North Coast Journal



From a family of hams

by Wally Graves

AS GAYLE KARSHNER puts it, she was born in Ashland, Ore., "just across the street from the hospital," which sounds like a tale of crisis till you learn she was actually born at home, and that her house stood opposite the city's hospital.

By her own admission Gayle is a ham. From a family of hams.

"All writers are hams," she says, "just like actors. They need an audience."

For years Gayle wrote columns for the Humboldt Times, many of the earlier ones as Arcata correspondent reporting -- as she recalls -- "such things as who was the First Runner, Second Runner and Keeper of the Wampum of Arcata's Daughters of Pocahontas."

She's written many "60-Plus" columns for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, she's contributed to the Humboldt Historian and, most recently, published "A Bell Rang in Uniontown," a luxuriously illustrated, meticulously documented history of Arcata built around its Methodist church. (Earlier this year the book was named best church history in the past four years by the California-Nevada Conference of Methodist Churches.)

Gayle organized the Silver Quills writing group, edited four volumes of California history titled "The Way It Was," and has taught at high schools, College of the Redwoods and -- During World War II -- with John Van Duzer ran Humboldt State College's theater program.

It was at Humboldt State, where she came as the bride of theater Professor Don Karshner in 1941, that she first met "a cute blond student named Nebbie Roscoe" (and whom she would marry 48 years later).

"Nebbie was a pistol," Gayle recalls. "He had a part in the first play that Don directed at the university. He would try anything, and gave off pure energy."

Such energy, with an ear for irony, epitomizes a chat with Gayle. Her bright brown eyes confirm the French philosopher Du Bartas' famous metaphor, "These windows of the soul."

Gayle delights in telling how her school teacher father met his future bride at "Humansville," a hamlet in western Missouri near the Pomme de Terre (French for "Potato") river. As the story goes, her father went to court a cousin, saw a portrait of another lass, asked who she was and married her instead.

"But my mother wasn't interested in just a school teacher." Gayle said. "She was a college girl in days when girls didn't go to college. She told my father she intended marrying a 'professional man.' So Father gave up teaching and became a dentist."

The family moved to Ashland where their precocious older son Edgar staged original dramas in the family's barn. One of his plays called for gunshot. "The noise knocked all the visiting ladies off their apple boxes, and sent our cow charging down Main Street."

Edgar, Gayle said, exploited their sister Katie when -- Katie having got rich by selling cherries to passengers on passing trains -- Edgar told her he'd "take her to the movies if she paid the way. Edgar was mad for the movies."

On another day, Gayle and her mother came home to discover sister Katie's body lying full length, splattered in blood. "I really thought she was dead," Gayle recalled. But Edgar's murder mystery dissolved into ketchup when Gayle's mother said, "Oh, Katie, don't just lie there. Get up!"

Edgar won a Yale University drama scholarship while at the University of Oregon, but their father discouraged it as unprofessional, so Edgar, too, became a dentist.

But he so loved acting he went to Hollywood and emerged as a famous, gravel voiced, comic sidekick to gunslingers -- or sometimes a heavy -- and played in over 100 films like "Cimarron," "Shane" and "McClintock" -- and later was a fixture on TV's "Hopalong Cassidy," "Judge Roy Bean" and "Petticoat Junction."

But Edgar Buchanan remained a professional. "He carried his dentist's bag, and did emergency surgery on location," Gayle said.

Gayle wanted to try Hollywood, but Edgar warned her of the perils of the casting room couch, so she went instead from Oregon to Stanford to pursue a master's degree in English and speech. There she met Karshner.

Gayle's sister Katie also went on to English and speech, and after being dean of women at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, and working with the Manhattan Project as organizer of women employees in World War II, and later teaching English at the University of Oregon, Katie came to Humboldt to be near Gayle, and to become dean of women.

Today's HSU Student Center lounge is named in Don Karshner's memory as dean of students. The lounge leads to the Kate Buchanan Room, named in memory of Katie.

Karshner died in 1978, Edgar Buchanan in 1979 and Katie in 1981. Gayle completed a master's at Humboldt while her two sons, Gary and Warner, left to earn doctorates in physics and psychology. Nebbie, meanwhile, had completed his doctorate at Illinois and was busy elsewhere in aviation. Neb lost his first wife, Peggy Brookins of Arcata, in 1974, and his second, Beth Lage, in 1981.

By the late '80s Gayle's and Neb's old friendship warmed. "I had no idea what he was up to," Gayle said, "and when he suggested marriage I told him he didn't want to marry an older woman like me, but he told me he'd already tried younger ones. And we got along so well, so much in common.

"We have a running cribbage game, and over the years we're about even. I guess you'd call us 'liberals.' We both like to write. He's funny and bright. He plays the saxophone and I like to sing."

In fact, she said, she worried about the neighbor hearing Neb's saxophone wailing across the lawn and through the trees on Azalea Hill, so Gayle inquired whether the noise was a nuisance.

"What noise?" the neighbor asked.

"Neb's saxophone."

"Oh," the neighbor smiled. "He plays my favorite tunes."

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