Claudia Wanamaker Aldrich

Claudia Wanamaker Aldrich:

Living a Life of Joy and Thanksgiving

As Interviewed by Russ Rehm

Her beauty aside, I now know why I had a crush on Claudia Wanamaker Aldrich fifty-eight years ago—she’s so cool! What an amazing woman! We spent ninety minutes on the phone, laughing and celebrating a life well lived. I took nine pages of notes. Her favorite phrase, repeated over and over, was, “I loved [fill in the blank]."

"I loved my paternal grandparents who lived next door," she said. "I spent many hours at their house learning to sew with my grandmother and accompanying Grandpa as he tended his crops. I also loved my maternal grandmother with whom I cooked at the U. S. Forest Service ranger station where I worked during the summer."

“I was eighteen,” Claudia said, “when I met the consummate hunk from Missoula, Montana, Dave Aldrich. Although he was the fire staff officer, he was also my boss. He raced a’34 Ford pickup in Superior, Montana and Deer Park, north of Spokane—the same pickup Dave and our grandson, Logan, are now restoring.”

It seemed after fifty-five years of marriage, Dave still races her motor. After working together a second summer, they decided to marry. “I’m the boss now!” Claudia said. “Marrying him was a perfect decision. We’ve had a fantastic life together.”

A Brief Review of Dave’s Career

Dave’s forest service career was meteoric. Picture a ranger station so remote that, come winter, they had to return to civilization to survive. “But summer in the woods were great, and I loved it,” Claudia said. “After Dave’s work day, we just grabbed our poles and went fishing.”

On one Montana job, Dave was tasked with studying how wilderness fires were best controlled. In 1970, he and his partner, Bob Mutch, back-packed into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness ten days at a time, came home for four days, and then back out again—following that routine all summer long.

Two years later, Dave and his partner proposed the new plan for forest fire management: allow fires to burn in wilderness areas. They discovered fires extinguished on their own when little forest fuel had accumulated on the forest floor. They saw fires as nature’s way of cleaning house. In 1972, Dave and Bob published their  “White Cap Wilderness Fire Study,” which became the accepted procedure for managing fires. This six-minute video is an excellent review of their findings and legacy:

During Dave’s summer in the wild, Claudia was at home raising their two children—a boy and a girl thirteen months apart, both under three years old.

Nine or so moves later (to some places you’ve never heard of) Dave was promoted to the position of National Fire Staff Officer at the Washington D.C. Forest Service Headquarters.  While there, Claudia worked in International Forestry as Host for international visitors.

More About Claudia

When I read Claudia’s reply to my email requesting an interview, I knew she was an excellent writer. But, friend, when it comes to talking, she’s like a symphony. Reading her words is one thing, but listening to her sweet voice say, “ I loved every minute of it” is pure delight.

Well, what else does she love? Just about everything. For example: The bookmobile whose route included Road 68 every other week in the summer. “I love to read,” she said. “I’d spread a blanket under the locust tree in our backyard and read in the shade.”

Claudia is a smart lady. A life-long learner, she would go back to college wherever they lived. Working a plethora of jobs, volunteering at her children’s schools, she earned her Doctorate of Love: love life, love people, and love family, including her kids and grandkids (four world-class, high-performance achievers).

Yup, and she loved Pasco High School, both students and teachers. One story after another came at me like it was yesterday. “Russ, do you remember this?”

I didn’t remember much of anything. Her sharp mind quickly put mine to shame.

She remembered everything: horseback riding, bike riding, swimming, and the night raids on the watermelon and strawberry patches. Her memory was unbounded: Nat and Janet Cruzen, David Mills, Captain Gray and Emerson, the names of the dances (the stroll, the grape vine), the names of the streets, parks, and football stadium. Just warming up, she rattled off memories of the bonfires at Homecoming, the pep club, the Columbia River boat cruise on graduation night. There were also her memories of her first jobs including a stint at Pasco’s Bob-A-Lou Drive-In and a stretch working with Diana Womack at the Safeway Bakery.  Still, there was always time for entertainment including swimming at the Passport Plunge with Kay Foley and at the Memorial Pool with Janet Cruzen.

“I count my blessings every day,” Claudia said.

Has Life Been All Roses?

All roses? Of course not. She tragically lost two younger brothers. Dave has now been diagnosed with dementia/Alzheimer’s. He had electrodes placed in the memory region of his brain in hopes of slowing the progress of the disease.

“We try to make each day important and fulfilling,” Claudia said. “I'm here for a reason, and I'll put my heart into being his caregiver for as long as it takes. We all have a story, with light and dark areas. When I left home, I asked myself what kind of person do I want to be? So, I tried a lot of things. The dark times made me stronger. The more I was uplifting, the better things were around me—around us. One of my favorite sayings is ‘He who has hope has everything.’”

Talking to Claudia was an inspiration! You know what she said at the end of our interview? “We should get together and talk again! But this time I want to hear your story.”  

Is that cool, or what? I had a crush on Claudia Wanamaker in high school. Fifty-eight years later, I still do—for all the right reasons.