Remembering Jerry Michelin Sears: Fine furniture maker, atomic vet, avid reader, fisherman

As an enlisted member of the Navy, Jerry experienced at least 20 atomic bombs tests before his 18th birthday.

Jerry Michelin Sears
Jerry Sears working in his woodshop. Photo: Courtesy Mary White

Jerry Michelin Sears, Aug. 1, 1940-May 27, 2020

Jerry will be remembered for his kindness and generosity, both emotionally and materially. He was always ready to give his last dollar to someone who needed it more, always ready to show a novice woodworker how to do something, and always ready to give those in need emotional support. He loved stories, especially if humorous, both as a storyteller and as a receptive listener. He was meticulous, skillful and creative at several trades and everything he did, including cooking. Jerry was a talented artist as well as a curious, perceptive intellectual.

Jerry Sears was born in Bell, in southern California, on Aug. 1, 1940, the first child of Fern Michelin Sears and Nate Sears. His siblings, Steve and Carolyn soon followed. Jerry lived his whole life in California except for the four years he served in the U.S. Navy, when he was mainly stationed on military ships in the South Pacific.

Jerry was a 4th-generation Californian. His great grandfather, who lived in Bishop, was a mule team transporter, hauling Borax dug up by the miners to Los Angeles, and returning, carrying food and other supplies to the miners of Death Valley. Jerry’s great uncle Joseph Hart was a driver for “twenty-mule team Borax.” The Sears family eventually moved to L.A. Jerry’s dad Nate opened a saw sharpening shop in Ontario. Jerry started learning the saw sharpening trade in his father’s business at age six. He met woodworkers and furniture builders including the famous and creative Sam Maloof, who inspired Jerry’s woodworking aesthetics. Jerry began to build furniture in his own original way.

During his senior year, Jerry was not happy in his Catholic high school, nor working in his Dad’s business. He noticed a Navy recruitment poster in the local post office and enrolled right after his 17th birthday.

Jerry was first assigned as a fireman apprentice on the cruiser USS Columbus, but he was quickly transferred to the USS DeHaven, a destroyer scheduled for “picket duty” in Operation Hardtack, the series of open-air atomic and hydrogen bomb tests at Eniwetok and other atolls in the Marshall Islands. The sailors were not informed in advance of the purpose of their mission: to observe the bomb tests, at close range, generally within 30 miles of the detonations. The sailors were commanded at one point to stand on the deck, while an atomic bomb test was exploded. Jerry said they were asked to put their arms over their eyes and close their eyes. When the bomb went off, he could see the bones in his arm.

On the SS DeHaven, Jerry was first assigned to the boiler room. Later he was moved to the galley, where tasks included peeling huge tubs of potatoes stored on the deck. Some potatoes were irradiated. Mary White and Christina Bertea made a short film about his experiences, Hot Potatoes.

Jerry experienced at least 20 atomic bombs tests before his 18th birthday. After the test series was completed, and the exposure to the atomic bomb tests was over, each sailor was forced to sign an agreement swearing to never talk about the atomic tests they had witnessed or the physical effects they suffered.

In the 1970s, Jerry joined a group of atomic veterans to stay in touch and monitor the physical and psychological damage from radiation exposure. Many young sailors had died of cancer. This experience affected Jerry physically and psychologically his entire life. In 2018, Jerry wrote a short story about his experience of the atomic bomb testing, “J’s First Cruise” and the deadly effects on the sailors.

Jerry Michelin Sears
Jerry Sears holding a copy of his short story, “J’s First Cruise.” Photo: Courtesy Mary White

After the test series, many of the ships, including the SS DeHaven, were sent to Hunters Point in San Francisco for “decontamination.” While stationed at Hunters Point in 1960, Jerry applied for a 10-day furlough. He flew to Los Angeles and married Judy Mullen, his high school sweetheart. The newlyweds drove back north to San Francisco, celebrating part of their honeymoon in many of San Francisco’s lively clubs including Finocchio’s. Jerry drove Judy back to Los Angeles, flew back to San Francisco, (The round-trip ticket cost $24!) and was back on duty before the ten-day limit.

Judy and Jerry had a son, Jeff, and a daughter, Jennifer.

Discharged from the Navy in 1961, Jerry became a machinist, building aerospace parts for the moon launch, a job suited to his dexterity, patience, and keen eyes. As “precision grinder A,” he produced the hinge mechanism for the door of the moon lander, now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. After the Apollo 11 landed on the moon, his machine shop lost its aerospace contracts and Jerry was asked to switch to making Gatling gun parts. Jerry had had his fill of war. He said, “I will work on any other project.  I will not build weapons to kill.” He was promptly fired and blacklisted from the industry. This presaged Jerry’s later career as an anti-war atomic vet and working in a new trade.

Jerry Michelin Sears
Jerry Sears fishing. Photo: Courtesy Mary White

Jerry’s marriage with Judy ended. He moved to Newport Beach and took up martial arts, earned a brown belt and learned to meditate, which he practiced until the end of his life. During his time at the dojo, he rekindled his childhood love for fishing with his family on the Colorado River, fishing for halibut on the piers. Jerry later enjoyed many fishing trips, usually with one or both of his younger sons, in Shasta County.

Around 1968-1969, Jerry moved north to the Bay Area with his brother Steve, to start a new life. They found jobs working at the Schlage lock factory in South San Francisco. They lived together, on the Shamrock ranch south of Pacific, built their own fine furniture and pursued Eastern religions, including the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. They were avid readers and very close friends. Jerry began building creative furniture for himself, his family and clients, and did so for the rest of his life!

During this time, Jerry met his second wife, Victoria, a college student, and a collage, wearable art and quilt artist, who also lived on Shamrock Ranch. They married in 1972 and had two sons, Ian and Seth. Jerry built quilt-making frames, thread cabinets and other quiltmaking tools, and sold them at quilt shows and seminars, while Victoria taught classes and gave lectures.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Jerry started a saw filing business at El Cerrito Mill and Lumber in El Cerrito, and later in Sebastopol. He sharpened giant band saws used in sawmills to turn logs into lumber. The heavy steel ovals were 20 feet long with formidable 6-inch teeth.  Jerry’s job was not only to sharpen them but also to “swedge” them – bending alternate teeth slightly to the left or right so they would cut swiftly and smoothly.  This took patience and precision, both among Jerry’s defining characteristics.

When Jerry’s marriage with Victoria ended in 1982, they both moved back to Berkeley, to share parenting their sons.

In the mid-80s, his brother Steve became involved in supporting the revolution in Nicaragua, and invited Jerry to join him in setting up a cooperative woodshop in a mountain village, with the mission to “get the lumber mill up and running again.”  Jerry also taught the men how to build school furniture and learn a trade. The brothers flew down with suitcases full of tools. By day, Jerry taught furniture making.  At night he stayed in the rancho bunkhouse with the campesinos.

In 1995, Jerry moved to West Berkeley with Mary White, helping her completely remodel an 1892 Victorian, lifting the house 12 feet to create a woodshop for Jerry and a glass shop for Mary on the first floor. They camped out for two years as the project progressed. Jerry built the doors, trim, cabinets, and supervised the re-creation of the whole house. Jerry and Mary continued to live and work there till his death, with Jerry creating myriad one-of-a-kind furniture and cabinet projects and collaborating with Mary on many sculpture projects. He was sought-after for his fine craftsmanship, precision and ability to make cabinets that fit odd spaces.

Jerry was diagnosed with liver and lung cancer in 2018 and chose to not do treatments. From 2018-2020, as the cancers progressed, Jerry gradually gave up his activities but never lost his interest in life or his sense of humor. He continued working in his woodshop on projects, reading, studying Gurdjieff and meditating. In March 2020, Jerry signed up for hospice. The hospice staff, his son Ian and Mary took good care of him and followed his wishes. Jerry died peacefully at home on May 27, 2020.

Jerry was an unassuming remarkable human being and is missed by all who knew him. He is survived by his children, Jeff, Jennifer, Ian and Seth, his sister Caroline, his ex-wife Victoria, his partner of 32 years Mary and his many friends.

Donations may be made to Veterans for Peace.