QUEENSBURY — If only Travis Whitehead could harness a waterfall.
“I missed (buying) a waterfall around here,” Whitehead said Tuesday morning during an interview at his Queensbury home just off Corinth Road near West Mountain. “I spoke with the owner, but I missed it. It was a beautiful spot.”
A fan of hydroelectric power, the local government watchdog who recently announced his bid for Queensbury town supervisor against Democratic incumbent John Strough said he and his wife Valerie would have built a home on the land near the waterfall and harnessed its water for lights, heat and other power needs.
“There is a lot of energy in water,” said Whitehead, explaining that a waterfall could more than power an all-electric home.
The water wheel that powers a gristmill can be used to create electricity. The higher the waterfall and the more gallons per minute, the more electricity that will be generated from the wheel.
“We drive all over looking for waterfalls,” Valerie Whitehead said, smiling over at her husband, acknowledging their shared quest.
Whitehead expands the waterfall discussion to gristmills, old hydro sites, dams and a possible water power lineage passed on from his ancestors.
“John and Penelope Whitehead were exporting flour,” he said, detailing the branches on a family tree he has been growing over the years, even though he still has gaps in the intricate links of his Scottish/Irish family roots because of lost records. “He (John) was expert in building a mill that was associated with these gristmills.”
Whether chasing waterfalls, old juke boxes, vintage pinball machines or grandchildren during what he and Valerie call summer Camp Oma, the two scientists have been together since their first chance meeting at a fraternity cocktail party in the fall of 1972.
It was a “life-changing event” Whitehead said about meeting Valerie Berner.
Right after settling in at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Whitehead went with a ski class to Willard Mountain in Greenwich. That’s where he met a group of guys he got along with pretty well.
“They said they were rushing a fraternity and I should check it out. Theta Chi,” he said, adding that it was a bit of a turnabout since he was focused on academics.
Still, despite Theta Chi being what he called a “jock fraternity,” Whitehead became a brother, living at the frat house. Another life changer, he said.
RPI was an all-male school and when the fraternity would host events, they invited the women from Russell Sage, he said.
“We were holding our first cocktail party (coats and ties) and Valerie was invited by another Russell Sage student,” Whitehead said, looking over to his wife with a warmth obviously reserved only for her.
The cocktail party was in the fall, and by spring he knew they would be spending their life together.
“From the first time I met him he was unique,” Valerie said, explaining that if she goes to a craft fair, sometimes something stands out, and that’s how it was with Travis. “Life has been interesting with him. He’s always surprising me.”
And the couple, who have easily spent most of their lives together, seem to recognize the rhythm of the other, often laughing or reacting at the same moment.
Simultaneously, they recall the player piano purchase.
“We were living in married student housing and on Wednesday nights we used to go to an auction in Schuylerville,” he said. “There was this player piano and I heard the bidding at $75. I called ‘$80.’”
And they both laugh, Valerie sharing that at the time she wondered what he was doing.
“I said, ‘OK, I won’t bid anymore,’” he said. “The next thing we hear, ‘Going, going, gone, $80.’”
The player piano, other obsessions
That player piano still sits in their Queensbury home, having traveled from Schuylerville to Troy to Cleveland and eventually to Queensbury.
“At first we had it housed in storage and we would pedal away at night,” Valerie said.
Then there are the vintage vacuum tube radios, the old pinball machines, the juke boxes and the aging music wall boxes that they often give as wedding gifts to family.
And some spouses might get frustrated with an ever-expanding collection of vintage music makers. But Valerie can’t seem to help herself.
“If I see something is available, I ask him, ‘Would you like to get it?’” she said.
But even bigger than the projects is the family.
“Our life now revolves around our four grandchildren,” he said.
Each summer, their home transforms into Camp Oma (what the grandchildren call Valerie). Whitehead is Papa, but he doesn’t get billing on the camp name.
All four grandchildren, age 7 and under, come without parents to stay with Oma and Papa.
“Our kids call it independence week,” Valerie said, adding that she makes Camp Oma T-shirts for the week-long visit.
During Camp Oma they have some regular stops, including Martha’s, Rob and Deb’s, Huck Finn’s Playland and Up Yonda Farm.
“They have the old toys their daddy played with,” Valerie said, referring to their children’s toys.
Always a scientist
Science has been shaping Whitehead’s world for as long as he can remember.
And just as there is a musicality in science, there’s a musicality to his explorations — the way he plucks and tinkers until his song sings. It’s part of his quest to learn, to share, to solve.
With science teacher parents, Whitehead’s early world was all about discovery, about asking, “Can you explain this?”
“I was what you would call a nerd,” he said.
On Tuesday, he quietly shared his high school science honors, the ones he dug out for the interview. There’s the Bausch & Lomb Honorary Science Award and the RPI Science Medal, which led to a full RPI scholarship.
For more than 100 years, RPI has awarded the Rensselaer Medal to high school students who have distinguished themselves in mathematics and science, according to their webpage.
“This merit scholarship is guaranteed for four years for each Medalist who is accepted and enrolls at Rensselaer,” the school writes about the medal worth $100,000 in tuition credits.
And like most scientists, Whitehead never stops asking the why and the how, whether exploring how to pattern a circuit board for syncing the music and lights, how to get an old vacuum tube radio working or why local government is doing certain things.
“He likes to fix things,” Valerie said. “Now he’s fixing government.”
In fact, he asked so many questions regarding the Lake George Watershed Coalition, his excavation eventually led to the arrest of then-director David Decker.
“Sometimes you’ve got to crack some eggs,” Whitehead said.
From a friend’s eyes
Whitehead describes himself as independent, trusting in his instincts, resisting authority and tenacious.
His friend of 50 years, Ares Nitsos, describes Whitehead as the most intelligent person he ever met.
“I’ve met a lot of people and worked with many doctors, but Travis has a superior intellect,” he said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “He’s my oldest and dearest friend, he is closer to me than anybody in my family.”
Nitsos, who was the best man at Whitehead’s wedding and is godfather to their oldest son, shares several stories about their relationship that began in the high school cafeteria when Whitehead asked if he could sit at his table.
One tale that Nitsos said he loves to share happened during their freshman year in college just before Thanksgiving break. Whitehead was at RPI and Nitsos was at Upsala College in New Jersey.
“RPI got out a few days before us and Travis asked if I minded if he came to spend time with me at school,” he said. “I had chemistry class and Travis came with me. The professor gave a pop quiz. Travis takes it.”
Nitsos goes on to say that when returning to chemistry class after the holiday break, the professor was upset with the students because they all did so poorly on the pop quiz.
“Then she said there was one person who did well, there was only one person with a perfect score. But I don’t have him on my roster,” Nitsos said, laughing. The perfect score was Whitehead’s. “I’m taking the chemistry class and he gets a perfect score?”
Living just six houses from where they both grew up, Nitsos shared that his wife passed away two years ago.
“Travis was extremely supportive. If it hadn’t been for his love and support, I’m not sure I could have done it,” Nitsos shared about a challenging time. “We live over 200 miles apart, but there was never too big a distance for him to be there for me.”