An Interview with Nancy Ricketts

By Sherry Flumerfelt, Executive Director

Nancy Ricketts, 2018. Photo by James Poulson, Daily Sitka Sentinel.

September 5, 2023

I had the great honor and pleasure of chatting with Nancy Ricketts last month. Nancy, who is turning 99 this November, is the second of three children Ed Ricketts shared with his wife, Anna Makar. While Nancy claims to be “barely hanging in there,” her youthful voice and energy suggest otherwise.

Nancy lives in Sitka, Alaska, where she’s been for nearly 50 years. She spent 19 years working at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka as a librarian and archivist, and holds a Bachelor’s degree from Sheldon Jackson and a Master’s degree from Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Can you speak to the influence that your father, Ed Ricketts, had on your life?

Ed Ricketts with two of his children, Ed Ricketts Junior (left) and Nancy Ricketts (middle). Photo courtesy of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at SJSU, acquired from Ed Ricketts, Junior.

I inherited my love of words, music, and art from Dad.

I learned the love of music when I was very young. Only I was allowed to use Dad’s phonograph in Pacific Grove when I was a little girl because he felt I was competent to use it. It followed with a love of music that I’ve had all my life. I sang in choirs. I don’t have an outstanding voice, but a very happy voice.

I loved opera, but I discovered that on my own on Saturday afternoons on the radio. I’m very fond of Gregorian chants, like Dad. I sang some Gregorian chants, and Dad was very pleased. I’m very fond of my own collection that I got of Russian liturgical music. It’s gorgeous. Very peaceful. Very special.

I remember everything from my childhood very clearly. I wrote about the first 50 years of my life in my book Becoming Myself (2020). I only printed 290 copies, which sold fast.

Thinking and words have been my biggest thing. I’ve written letters all my life. I’ve written many, many letters. I also keep notes the way I know Dad did, but I’m not doing it deliberately that way. I write on anything—envelopes, scraps of paper, backs of things. I just write everything down. I guess that’s how I remember it.

I heard that you used to help your Dad collect specimens.

It was not helping Dad—it was a family endeavor. For years, we spent summers on collecting trips. We drove in Dad’s big Packard up to Puget Sound, and we collected specimens all summer—Gonionemus mostly [a type of jellyfish].

We learned the Latin names for everything we collected and anything else Dad collected. He was very interested in our learning the proper names for everything we saw.

So your Dad made you learn the Latin names?

He didn’t make—he allowed. My brother remembered the Latin names all the way up until the day he died.

Do you have a favorite marine animal?

My favorite animal is Gonionemus because I spent so long with it. 

Nancy and Norm Campbell’s embroidery of Gonionemus vertens. Photo courtesy of Norm Campbell.

I did a series of embroideries with the help of an artist friend, Norm Campbell, here in Sitka. I got the idea, and I had it in my mind, and I told him the animal I was talking about and gave it a name and where it’s located, and he drew a picture of it. There’s one that he did of a rock in a forest and a book on the rock, and he used his imagination about that, and we went with his design. We posted them in thirteen places, including every place I worked as a volunteer in Sitka, at public schools, public libraries, the University of Southeast Alaska, Sheldon Jackson College, Fine Arts camp, and we gave out personal ones. 

Norm Campbell and Nancy Ricketts’s collaborative embroideries included one of Gonionemus vertens, Nancy’s favorite that she used to collect with her father. Later, they did a nudibranch (sea slug) embroidery, which was installed on the Sitka campus at the University of Southeast Alaska.

What do you remember about Pacific Grove and Monterey?

I remember them with great love and friendship and nostalgia.

Nancy Ricketts, 2018. Photo by James Poulson, Daily Sitka Sentinel, courtesy of Nancy Ricketts.

I remember one thing about my house on Lighthouse. I was very young when we lived there and it had stairs up to the second floor, and my Aunt came to visit us once, and I threw myself from the stairs into her arms and she caught me.

I tried to run away a couple of times. I was kind-of a willful child. Maybe I just tried to investigate and went too far.

Why did you move to Sitka?

Sitka is a lot like Monterey. That’s probably why I got so fond of it when my mother brought my sister and me up during WWII from Washington. I got to just absolutely love Sitka. It has a coastline a lot like Monterey, and it has a lot of wonderful people, many of whom I call my friends.

The people in both places—and this is probably why I’m attached to both places—the people are a lot alike. They are individual thinkers. They think their own thoughts. They do their own things. They’re fishermen and proud of it, or forestry workers and proud of it, or whatever it is, they like it. And they like each other. It’s just a feeling.

When we were planning on moving up here after all our kids were grown, I found out that there are more left-handed people up here than there are in any other state in the Union. I thought, boy, I have the theory for that. My theory is that up here, you can think what you want to think. You don’t have to go with the flow. So, a lot of people come up here, and they love it here, and they stick around.

Are there other memories you’d like to share about your Dad?

Three boys looking into the open garage at Ed Ricketts’s lab at Pacific Biological Laboratories on Cannery Row. Photo credit: Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Courtesy of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

Dad enjoyed people, and children were people to him. He spoke to us and all of my contemporaries as if we were human beings instead of little kids. He never talked to us in little, high voices. He was very kind, and that’s the best thing I can remember about him. I was terribly fond of him.

One of Dad’s favorite sayings was, “Oh, oh, oh” – if he was overwhelmed by something. This happened when he was reading the proof of Cannery Row before it was published. His feet came off the floor, “Oh, Oh, Oh,” and, “I’ll just leave it the way it is because it was written in love.”

Steinbeck and Dad were the best of friends for a long time.

I heard that your Dad once helped Steinbeck overcome depression with music.

Dad thought the music was medicine. John thought it was. I think it is.

A very warm thanks to Nancy for sharing memories of her father and of her own full and extraordinary life. As Nancy said, “I’ve had a long and interesting life. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously.” I think her father would have been proud.

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