alamos Retired and Senior Organization (LARSO), which operates both senior centers. While his hobby is to follow cosmology, we may really only understand five percent of things about space. There is still 95 percent to discover. His heart, however, favors visiting his daughters. Paula and her husband Michael Ward live in Colorado and have two children, Nathan and Arielle. Nathan currently works as an intern at the LANL and is living with Don for the summer. His younger daughter, Allison, and her spouse Cobalt Coy live in Portland, Oregon. There he has gained a “bonus,” grandchild, named Aster.  

Finally, when asked what he loves most about volunteering, Don had a thought that he says applies to all of New Mexico and not just Los Alamos.

“It’s really what you learn by the engagement you get with the people who are actually doing the work,” he said.

Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church, Nicole Raddu Ferry, said it best in her letter of support to the Living Treasures Board saying, “The nomination for him to be a Living Treasure for Los Alamos is most appropriate and it is honestly just officially naming what Don Cobb has been since he arrived on the Hill.” 

Barbara Calef/Photo by Jim O’Donnell

Some people are born teachers and, while not teaching in a classroom, still live their lives quietly educating and sharing insights with others. Barbara Calef has done such work in many ways throughout her life. 

She was born in Chicago, graduated from Scarsdale High School, New York, and went on to pursue history at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1968. She then attended UC Berkeley in 1968–69 and, much later, Angelo State University, Texas, where she received her teaching certificate in 1988. She married Charles “Chuck” Calef in 1972 and they had two children, Brandoch in 1973 and Rachel in 1976. The family moved to Los Alamos in 1989. Twin granddaughters Ellen and Francesca were born in 2008.

An article in the Los Alamos Monitor and a well-timed hike with friend Becky Shankland may have spurred a passion in Barbara that has continued for more than 23 years. The article concerned the draft Comprehensive Plan for Los Alamos.  She was irate that one proposed outcome of the plan focused on where Los Alamos could build. Barbara wanted to ensure that plans never included the concept of developing our local canyons. The proverbial bug had bitten and did it bite hard! Becky, a member of the League of Women Voters, urged her to join the League and participate in the LWV Observer Corps. Barbara subsequently attended the County’s Comprehensive Plan meetings. She also attended and reported on Planning and Zoning meetings and Council meetings for many years.   

Most of her volunteer work has been as a member of the League of Women Voters. She has served on the LWV board since 2001, was president for 10 years and then was co-president for an additional seven years with Shankland. Barbara knows that history is important and that education is key for the future. As president of the League, she organized and presided at candidate forums, coordinated the annual legislative preview, and assisted in the production of the voter guides. She led the decision to include unchallenged candidates in candidate forums so that they would be introduced to the public.

Another impactful part of her volunteer work was successfully lobbying for the repeal of the death penalty after conducting a League study, building consensus for a League position, and then working to get a bill through the Legislature and signed by Governor Richardson.

“Barbara’s commitment to democracy is really unparalleled.  Her work with the League of Women Voters, both in Los Alamos and statewide, has been tireless,” said Rebecca Chaiken. “She uses her knowledge to advance the cause she holds most dear – democracy for all.”

Barbara served on the Executive Committee of the Pajarito Group of the Sierra Club in the 1990s. She participated in the work to remediate the damage to our forest after the Cerro Grande fire. She loves cross country skiing and hiking and has been instrumental in supporting the Wednesday Irregulars, a hiking group was started by a few community members in 1965. Barbara is the leader of the group, which engages its members, most of whom are retired, to stay social and continue hiking. It’s still going strong after 58 years.

“I have gotten to know her through her environmental actions and her dedicated leadership of a large hiking group,” said retired educator Adelaide Jacobson. “In every way, I have been astonished and humbled by her leadership, competency, and kindness.” 

Chuck passed away in 2021, and the League of Women Voters work continued to provide important purpose for Barbara during this time. What does Barbara love most about this community?

“I love living in a small town in the mountains. I love the outdoors and I enjoy seeing so many friends and neighbors who are equally appreciative of our natural environment,” said Calef. “I admire the many ways members of the community contribute to the well-being of our county.”