The Charleston Civic Chorus should bestow a longevity award on Evan Buck, a faithful warbler for 56 years
He first sang in a chorus in the third grade. He’s still singing, even at age 80. It’s a pact he made with himself to resolve a vocational dilemma.
He loved singing. He loved the theater, especially behind-the-scenes stuff. What a wonderful way to make a living! Or not.
He also had a passion for math and science. He wasn’t Caruso or Pavarotti, right? So that analytical mind took a pragmatic approach.
Early on, he officially declared singing and the theater as hobbies, a compromise commitment that enriched his life.
In 1961, in the glory days of our chemical valley, he arrived in Charleston to start a long and rewarding career as a Carbide engineer.
He indulged his penchant for theater and song as a staunch contributor to the community cultural scene. Treasurer of the Civic Chorus since 1977, he sings with that group as well as the West Virginia Symphony Chorus. He’s also treasurer of the Chamber Music Society. For several years, he was stage manager for the Kanawha Players.
Even in retirement, he obliges his scientific side. Four days a week, he tutors math and science at BridgeValley Community and Technical College, the building that was his working home with Carbide.
Two passions. Two diverse worlds. He managed to make the best of both.
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“I was born in St. Louis in 1937. We stayed there until I was 3 and then my father was transferred to California with the Shell companies. We lived in Oakland until I was 11.
“I started singing in the third grade in the school chorus. I never really stopped. As I got older, I recognized that music is a wonderful hobby but not a very good way to earn a living if you aren’t very good. I’m adequate but I don’t sing solo or anything. I decided to make it a hobby and it has been a hobby ever since.
“My father was transferred to New York. We ended up in a little town called Larchmont in Westchester County, a suburb of New York. My father commuted by train every day.
“I started junior high there in the town of Mamaroneck and I sang in choruses all through high school. When I got into high school I started working backstage. My senior year, I was stage manager.
“It’s great. You are the one that is making all the backstage decisions, when the lights are changed, when the sound starts, when the curtain goes up and when it comes down. You are in charge.
“I was always good in math and science, so that naturally led to an engineering degree. I went to the University of Illinois and majored in chemical engineering. I sang in one of the university choruses and also worked back stage. My senior year I worked my way up to stage manager of the University of Illinois Theater.
“That was the one year since third grade that I did not sing in a chorus. I was too busy being a stage manager.
“I went to graduate school at MIT and got my masters there. I graduated from Illinois in ’59 and from MIT in ’61 and I came here. Carbide recruited me. They sent interviewers to campus, and if they were interested they invited you here for a visit.
“This was before you could get drinks legally in restaurants. I was here a couple of days interviewing. They took me to a sort of speakeasy place under the Kanawha City Bridge.
“At the Army Navy Club and Press Club, anything that was a club, it was OK to have liquor by the drink. Shortly after we got here, they got it. The restaurants were not really geared up for it. I remember going out to dinner at Marvin’s Midtown, and they were serving drinks in water glasses because that’s all they had.
“I started in the research and development department. I was at Institute for six months because they hadn’t finished the building over here where I was supposed to work. Then I was in that building until ’68 when I transferred to the engineering department, which is this building.
“You had these two huge plants, the Institute plant and the South Charleston plant, and then you had the Tech Center here which had 2,500 employees. There were 600 engineers just in this building.
“DuPont had a big plant at Belle and Monsanto was in Nitro. It was a booming place. One year we were so busy they put the engineers on overtime. For nine months, we were working 48-hour weeks.
“Most of my work was in an engineering technology group. The technology we did in this group was called thermodynamics. That has to do with the properties of chemicals. For example, if you wanted to build a tank that would hold 10,000 pounds of something, you had to know its density in order to get the volume of that tank.
“The problem is, in the chemical industry, you are never working with pure chemicals, always with mixtures. What you had to do was come up with equations you could use to calculate the density of a mixture. To give you an example of how messy it could become, if you took a gallon of water and a gallon of ethyl alcohol and mixed it together, you would think you would get two gallons of mixture, right?
“You don’t. You get about 1.8 gallons because the ethanol molecules like water molecules more than they like themselves so they nestle closer together.
“The big thing we dealt with had to do with the design of distillation columns. You drive by these plants and see these big towers? Those are distillation towers. You know the stills out in the woods where people are distilling alcohol? Distillation is a way of separating chemicals, one of the cheapest ways of doing that. That’s why you have all these distillation columns all over the place in the chemical industry.
“We were coming up with the properties necessary to design those things.
“One of the first things I did when I got here was to find out that there was a Charleston Civic Chorus, and I have been singing in that since 1961. I was president for a while in the ‘60s. In ’77, I became treasurer and I’ve been treasurer ever since. That’s 40 years. How about that? And I’m still singing with them – 56 years.
“I am treasurer of the Chamber Music Society and was president for a while. And I was stage manager of Kanawha Players for a number of years.
“One time when I was stage managing for KP, Elaine Steiger was directing a musical and we were having a dress rehearsal. She decided we should do act two again, before we had the whole rehearsal.
“So we did act two and then did the dress rehearsal. It was close to midnight. As a joke, somebody said, ‘We’re almost there. Let’s do it again.’ She said, ‘That’s right. OK. Let’s do it again.’ And we did. I got home in time get an hour’s sleep before going to work.”
“Don Riggio had a little opera company. We were to perform ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ in Lewisburg the first weekend in December. We left Charleston at 5 for an 8 o’clock performance. This was before the interstate, so we had to take Route 60. Just as we started up Gauley Mountain, it started snowing. And it snowed and snowed. We didn’t get there until after 10.
“There were still a few people waiting on us. We had to get our costumes on and all that. It was 11 before we started, but we did it. We just didn’t have a very big audience. It finally stopped snowing and we made it back to Charleston about 3 a.m.
“After I’d been here five or six years, one of the Illinois actors was here directing ‘Honey in the Rock’ and I ran into him. He said, ‘Finding theater jobs in West Virginia is kind of difficult. What kind of job do you have here?’ I said, ‘Surprise, I was not a theater major at Illinois.’ I did so much backstage work there and he was an actor and that was his contact with me. He thought that was my major. These things are wonderful hobbies. I’ve just had fun with it.
“I tutored at GW in math and science for a number of years. There was an article in the paper about the community college needing instructors in basic math, so I started doing that when the community college was still at West Virginia State. I taught a couple of courses, but for the last five or six years, I’ve just been tutoring, which I enjoy more because it’s more variety. Teaching a course is the same thing over and over. I’m here Monday through Thursday. They don’t have classes on Fridays.
“It was very sad to see the demise of the chemical industry in the valley. Nothing lasts forever, but it would have been nice if it had lasted a little longer.
“Dow bought out Carbide in 2001. I assumed they were buying Carbide to continue it, but there were certain chemical product lines they wanted and they did not want the rest of it. So instead of 600 engineers in this building, they now have 50 or so.
“The bulk of my Carbide career was in the glory days of the chemical industry and Carbide was a very good company to work for. They took care of their employees.
“When the business people took over things, the most important thing became the next quarter’s profits. They run the show now. The easiest thing to cut is research and development because it doesn’t affect the bottom line in the next quarter.
“I will tutor as long as I can and I will sing as long as I can. Along with the Civic Chorus, I sing with the West Virginia Symphony Chorus. The Civic Chorus rehearses on Tuesdays and the Symphony Chorus rehearses on Mondays, and I’m still treasurer of the Chamber Music Society.
“I’ve led a very good and lucky life. We have two children and each of them have two children. We’ve had some very nice vacations. My wife, Terry, and I go to Europe about every year.
“So it’s a good life. The downside is getting old. The old body just doesn’t do what it used to do. But I have no real health problems. I try to keep my diet down. I jog four miles three times a week. I still ski. It’s a family thing. We go to Vermont every March. Every year, I think it’s the last one, but I keep surviving.
“I have no real regrets. Well, I wish I was an opera star, but you know how that goes.”
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-342-5027.