Beakers, Burets, and Bunsen Burners—Oh My!

Week 14: #52 Ancestors – Check It Out

By Eilene Lyon

My grandmother, Reatha (Gusso) Halse, never finished high school, but she spent two decades working in the Chemistry department at Oregon State University. As the supply room clerk, she spent her days checking out laboratory equipment to undergrads.

Reatha became a widow at age 45 when her husband, Everett Halse, had his third heart attack in July 1961. But she went to work outside the home in 1952, even before Everett was disabled by his heart disease. It wasn’t her first job, but she had spent at least a decade at home with her four sons before taking the sales position at J.C. Penney Co. in downtown Corvallis.

In February 1960, she obtained the clerk position at what was then called Oregon State College. Several changes took place in her first years on the job. The college became a university in 1961. In 1962, a new Physics-Chemistry Building was dedicated and Grandma moved to her new quarters. The building was rechristened Weniger Hall in 1965.

The Physics-Chemistry Building at Oregon State University in 1962, billed as “one of the most modern centers for science, teaching research in America.” It was rechristened as Weniger Hall in 1965, named for Dr. Willibald Weniger, first head of the Physics Department. (Corvallis Gazette-Times via

I remember visiting her supply room when I was a kid. The building had a cage-style elevator, which I thought was pretty cool. Her work space seemed a bit dark and dominated by concrete. Her “office” was like a bunker. At barely 5 feet tall, she must have seemed a bit gnome-like behind the partition and counter.

Petite Reatha Halse in front of her Corvallis home in 1962.

Students would come in for their beakers, flasks, pipettes, and other items to perform their assigned experiments. Reatha wrote down what they checked out on a numbered slip that had a blue carbon-paper backing to make a duplicate. She then matched up what they returned against the check-out slip.

When I took chemistry in the early 1980s at The Ohio State University (yes, they insist on that capitalized “The” in the name), I recall there being some sort of check-out process. When I got my minor in chemistry at Fort Lewis College here in Durango in 2007, we just grabbed what we needed from the appropriate drawers in the lab. I expect supplies cost a lot less nowadays.

Grandma always had a stash of pads of the duplicate requisition forms at home (okay, so a little minor employee theft going on there). Along with an old mechanical adding machine, we grandkids could entertain ourselves for hours, developing our imaginations as we played store, accountant, or other grown-up endeavors. Never underestimate the power of carbon paper and outdated technology to keep a kid enthralled.

Reatha with me and my brothers in France, 1963.

Grandma retired from the university on March 31, 1981 and enjoyed over two decades of a comfortable retirement in the home she and Grandpa had purchased in 1952.

Feature image: Chemistry lab about 1971. (Wikimedia Commons)

35 thoughts on “Beakers, Burets, and Bunsen Burners—Oh My!

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  1. Good story. My grandmother retired from the U of I as an audio visual librarian in 1981. Unfortunately, Grandpa died in 1980. She checked out materials to students. My sister ran into someone a few years ago who remembered Grandma and being afraid of her as she seemed so strict on checking items out! She was so nice, that was funny.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Which U of I would that be? I’ve been scared of a librarian or two in my life. I hope my grandmother wasn’t a terror in the chemistry department! It would be fun to find someone who was a student back then.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. That was interesting. I remember many a lab at U of Toronto, but don’t ever remembering signing out equipment, it was just there? I do have a small flask though which I kept as a souvenir…..and used to hold flowers.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Your description of her work environment is so vivid—and so depressing sounding. Yet it sounds like she loved what she did, suggesting she was someone who saw the glass as always half full!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Weren’t the women of that era incredible with their strength to just get on with life no matter what happened. Your story brought back many good moments spent with my female elders. Good story, Eilene.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The women in your life were all strong women it seems. I never did well in chemistry in high school. We had a millage cut and our chemistry teacher was also one of the coaches for boys’ sports. There were many male teachers with dual functions. Someone in our class mixed something strange in a beaker and it turned into a smokey greenish haze and we had to evacuate the classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the dual role of coaching/teaching has been going on a long time. My uncle taught business classes and coached the girls’ tennis team. There have definitely been some impressive females in my lineage. I wish I knew more about some of them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t realize that – I know ours stemmed from the millage not passing. For my sophomore and junior year in high school, we had no extracurricular activities, no college prep classes and kids who wanted scholarships for music, art, drama and sports were out of luck as we only had those amenities for our senior year. They laid off some teachers, so the dual roles. You will continue to delve into your ancestors and I’ll bet you will discover more facts on them and maybe supplement your earlier posts along the way.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Agreed Eilene. I won’t say I am grammatically correct 100% of the time, but I will say I have observed some cringe-worthy spelling and grammar on social media. How are students able to graduate from high school without having learned such basics and it is not just young people either?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It gets worse than that. Some kids can’t write anymore, they don’t know how to live independently. Then they get frustrated and become a problem for society. Or they have babies as teens. A good education can take of so many things that can become a serious problem down the road. We’re a nation of short-sighted people.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. The texting i.e. shortcuts/abbreviations is a problem. Also the more colloquial way of interacting on social media – you write like you speak these days. I doubt many young people would know how to write a business letter and with applications for jobs online and interviews on Zoom, is the follow-up letter to your prospective employer a thing of the past? I listen to an all-news radio station and the business editor’s suggestions to millennials floors me sometimes. Today the question posed was “should people be required to take a class in order to use a credit card?”

        Liked by 1 person

  6. First of all thank you for adding The to OSU’s name. You know how fussy they get about such things.

    I loved playing with old typewriters and carbon paper when I was a kid, too. I can understand why you liked visiting Grandma Reatha’s house.

    Liked by 1 person

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