Homesteader, trusted employee, community leader, role model. Bences Gonzales was all of these and more.
Deeply connected to the Pajarito Plateau, he laid the foundation for four generations of his family to work at what is now Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Bences, his son Ray Gonzales, Ray’s daughter Rae Anne Gonzales Hall and her son Keith Hall have all been employed at the Laboratory during the past 80 years.
Though Bences, Ray and Rae Anne no longer worked at the Lab at the time of this interview (2018), Keith was continuing the family’s Lab connection through his work as division financial lead in PADSTE Budgeting (CFO-STE).
Keith arranged for his grandfather and mother to stop by the Public Affairs Office while Ray happened to be in town. They were able to share memories and highlights of the family’s Lab and Pajarito Plateau connections.
And so, it began
A seemingly ever-present figure on the Pajarito Plateau before, during and after the Manhattan Project and at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (the predecessor to LANL), Bences Gonzales lived a life only few can imagine.
Born at San Ildefonso Pueblo, Bences was a toddler when his family settled near Ancho Canyon on what is now Laboratory property. Like many homesteaders who farmed the Pajarito Plateau, Bences’ family lived in a small, rustic cabin during planting, growing and harvesting seasons, returning to their home in the Rio Grande Valley during winter.
Life on the plateau was rugged and challenging, but it was a way of life well suited for Bences.
From an early age, he helped his father on the homestead, farming (mostly corn and beans) and tending livestock. Later, he worked as a cowboy for the Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys, which was established in 1917.
Around 1925, Bences began working at the school’s trading post (general store) during the school term. He ordered the shoes, clothing and all the equipment the boys needed at the school. He also ordered most of the groceries.
During the summer, he led horseback camping trips and served as camp cook.
“The trading post was located about where the [Los Alamos] post office is today,” said Rae Anne. “My grandfather ran the trading post, and when the Army came in, they used it. Later, they turned the trading post into the commissary.”
The arrival of the Army on the plateau in 1941 signaled more than just a name change for the trading post. “One day, four or five men in civilian clothes came into the trading post and said they thought they would look around,” recalled Bences in a local newspaper interview in 1958. He said he later heard the school was closing for a “little experiment.”
And true to the rumor, the Ranch School shut down in 1943 to make way for the Manhattan Project.
Bences continued to run the trading post/commissary as the Manhattan Project put its stamp on the plateau.
At the conclusion of World War II, he stayed on in Los Alamos, working in the Atomic Energy Commission Stationary Supply Room. From there, he joined the P-1 group of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and worked in the electronics supply room until he retired in 1958.
Well respected for his commonsense, work ethic and willingness to help others, Bences served as a town councilor in the early days of Los Alamos.
His life is celebrated in a scavenger hunt at the Los Alamos History Museum and in the children’s activity book “Meet Bences Gonzales” available in the museum shop or at losalamoshistory.org.
Bences passed away at age 96 in 1988.
Lessons taught, lessons learned
Bences’ oldest child, Ray, grew up in Los Alamos along with his two brothers and three sisters. Ray helped his father in the trading post when the Ranch School was open and later when the store became the commissary.
“My dad was about 14 or 15 when he used to deliver a lot of packages for the scientists here,” said Rae Anne, looking at Ray, who was now 90.
“Pops,” she asked, “You remember Fermi and Oppenheimer?” He raised his eyebrows and nodded knowingly. “Sure do,” he said, smiling.
“Dad and my granddad knew all of them very well,” Rae Anne continued. “They [the scientists] would order things, and when they came in, Bences would say, ‘OK, this is really important you know. Don’t open it! Take this to Fermi — he lives on Bathtub Row.’ My dad would be in charge of delivering these things, and the scientists would get so excited when their supplies would come in. But everything was so top secret then.”
Much different than nowadays. Bences’ kids [Ray and his brother Severo] would always be the errand boys, so that’s how they got to know a lot of the scientists.
Ray joined the Navy after high school, around 1944, and trained in electronics. Rae Anne describes her father as a “jack of all trades and master of most.”
“Everyone was always coming to him to fix something, not only electrical but anything that could affect your plumbing. You know, soldering, welding, that kind of thing,” she said. “To this day, he can fix anything!”
After serving in the Navy, Ray returned to Los Alamos and worked off and on at the Lab in various sites between 1947 and 1957.
Ray still recalled how important it was that he not discuss his work with people outside the Lab. If questioned about the work he did at Los Alamos, Ray said he would reply by rattling off innocent-sounding, false job duties — mostly maintenance. These answers seemed to satisfy the questioner’s curiosity.
Ray said he never forgot what his dad drilled into him years earlier. “He told me not to risk being fired by discussing anything I saw or did at Los Alamos.”
After leaving the area in the late 1950s, Ray moved to the Nevada Test Site to work at Mercury Lab; from there he moved to Dallas, Texas, and worked for Kodak, before retiring in the mid-1980s. He was living with his wife (JoAnne Griffin Gonzales) in Dallas at the time of this interview.
Ray returned to the Pajarito Plateau in in March 2018 to celebrate a milestone birthday and a family reunion that included activities at Fuller Lodge (formerly part of the Ranch School) in downtown Los Alamos.
Many years earlier, he celebrated his 16th birthday at Fuller Lodge with friends and boys from the school. Ray recalls his special childhood on the Pajarito Plateau in the book “A Boy on The Hill,” illustrated by Petr Jandacek.
Ray again stopped by Fuller Lodge while in Los Alamos interviewing for this article. After looking around Fuller Lodge with Rae Anne and Keith, Ray joined Rae Anne for a quick visit to the nearby Romero cabin, which had belonged to Ray’s mother’s side of the family.
“My grandfather built this cabin,” said Ray, staring at the cabin and then the plaque in front of the cabin that features a picture of his great grandparents, David and Francisquita Romero, along with a photo of Bences entering the cabin.
Built in 1913, and one of only two remaining on the plateau, the homestead cabin fell into disrepair. Bences helped his father-in-law, Victor Romero, rebuild the cabin in the early 1930s. The cabin, which originally stood on what is now Lab property, was moved between 1984 and 1985 to its current location in the Los Alamos Historic District behind Fuller Lodge near the Memorial Rose Garden. Completely disassembled and rebuilt in 2009, the Romero cabin is open to the public on select days in the summer.
Ties that bind
Although Rae Anne was working at Los Alamos Medical Center as a respiratory therapist at the time, she did her part to carry on her family’s Laboratory connection when she joined Occupational Medicine as a casual employee, staying from 1994 to 2006.
Rae Anne, who deservedly can be described as “keeper of the legacy,” was born in Nambe but lived in Nevada and Texas growing up. She relished hearing about her father and grandfather’s experiences on “the Hill.” She has several old newspaper clippings and numerous photographs featuring her father and grandfather over the years in Los Alamos. So, it is not surprising that she followed in their footsteps and did a stint at the Lab. Her son Keith, on the other hand, never really set out to have a career at the Laboratory.
Keith grew up in Nambe, and like many young men and women, he wanted to chart his own course. However, he stayed and earned a bachelor’s degree from University of New Mexico and a master’s degree in business administration from New Mexico State University.
Keith was working at a CPA firm in Albuquerque when he seriously began thinking about giving the Lab a look.
Married with a family, Keith wanted a safe place for his children to grow up, with good schools and a great place to work, so he began considering his grandfather’s hometown.
Keith applied to the Lab and landed a job in the Chief Financial Office. Deployed to the Chemistry Division at the time of the interview, Keith has been at the Lab for six years.
Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, other descendants of Bences, Ray, Rae Anne and Keith will find their way to Los Alamos National Laboratory, continuing the family’s proud legacy of service to the nation.
Editor’s note: Ray Gonzales died Feb. 12, 2019, and Severo Gonzales died Jan. 31, 2023. Keith Hall and his family now live in Albuquerque.