Picture perfect retirement

Written by Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat March 07, 2013 08:41 am

Thad Waterbury, 68, of Sonora is an avid film photographer. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Thad Waterbury has lived in Sonora 40 years and says it’s “not long enough.”

A retired U.S. Forest Service employee, Columbia College photography teacher, beekeeper, community volunteer and world traveler, Waterbury has kept busy since he moved to the Mother Lode. 

The Sacramento native moved to Sonora from San Bernardino with his former wife, Kathe, and his sons, Jude and Mason, when a position opened up with the Stanislaus National Forest.

“After six months, we decided we didn’t ever want to leave,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful community with good people.”

He had worked in various departments of the Forest Service in Fresno and San Bernardino but was drawn to the “contracting officer” position in the Central Sierra.

For about 30 years, he handled contracts for hiring other companies to do seasonal work within the forest and said it was “the best job in the Forest Service.”

Waterbury, 68, retired from the agency about 10 years ago but found many other ways to spend his time.

“I got bored with being retired,” he said. “Being retired didn’t suit me well.”

He landed a job teaching an introductory black-and-white film photography class at Columbia College about two years later. He said many of his students enter the class not knowing how to load film into a camera.

“We start from scratch, and by the end of the semester they do really good work,” he said. “It’s really satisfying to see what … they can accomplish in one semester.”

Waterbury said he sometimes shoots with a digital camera but refers to his digital photos as “snapshots” and typically only uses them for in-class PowerPoint presentations. 

His favorite camera is a Pentax film camera he purchased second-hand in 1972. 

He described himself and other film photographers as “dinosaurs.”

“I like being able to share this unique skill that I have,” he said. “As time goes on, there’s fewer and fewer people who know how to do it.

“The students get excited about it. I’ve never seen someone get excited about a computer monitor. They see the magic in the darkroom.”

Waterbury said he still feels that magic, even though he has worked in darkrooms since he was a teenager.

He became interested in photography at age 8, when his brother worked on the high school yearbook staff and converted a closet in their Sacramento home into a darkroom. 

Waterbury watched his brother make prints and grew fascinated with the process.

Their father later built them a darkroom in the basement where they made prints by “winging it.”

Waterbury learned how to properly develop film after he purchased a used single-lens reflex camera from his neighbor 40 years ago.

His darkroom nowadays is inside a windowless walk-in closet in the back of his house. It is complete with a red safety light and bottles of chemicals labeled with masking tape and marker.

Camera gear, developed photos, photo books and a lifetime of negatives litter the adjacent room.

“I have enough backlog that I could print for the rest of my life without ever leaving the house,” he said of his archives.

While the table in the center of the room cannot be seen under a slew of camera gear, paperwork and other items, the negatives are carefully organized.

Waterbury files the negatives in tan boxes, which are strategically labeled and neatly arranged on a floor-to-ceiling shelf. He matches the negatives with contact sheets and spreadsheets so he can locate them quickly. 

When Waterbury isn’t teaching or practicing photography, he is often at his friend’s four-acre property on Cabezut Road tending to tens of thousands of honey bees.

A longtime beekeeper, Waterbury only spends about one to two hours per month tending to the bees but watches them everyday.

“I just like talking to my girls,” he said.

Waterbury explained that bees people actually see are all females because the males — which account for about 5 percent of a colony — remain in the hive and mate with the queen bee.

In the fall, Waterbury harvests some of the honey created by the bees over the summer.

Although from the same hive, his honey looks and tastes different each year. He said the color and flavor depends on how much rainfall the area gets in the winter and what plants bloom in the spring. 

While dressed in a protective veil and gloves, Waterbury brushes bees off the frames — where they build honeycombs — and places the frames into an extractor about 2 feet in diameter.

He turns a crank to spin the frames and the honey slides off, collecting at the bottom of the extractor. He drains the machine with a spigot, removes wings and other debris from the honey with a paint strainer and pours the final product into glass jars. 

Waterbury said he only harvests the excess honey, leaving about 30 pounds for the bees to survive on during the winter.

A member of the Sierra Foothills Beekeepers Association, he meets with other beekeepers and bee enthusiasts once a month.

He said the association has about 100 members, ranging from people deciding whether to keep bees (“wannabees”), people new to beekeeping (“newbees”) and experienced beekeepers.

Waterbury said he mentored about six “newbees” last year.

“There’s a renewed interest in beekeeping,” he said. “Everybody wants to get into bees because of the stories of sudden colony collapse.”

Waterbury started keeping bees about 35 years ago, after his friend, a beekeeper, piqued his interest. He borrowed his neighbor’s idle equipment under the condition that he would share the honey with her.

He sometimes gives demonstrations to students at Sierra Waldorf School, which his girlfriend’s grandson attends. 

Waterbury has been a member of the Sonora Beautiful Committee almost as long as he’s been a beekeeper.

The committee plants trees around the city a couple times each year and decorates Washington Street every Christmas. 

Although he loves Sonora, Waterbury has traveled across the globe numerous times.

At age 19, he studied abroad in southern Germany. All of his classes were in German, which he learned in a four-month intensive program at a language school.

He spent a year in the country and bought a car so he could travel around Europe.

“It was a pretty wonderful year for me,” he said.

Waterbury said his parents encouraged him and his siblings to leave home after they finished high school.

“My parents said, ‘You’re going to college and it’s going to be out of town,’ which is just a great gift that they did for us,” he said. “You have to leave home to really grow up.”

Waterbury earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in business administration at Santa Clara University.

His two sons inherited his thirst for adventure, both living in other countries after graduating from Sonora High School.

His older son, Jude, attended medical school in Hungary and lived there for six years. His younger son, Mason, works as a mechanical engineer in China and has lived in Japan, Austria and Ireland.

Waterbury visits the boys wherever they go, saying he made nine trips to Europe between 1995 and 2002. 

“They weren’t afraid to leave home, and I take that as a real mark of success as a parent,” he said. “They felt comfortable enough to leave the nest.”