Category Archives: biography


(This is a continuing series about Native American artist Eugene Landry.)

In an effort to understand Eugene’s life I’ve been trying to understand what it was like to be disabled (back then the term was crippled or handicapped) in mid-century America. Many of the people I’ve interviewed who knew Gene did not know why he was in a wheelchair. It’s a subject, in general, that makes people uncomfortable. Back in those Post War days, there was a lot people didn’t talk about. At the same time, however, the seeds of revolution were being sown, and I looked to news stories and popular culture of the time for clues.

The fact that Americans elected a president in a wheelchair seems miraculous, even today. But in 1932, FDR had the cooperation of the press to downplay his disability. He was photographed standing at podiums not being pushed in a chair. He drove a car with hand controls. Using the invisible medium of radio he engendered confidence with his words and voice.

rare video clip of FDR in wheelchair, not shown while he was in office.

Susan Peters

Actors with disabilities were rarely seen on the screen, especially in the 1940s-50s. While Lionel Barrymore had a successful career as a character actor, actress Susan Peters was not so lucky. While on a hunting trip in 1945 Peters was accidentally shot by her husband, film director Richard Quine. She was a rising MGM star until the injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Determined to continue her career, after hospitalization Peters returned to the studio but found few roles. She played a wheelchair-bound villain in The Sign of the Ram, then went to the stage. By 1952, suffering from clinical depression over the dissolution of her marriage and her limited career options, Peters ended her life, age 31.

Studio publicity shot showing Peters posed in her convertible outfitted with hand controls.

Dwight Guilfoil

As I scrolled through newspaper archives for information about meningitis, the disease that paralyzed Gene, I found a story about World War Two pilot Dwight Guilfoil. He contracted meningitis and polio during the war. As a civilian, he couldn’t find a job. In 1950 he founded a manufacturing company that eventually employed over 100 physically handicapped workers. In 1960 he was awarded the Handicapped American of the year award by president Eisenhower. Guilfoil said, “ Industry’s reluctance to employ the physically impaired is simply another form of discrimination, resulting in mental segregation as rigid as that established by the most severe Jim Crow law.”

Tacoma Daily Ledger Feb. 2 1960

Television’s First Disabled Hero; Ironside

Ironside (Raymond Burr) and assistant Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) 1967

Seven years after Guilfoil’s Presidential award, a crime drama premiered on television featuring a disabled detective. Set in San Francisco, Ironside confronted the issues of the day-civil rights, counter culture, the generation gap. Today it is both a marker of social progress and of how far we still have to go. Ironside’s handpicked team included an African American youth, Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) and a female policewoman (Barbara Anderson).
In the pilot episode, Chief Ironside is shot by a sniper. He survives but is paralyzed. Discharged from the hospital in a wheelchair he meets with the police commissioner in their favorite bar. Ironside asks to return to work.
The commissioner tells him “It’s not up to me. I’d be glad to have you in the department anytime-in or out of a wheelchair-but there are rules.”

At that time there were no laws prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Twenty-two years later, in 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.

The only way Ironside can continue to work for the city is as a “qualified volunteer”. He offers to work for free. Ironside gets an office, a staff, equipment and a great theme song by Quincy Jones. The show continued for eight seasons. The show was awarded an image award by the NAACP in 1968 for “developing Mark as an intelligent and angry young black man.” (Cy Chermack, producer)
In 2013, Ironside was remade for television starring Blair Underwood as chief Ironside. Both Burr and Underwood could walk away from their wheelchairs, unlike the character they portrayed.
Disabled advocacy groups are angry about the casting of non-disabled actors in parts written for disabled characters. Some liken this to the outmoded practice of casting Caucasian actors in ethnic roles. A Washington Post Headline reads “Disabled actors say they are the last civil rights movement in Hollywood.” The story goes on to say; “The disabled are, arguably, the largest minority in America, its 56.7 million members constituting nearly 20 percent of the population, according to the 2010 Census. But a study from the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that combed through 900 popular movies from 2007 to 2016 found that only 2.7 percent of characters with speaking roles were portrayed as disabled.”

As I finish writing this post, Variety has announced that CBS Entertainment made a commitment to “audition actors with disabilities for new productions picked up to series”. This is in response to advocacy organization’s request for increased disabled representation.
History is being made today.

As the ad said in 1968;
“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”

Fred Landry, Gene and Myrtle Landry, outside their Indian Museum, Tokeland WA 1976

Making Contact

Last week I got a phone call in response to the article about Eugene Landry. (see previous post). The caller said he was sitting in his car at Swanson’s. He’d been reading the newspaper while his wife shopped for groceries, and found my story.

“I’m the guy who built Gene’s dome.” His voice was soft and had a hint of a smile.

This was the second phone call I’d received since the story was published six weeks ago. Since then I’d been working on a timeline of Gene’s life, and had a lot of blank spaces to fill. The story I wrote mentioned the geodesic dome and small beach front cabin where Gene once lived and made his art.

Although many remembered it, so far I’d not been able to turn up any photographs of the dome, which had been razed in 1998 to make room for casino parking. Today a gas station sits on the site. I talked to people to get a history of the dome, but after forty years, the facts were hazy. I heard the dome was put up during the summer of 1978, possibly by a hippie who drove a Rolls Royce…or was it a Citroen? or was it someone else entirely? Maybe it was the guy with the great danes… Someone said a couple of guys from Canada might have put it together from a kit and then moved on. And so it went. I never expected to talk to the actual builder of the dome, figuring he was either a fugitive, dead or just plain untraceable.

And suddenly this sweet guy from the nearby town of Cosmopolis was on the phone, with a story to tell.

collection of Don Norkowski

A Dome Primer
Buckminster Fuller popularized the geodesic dome while teaching at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, in the late 1940’s. Fuller believed human societies would soon rely mainly on renewable sources of energy, such as solar- and wind-derived electricity. He hoped for an age of “omni-successful education and sustenance of all humanity.” The dome design embodied Fuller’s personal worldview of Less is More. Even the U.S. government recognized the usefulness of the structure, and hired Fuller’s firm Geodesics, Inc. to make small domes for the Marines. During the 1960’s the dome became synonymous with the counter culture. Drop City AKA “the first rural hippie commune” formed in 1965 in Southern Colorado. Foraging for sheet metal from junk cars and dumps, the artist/residents created a series of domes that served as housing and communal gathering spaces. For a short video clip from a BBC documentary, click here
Over the years Gene had two domes built on the Rez. Each had a wooden ramp to accommodate his wheelchair and were used as studio space. One was on the hill behind the smoke shop,the other was on the edge of the bay. Obviously the dome design was important to him. Was it the philosophy? The lifestyle? I had to learn more.

Meanwhile, Back in Cosmopolis
One week later, I drove through a quiet neighborhood in Cosmopolis, an old logging town, looking for the home of Don Norkowski. Following his directions I turned off off Highway 101 and looked for “the house surrounded by rhododendron bushes”. A sandy haired man wearing a grey blazer over a colorful shirt and blue jeans greeted me at the door. He reminded me of a high school band teacher, he had that air of patience and good natured smile. Don invited me inside and introduced me to his wife.
In the living room a box of photos and old newspaper clippings sat on the couch, along with two original pieces of Gene’s art. Like something out of a dream, he handed me a photo of Gene’s dome. At last-proof that it really existed!

collection Don Norkowski

“I was an Infamous North River Hippie”

While a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, Don took a class called Space, Time and Form. He learned how to build geodesic domes from a book by Lloyd Kahn called Domebook.

“I would read Buckminster Fuller-he was the guru of domes. I just got the urge to build one. I’d spent too much time in acedamia and not doing enough with my hands. Once I got into it I never left. I went blue collar.” He shows me a photo of a dome at the corner of Smith and Butte creek.”This was my hippie place,” he smiles. “I was an infamous North River Hippie.”

Don was 22 years old when he dropped out of Evergreen and went into the dome building business, setting up shop in the home of a friend on Cedar Street near the river, where he built a greenhouse. And then, “Gene showed up one day. He heard about me and he looked at this (the greenhouse) and he said ‘can you build me one?'”

Gene hired Don to build his dome. Back then, in 1976, the daily wage was five dollars an hour. Don recycled old growth 2x4s, planing and oiling the surface, to build the frame. They used beach-salvaged Alaskan cedar to make the girders. “It smelled like perfume when you cut into it.” he said, with a nostalgic tone of voice.

photo collection of Don Norkowski

A Dome for All Seasons

Over the course of a summer a dome was built and a friendship made between Don and Gene. He visited after the job was completed, showing me a photo of how Gene kept it as an art studio. It was sparsely furnished inside, with a wood stove and simple lighting. I ask Don why he thought Gene liked domes.
“The dome had an ambiance about it. You always found yourself looking up, staring at the patterns..and it would definitely help with inspiration, especially with a window looking out over the bay.”

photo collection of Don Norkowski

After The Dome
After we finished talking about building the dome, Don showed me two pieces of Gene’s art he bought during that time period. One was a highly detailed charcoal drawing of a boat at the docks. Don said “I liked his art. But we were poor hippies. I had a sister in law, she was older than me, she grew up in a different generation. She never said anything but I could tell she didn’t like me…being a hippie. There was a short period of time where my brother and I exchanged gifts at Christmas. So I decided to take a chance. I bought the picture from Gene. I remember the price, $75. That was two days wages. I gave it to my sister in law and she loved it. Had it professionally framed. And I got treated a little nicer since then.”
Don’s brother gave the drawing back to him after his sister in law passed away in 2001.

Fond Farewell

As the time came for me to leave, I asked Don how he would sum up his time with Gene. He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts and find the right words.
“He always had a smile, was always positive…there was never any negativity or reaction to his plight. I know that. That’s one thing I definitely came away with.”

photo courtesy of Don Norkowski

In Search Of:

Since last winter I’ve been researching the life of a Shoalwater Bay artist I met many years ago when I first came to Tokeland. His name was Eugene Landry. I’m sharing an article I wrote for a local newspaper about my search for Gene’s art. This is just the beginning. I’ll be sharing progress (and roadblocks) here, on my blog. My goal is one post every week.
Eugene Landry