Jerry Payne's Journey from a Traditional World to Science
Jerry Payne’s childhood memories are of life on the Llangollen estate in Virginia. His father, Mason Payne, was working there when Jerry was born in Upperville in 1937, and Mason moved the family into one of the Llangollen tenant houses about three years later. Mason, of English descent, was raised further south in Fauquier County in a section known locally as The Free State. This was an island of subsistence farmers “in an ocean of aristocracy.” They had a long history of conflict with the big land owners. Jerry’s mother, Becky, was raised in adjacent Clark County, but her ancestors came from Ireland.
Both sides of Jerry’s family were Appalachian people. But they lived in a period when those in the mountains found it hard to survive by farming. Becky Payne had two brothers who tried carpentry, gave up on it, and became moonshiners. Jerry says, “That bothered my father, really bothered him. It never bothered my mother, because without those two moonshiners, a lot of the family members would be without money or without clothing or food, because they plowed it back into their relatives.”
Other people elsewhere in Appalachia were leaving their farms for paying jobs in nearby coal mines or sawmills or in textile mills in the piedmont or even automobile factories in the upper mid-West. Mason Payne and his brother Joseph had worked for a time in a saw mill before Mason took a job on Llangollen. He was made manager of the dairy, and Becky eventually cooked for Llangollen. They got a small but attractive tenant house to live in, with electricity and water provided, and might have an acre of garden, but Jerry said that when he himself later held his first “co-op” job in college he was astounded to discover that he was making as much money as his father did—and did not make enough money to cover his own expenses as a single man. His father and mother had been raising Jerry, his younger brother, and four daughters. The family, Jerry says, “was never ahead at the end of the month.”
Many of the Paynes’ activities were simply those typical of Southern rural life in the decades before World War II. Becky canned their vegetables and fruits. Mason did all his own repairs on his car and lawn mower. He made Jerry’s baseball bats. The entertainments surviving in more isolated Appalachian settlements—the ballad singing, fiddling and banjo playing, telling Jack tales or tall tales—had already been superseded in their community, just as they quickly were in other communities where Appalachian people were entering new occupations.
A side of the older culture that Jerry knew and enjoyed was the vigorous language that peppered his family’s speech. In 2013 he made a list of half-a-hundred sayings he still recalls. His father, drawing on the images on either side of the “Indian-head nickel,” described a stingy man as “so tight that he’d squeeze a nickel till the Indian was riding the buffalo.” But Jerry’s mother was so much given to figures of speech that most of Jerry’s list came from her. Some of her words were fairly common similes and metaphors and sayings: “cold as a witch’s tit,” “as much chance as a snowball in hell,” “He’s been rode hard and put away wet,” “Look what the dogs (or cats) drug in” or “If he had two coins to rub together, he’d be happy.”
Becky Payne had other phrases that may have been invented locally or by herself in familiar formulas: “hot as the hinges of hell,” “slicker than owl snot,” “finer than a frog hair split in quarters,” or “rowing a boat upstream with a rope.” Some are more complicated ones that she would direct at specific people: “He was so homely as a kid that they had to tie a pork chop around his neck so a dog would play with him,” or “If fish is brain food, he needs to eat a whale.” Her strongest ones, usually spoken with a smile, flirt with the shocking: “I haven’t had as much fun as this since the hog ate my little brother,” “He couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with directions on the heel,” “Like trying to shove a stick of butter up a bobcat’s ass with a hot poker,” “When the party gets rough, put on your pants and come home,” or “That kid got blisters on his feet, but he made it in time for his mama’s wedding.” A number are observations and proverbs: “Don’t give yourself a headache over something you can’t control,” “Life is too short to worry about that,” or “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in the garage makes you a mechanic” or “makes you a car.” Jerry and his son still use some of these sayings.
Jerry also took delight in another traditional custom, using found objects to make places pretty. Each year his family would participate in Decoration Day, when people clean and decorate their family graves “and walk around and look” and have a picnic. The custom is still widespread in Appalachia. In early times people picked flowers to put on graves but now most commonly use plastic flowers. Jerry says only two of his sisters still continue the practice of Decoration Day. For Christmas, his father from the time Jerry was six took him into the woods to “get the running pine or ground pine, get the mistletoe” and a Christmas tree—“always a cedar tree” for their house. Jerry says his father “was a traditional person” who “liked the Christmas tree, the lights, the tinsel and so forth on it.” But he let Jerry add popcorn wreaths and other things. Jerry says, “I collected bird eggs, I collected snakes, I collected insects and bones and skulls. I had an interest in this, and so I picked up things. A lot of them I turned into toys or painted or hung on Christmas trees.”
The first thing Jerry painted them with was Crayola crayons. “We could get crayons from school,” he says, “broken crayons. My mother would let me melt them on the stove in a skillet, and I would paint with the liquid Crayola crayons. I would take the bones or plants that I had painted and then stick them in the oven so the paint would flow. I’ve always done that.” He says his mother “loved to carry them in the room.” In his retirement in Georgia Jerry still loves to paint bones and to decorate Christmas trees with all manner of natural objects that he has found. He does this for his own house and also, on request, for others.
Jerry Payne points out that many “rural white people in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains” set colored glass bottles inside on their window sills. In their yards they would use them “to border” their driveways and flower beds, or hang them from “fences, dead trees or any available structure.” Most of the glass was blue or green, “but they utilized whatever they had,” he says, “right down to the glass insulators from power poles.” His father noticed the outdoor art, but Jerry never heard him comment on “either the beauty or utility of the displays.” It surprised Jerry that many of these artists were “either elderly, of the female persuasion, or often both.” In fact, Jerry says his mother liked to “set green and blue bottles on our window sills for some added beauty in our house.” He often brought her bottles he thought she would like. Jerry still recalls “the sun shining through the glass and projecting streams of color across the floor and furnishings.”
In 1951, when he was fourteen, Jerry had good opportunities to see African American yard art. After sports practice during the four years he was attending Marshall High School he would walk home past black houses in Delaplane. Steve Ashby (1904-1980), now well known for his “outsider art,” lived there. Tom Davenport describes his yard as “full of the most fanciful whirligigs and painted pieces of wood.” Jerry was also interested to see these “glass, metal and wood objects that moved and whirled with the wind.” His father called them “whirl-a-gigs, thing-a-majigs and wind chimes.” Jerry says he himself often “talked to these black artists and asked why they made these things. The most common reply was that they just liked pretty things that caught their eyes and moved in the wind.” This answer led him “to ask what they planned to make next or how they were going to use the bottles or metal. Their reply was often “I’m puzzling on it” or “I’m thinking on it.”
Jerry Payne says, “This is where I saw my first bottle trees (trees and various woody structures festooned with colored, mainly blue, bottles)” and later noticed them also in the yards of Appalachian white families. Jerry was taken with these things, and today in retirement he himself makes bottle trees and places them in his own yard. He says they are “an attempt to recreate these memories from my youth.” But lore he heard about the bottle trees—that they could trap evil spirits—he did not accept. He could look inside the bottles and clearly see that were empty.
Jerry was skeptical too of oral lore he heard from whites working on Llangollen. “I was by far the youngest person working on the farm in the dairy,” he says. “It would be no one probably within ten years of my age. They were all older people. A lot of them were single.” Many “used the plants for medicinal purposes. I would talk to them and try to see what they were using for plants, and what they were using them to cure. But none of that was used in my household. Mother only used what she called spring tonics. We would have to drink tea made from rabbit tobacco or alfalfa in the spring of the year. It was a purgative, I guess. We drank it. And it always—no matter what you added to it, whether it was lemon extract or alcohol—it improved the taste of it. So I always got the impression when people did that, it was just a poor excuse for drinking.”
But because he had “an interest,” Jerry says, he would also “hear a lot of these stories—and the hoop snake was one I heard about. They were typical mountain people, Appalachian people. And they’d tell these stories, snakes grabbing their tails and rolling away. And I had never seen them. I had seen other snakes. So I questioned them,” always comparing their answers with what he himself had observed. They “would tell me that such and such a snake was poisonous, and I didn’t believe it, because the only poisonous snake I ever saw in northern Virginia was a copperhead or a timber rattler. And I knew how to recognize those, and so I would handle and pick up the snakes. Well, most of the adults—nobody would handle a snake. The only snake that was worthwhile was a dead snake. They did not handle a snake.”
From a very early age, Jerry says, “I questioned everything. I never took what anybody ever said as being a fact. I would check him out.” Jerry would handle insects, and his father would say they would sting you.” But Jerry had observed insects closely and “would answer, ‘No, this one can’t sting. This one’s a male, and the male doesn’t have a stinger.’ My father looked at me like I was crazy. Nobody went around catching bees. Sometimes I got a sting, got bites, and things like that, but I had to check it out. Big snakes can give you a wicked bite, but I didn’t mind it.
“One time I was playing high school baseball, and my father came to pick me up—one of the few times he did—and we were driving home. Saw a raccoon and three young ones cross the road. I asked my father to stop the car. I wanted to go catch a raccoon. He said, ‘You’re going to get bit.’ I said, ‘Okay, but I want you to stop the car.’ And I reached through the fence—a wire fence, a National wire fence, about 6 or 8 inch squares—and I got a baby raccoon, and I was pulling him back through the fence, and the mother grabbed my hand and bit it. And I had to get my father to help me let go of the raccoon. There are some things you don’t try but once. A raccoon has got prehensile hands, and they can bite quick. You know, you learn. I had! I didn’t let a snapping turtle bite me and hold on to see if it would till it thundered. A couple of things, I didn’t go that way.”
In both the dairy barn during milking and their home while his mother worked, a radio continuously played country and western music from a station in Wheeling, West Virginia, or some place in Texas. This music had roots in the older local repertories and styles, but it was new, the product of a changing world. Singers like the Carter sisters and Ernest Tubb came to perform it at the elementary school or at the Watermelon Festival on the Shenandoah River. Other country people “local to the Blue Ridge area” performed over the radio or in concerts advertised on posters tacked to telephone poles. The whole community “paid their price and went.” Jerry’s sisters sang in contests on stage, and he says that some of his classmates “thought they were going to become country and western stars.” But Jerry himself “never did develop a taste for the nasal twang” or for the tragic songs. “In high school I was president of the jazz club one year, so that shows you. You couldn’t get any farther away from country music than jazz.”
In a more important area Jerry was very strongly drawn to the old traditional life. His attraction grew from need, his father’s need to supplement the food on their table and the pay for which he worked. Mason Payne had grown up in what Jerry calls a hunting-gathering society further south in Fauquier County, where “they’d trap, fish, use plants.” Mason must have learned from his own father and others which mushrooms and other plants were edible. He knew the names of most birds and “knew which ones taste good and which ones didn’t, and which ones we could get in abundance, and where we could get them.”
Jerry was by two years Mason’s oldest child and says, “When we went collecting plants or fruits to eat, I was the only one who went. My father always took me, even from the early age of about six years old. We went to collect cresses or ‘creasies’ to eat. We went to collect poke weed and things like that. I was the one that went with him, so I picked up on what he told me, learned how to identify plants.” He got other lessons from his father. At that time, Jerry says, “I didn’t know what conservation meant, but my father would only collect plants of a certain size. He would wait until fruiting was past for ginseng. And he was very secretive in what he was doing. Nobody else knew where he was digging the ginseng plants.”
Jerry also learned how to hunt with gun or trap. He could make a wing-bone turkey caller or the rabbit snare he demonstrates in the film. Jerry loved the outdoors and became “a constant hunter and fisher and supplemented the table with game and fish.” He says, “Once I got of a certain age, I took it over, setting snares, trapping, fishing, gigging, and so forth. I was a part of it, and I think my father was glad to turn it over.”
In the summers Jerry helped supplement the family income with jobs on Llangollen, at one time or another working with the calves, or making hay and putting in fence posts, or marking trees with a timbering crew and helping the men carry their saws and chisels and attaching chains to logs. He raised rabbits for sale. But he also continued to use what he had learned from his father about hunting and trapping animals. He trapped and sold rabbits, ground hogs, opossums, and raccoons, leaving their tails on when he dressed them so people wanting to eat them would know what animal they had.
“When I was trapping for mink and muskrat and weasel,” Jerry says, “I had steel traps. But that’s something you saved your money for, and back then you could get a steel trap for 50 to 75 cents. We bought them from the same places where we sold our hides. But I didn’t have many of those, because I found that it took a lot of time to skin a muskrat and a skunk and a fox and things like that. And we didn’t eat the meat of the skunk or the fox. Even at that early age I had a problem with killing an animal and not eating it. You know we ate muskrat. We just called them swamp rabbits—they’d taste a bit better.”
They sold the hides to a store in Winchester, and the same place also paid for the plant materials his father taught him to gather—ginseng, goldenseal, yellow root, poke salad, winter cresses, lamb's-quarters, leaf mustard, cherry bark, walnuts, hickory nuts, pecans, and occasionally sassafras roots, depending on what there was a market for. He even sold three wheelbarrow loads of dandelion heads to a man who wanted to make dandelion wine. “I’ve met people collecting plants to eat, to make medicinal potions out of them,” Jerry says, “but I never met anyone else on Llangollen collecting plants for sale. I remember when I pulled ginseng root I got sixty-four dollars a pound. Now I guess it’s worth several hundred dollars. Some things, you’d spend more time collecting than what you got for it, but if you didn’t have another job it didn’t make any difference.”
Jerry was an accomplished woodsman when he and Tom Davenport met as they rode on the same school bus. Jerry describes Tom as “much different than his classmates in high school. Tom dressed different. His clothes were different.” So Tom “took a lot of kidding and bullying. Nobody kidded or bullied me, because my hands were too good. They’d get a punch in the face—and I’d go to the principal’s office.” Jerry took up for Tom and for other kids that got bullied too but says that he saw Tom as “much smarter” than the others. He and Tom shared interests. “I liked him,” Jerry says, “so we bonded.”
Tom had a younger sister, and he had friends on adjoining farms. Jerry lived some eight miles away, but Jerry says, “I don’t think he spent much time with them. I was the one that he could truly do things with. Tom didn’t know anything about hunting and fishing when he first met me. He didn’t know anything. As far as I know, never been hunting and fishing in his life. And he had fishing gear, and he also had a pair of binoculars for birding, but he didn’t do any of that.” But Tom, Jerry says, “liked to walk, he liked to hunt, he liked to fish (I mean he acted like he did), and he liked knowing plants and animals.
"We could run, we could play, we could wrestle, we could swim in the water, we could wade in the water, we could catch fish, we could go hunting, we could cook out in the woods," Jerry says. "If we shot a rabbit, we cooked it out in the woods. We carried bare essentials with us, maybe a cheese sandwich. We never worried about water to drink because we drank out of the streams. That’s before everything was polluted—we didn’t know any better. And there was not a clock on us. When I was with Tom, you knew what your mother and father wanted. You had to be home for the evening meal. They didn’t care where you were the rest of the day, as long as Tom did his chores. The same way with me. When I was with Tom, I had no chores. Time was freedom, and it was doing something with someone who had an interest in what you were doing.
Tom was very precocious. He could pick up things very quickly—except he didn’t know how to duck a fishing lure.” (In the film Jerry tells about the incident he is whimsically alluding to here.) “If you think about it, it was not a plan. You were going fishing, and you had to figure how you could get in to that pond without getting caught. Some places we had permission to go, but the places we wanted to fish most, we didn’t have permission to fish.” They knew other kids who might go to each other’s houses and swim in their pools or play tennis. Jerry never got to do those things. “But Tom liked the part that I did—sleeping under a bridge, sleeping under a barn, or being out in the woods eating something.”
“When he came to our house,” Jerry says, “he ate ground hog with us. He thought it looked like a dog. Tom had never been anywhere where everybody talked at the same time, while they were eating food in their mouth, and reaching across the plate, and passing things down. My mother and father never changed for anybody that came to the house, so no putting on airs around my friends. Tom became my mother’s and father’s friend. He could go to the house when I wasn’t there. He could go and have coffee with my mother and talk with her on the things of the day. And my father really, really thought Tom was intelligent, somebody special. Tom would ask him questions my father wanted to answer—about farming, and so forth.”
For Jerry, visiting Tom’s family was less comfortable. “When you sat down at meals, ate a meal with them,” Jerry says, “Mrs. Davenport told you, ‘Have you washed your hands? Have you brushed your teeth?’ (I didn’t do that thing before meals. When my mother called us to eat, we just ran in to the table, whatever we were doing.) And then we sat down. But the first thing is (there was Tom’s sister, and his father, and me, and Tom), she would ask them, ‘What have you done today? What have you read today? What have you done on your piano or (Tom played recorder) what have you done on your recorder?’—and then they would start discussing, say, current events, what was happening on the political scene. I guess my mouth was open, my eyes big as watermelons, wondering what to say. I couldn’t contribute to anything.”
At Jerry’s house, “We just ate when we ate. We talked about the dogs and the cats and the garden or the cows. Not no world or current events current in our household. My mother had a fourth grade education, my father a seventh. All I ever saw them read was newspapers. We got Progressive Farmer and hand-me-downs from the grocery store and the local paper, but we had no other books in the house, except what you purchased when you were required to in high school literature courses. There was a library in the big house at Llangollen, but it wasn’t accessible. I had never been in houses where libraries were accessible.”
The “biggest shock” Jerry got from the Davenports was going with them to the Episcopal Church. Jerry says, “I was raised from early years, probably till age twelve, Baptist. My father switched church for some reason. My father never went back to the Baptist church. So we went to the Methodist Church. I always liked the Baptist church over the Methodist church because they had a softball team, and I could play softball. And vacation bible school was taught at the Baptist Church, not at the Methodist Church, and they had Christmas pageants and all over at the Baptist. It was the Big Church.” Jerry had also had been to church with an aunt who was Pentecostal, and he says that was a shock, “totally different. I’d never heard people speaking in tongues, ‘Be healed!’ and so forth.”
But the Episcopal Church was “a real awakening.” There “everything was laid out for you. Everything you did was written down. You knew when to kneel because they had this little thing you pulled out and kneeled on, crushed velvet.” And the sermon “was not fear and damnation.” Up to that time he had never heard a sermon that didn’t threaten punishment for bad things a person did. The Episcopal sermons were “more like lectures, like talking, just interpretation of the bible or whatever theme we were going to have. But it wasn’t just hollering and screaming. It wasn’t theological. It was really strange. I’d never seen anything like that.”
Jerry found Mrs. Davenport overbearing. He says that she “talked to me on three different occasions and asked me questions, and so forth, before I was allowed to play with Tom.” And when she planned any activity, she did not ask whether he would like to go too. “From Tom’s mother’s standpoint, ‘We’re going to a play at Middleburg in the Community Center’—Skin of Our Teeth or something like that—‘and you will dress appropriately.’ She would say to me, ‘Do you have some more dress-up clothes?’ Of course I didn’t. ‘Well, you can wear some of Tom’s,’ she would tell you. And then you would go. If they were going out to eat a meal, she’d say, ‘We’re going out to eat.’ She didn’t ask you didn’t you want to go? And then afterwards she would talk about it. What did you think about it? I remember going to a symphony with them the first time in Washington, D.C. Now, I didn’t know where to stand up and clap during the thing. I didn’t know different movements. I’d never had a course in music. I knew the big thing was the bass fiddle and the small one was the violin. I didn’t know most of the instruments. Of course, Tom knew that, and Tom’s sister Kicsi knew that, because they were studying music at home.”
Mrs. Davenport seems to have been heavy-handed, but she and Mr. Davenport were free of the class attitudes held by many of their neighbors in Virginia. Clearly they recognized Jerry’s intelligence and character and thought Jerry’s influence on Tom a good thing. Perhaps Mrs. Davenport even saw herself in Jerry and wanted to give him the kind of help she must have needed from teachers or from an American family that took her in when she ran away from home. This is probably what motivated her decision that Jerry “needed to read some of the classics.” Jerry says, “She asked me what I was interested in, and I told her I was interested in action things. I liked Hemingway stories, Steinbeck, and western stories. She didn’t give me western stories. She gave me James Fenimore Cooper. And then she introduced me to Mark Twain. At that time I had never read Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. So she gave me the things, and I read them. But that wasn’t the end. She asked me about them. So I had to start reading more carefully. But the point is I had to read with a dictionary.” When she and her husband sent Tom to the Episcopal High School in Alexandria during his sophomore year, they were not trying to distance him from Jerry. They took Jerry along when they went to visit Tom there.
One summer Jerry worked with a crew timbering some of the Blue Ridge forest land on Llangollen. They were “taking the biggest and best trees—red oak, white oak, hickory, and so forth.” Jerry went with the forester marking trees. He says, “I knew more about tree identification than the forester did. He asked me how, how did I know that? ‘—because my father told me,’ or ‘I looked it up in a book.’” But Jerry could surprise his father too. He was riding once with his father near Orlean, Virginia, and his father quizzed him, pointing to a tree and asking if he knew its name. “I said, ‘River birch.’ He turned and looked at me and said, ‘How did you know?—I never told you the name of that tree!’”
Jerry already had the temperament, if not yet the training, of a scientist. And he used every opportunity to gain the technical knowledge of a scientist. In the same summer when he was working with a timbering crew on Llangollen, he alternated that with helping a veterinarian who was interning on the estate. He assisted her when she vaccinated the cows, learned from her how to help a cow having difficulty in giving birth, helped geld male animals. Jerry liked this work because the veterinarian taught him so much, including precise technical terms for instruments and procedures. His curiosity was leading him to look up information in library books. For example, when his family ate animals he had shot or trapped, Jerry kept the skulls, “I knew what a rabbit skull looked like,” he says, or a ground hog’s. “When I got a chance to go to the library, looked up in books which one was a rodent, which was a lagomorph. I couldn’t pronounce the names, but I knew what they were. And it didn’t do any good because there was no one else I could talk to about it. Not a single person.” And there were penalties for trying. On one occasion some boys were puzzling over the word osmosis. One asked Jerry if he knew what it meant. Jerry had been reading the biology textbooks older boys were carrying, so he reeled off the definition of the word—and had to wear “Osmosis” as his nickname for the rest of the time he was in high school.
He was also very fortunate in having school teachers who recognized his intelligence and promise and fostered his interests. In the film Jerry pays tribute to one elementary school teacher, Susan Woolston, saying she “really nurtured my love of nature. She tried to make me give up eating bird eggs and killing birds for identification and, you know, learning to identify through use of a field guide and a pair of binoculars, neither of which I owned. You know, the lady truly had a great imagination. She forced me to go on nature walks, bird walks, and even took me to my first Christmas bird count, and sent me to nature camp at Lake Sherando for three weeks one summer, where I learned to identify birds by song, learned to identify plants and trees and live in the woods.”
Growing up at Llangollen in many ways equipped Jerry Payne for the career he later found. It also stimulated him to want a better life than he and his family had there. Jerry talks in the film about how their poverty prevented him from taking a girl to the high school prom. He lived fourteen miles from the school and had only a bicycle for transportation. He also says he was embarrassed by his clothes. Worse, on Llangollen he was made painfully aware of being on the bottom of the social order. He learned at a very early age that obedience was expected: “Yes, ma’am, I’ll do that.” He says, “If my father was asked to do something and we were eating Sunday evening meal, he got up and went and did it. There wasn’t any question about it.” He was the manager of the dairy, but “if he was asked to go to the Washington National Airport to pick up someone, he got in her Cadillac and drove down and picked them up. What she—it was She, Liz Tippett, he was dealing with—wanted came first.”
When racing people and politicians came to big parties at Llangollen after the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness, Jerry was expected to collect watercress for the sandwiches and the mint they used to make mint juleps. He gathered it from the streams below the dairy barn, and took it up to the big house. “I couldn't go in the front door,” he says. “Nobody could go in the front door except, I would say, people of her equal. You went in through the side door or the kitchen door.” He “never dealt directly” with Ms. Tippett but with “the person who purchased the food for her.”
Jerry also “worked at her parties—that was usually making sure they had ice in their drinks, cleaning up the mess around the hors d’oeuvres tray. But I would not know who they were.” Someone would also say, “Mason Payne, I want your son to go with this group of people who’re going duck hunting this morning. He can open the gates and serve them drinks, and so forth while they’re in the blinds.” Jerry says, “Mainly, I remember cowboys. A lot of the time those same people at the parties were going to the Middleburg theater and were going to give a performance on Saturday for the local people. This goes back to the time of John Hay Whitney. The people were Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy. A lot them would be going to the Cherry Blossom Festival, or Hopalong Cassidy was the grand marshall at the Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester. Threw out small loaves of Wonder Bread to the people. I didn’t listen to popular music, so when they performed, it didn’t register with me. I was just worried about not spilling the drink tray. When I worked with them in the duck blind, I was very careful that I stayed out of their way. I didn’t want to be shot.” He says, “It was not something I liked. It was a fear, so to speak, that I may do something to cause my father to lose his job.”
Jerry Payne says, “I love that part of Virginia. I love that part of Virginia. But I knew I could not stay on Llangollen.” Tom Davenport calls Jerry “one of the people that made the escape from the feudal system.” Jerry himself calls his family “serfs” and retorts, “Tom says I was the one that made the escape. I said, ‘Took the chance.’ It was a chance, going to college.” In his college orientation, one speaker got up and said, “Shake hands with the person on your right, and shake hands with the person on your left. After your freshman year, one of those will not be here.” And that, Jerry says, “was scarey. I thought I was going to be one of those people.” But he discovered, as he says in the film, that once in the classroom, “I was on an equal basis with every single person in there, whether they went to prep school, the biggest high school in the state of Virginia, or the smallest. When they closed the door, we were all equal.”
The chance had opened for him because a group of landowners in Loudon and Fauquier Counties offered a scholarship for a deserving local student. Jerry competed in a written examination and then was interviewed (as he describes in the film) by a committee. It offered him the scholarship, and he accepted it, planning to study biological sciences. He was also offered a scholarship that would have paid his tuition from his freshman year through medical school on the condition that at the end of the eight years of study he would return and practice medicine in the county. Jerry felt he could not honestly make such a long-term commitment, declined the offer, but did receive additional assistance from the State of Virginia as long as he remained enrolled in the state.
Jerry says he would have preferred attending the College of William and Mary or the University of Virginia but chose the Virginia Polytechnic Institute because its fees were the lowest. His father had always avoided going into debt, and Jerry was committed to the same principle. He therefore worked to support himself (and a family after his marriage) throughout his years of study. While enrolled at V.P.I., he supplemented his scholarships by working and studying in alternate quarters through a cooperative program at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He then transferred to the University of Tennessee to more easily continue in this “co-op” program while he was completing his B.S. degree. At Oak Ridge his assignments were in radiation biology, ecology, and waste disposal. After graduation he left for South Carolina and earned his M.S. degree at Clemson (at that time still a college). Then he went back to Oak Ridge and worked as a regular employee in the National Laboratory for two years in small mammal ecology. To get his Ph.D. he then returned to Clemson University. It was during his two periods of study at Clemson that he carried out his research in animal decomposition.
Being “interested in all aspects of nature,” he took “all the o-ology courses” in the schools. He hoped to have a career as an ecologist. After graduation he found no job opening in his specialty. Having a family to support, he accepted an appointment with the United States Department of Agriculture, soon settling into work in Byron, Georgia, at the Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory,” where he remained until retirement in 1994. He describes his work as that of an “agricultural scientist in the field of entomology and a research entomologist,” and says that “working in fruits and nuts” he actually got to do ecology as well as a broader range of studies. Though he dislikes the formulas of academic scientific writing, he published many articles. He was also active in professional societies and received honors from them. His graduate study in decomposition is cited as rigorous and pioneering and as having influenced the development of forensic entomology. In retirement he retains the passionate interest in nature he got in his childhood as an Appalachian boy and the son of a worker on the Llangollen estate. He continues to unite it with the knowledge and methodologies he gained from his training as a scientist.