He’s the one with the cowboy hat.
If you’ve wondered how to tell the Sohrweid twins apart, now you know. Gary’s the one in Western wear. Even their friends have trouble telling Gary and Larry apart. One time Gary and his wife invited friends for dinner, but the friends showed up at Larry’s house by mistake.
The twins from 7 miles north of Amherst, Nebraska, share lots of similarities besides looks; but they do like to differentiate themselves a bit to make it easier for their friends and, well, just to be individuals.
Coming to Colorado
In the early 1960s, Jefferson County was growing in leaps and bounds and for quite awhile was ranked in the top five school districts in the country. The newly consolidated R-1 district recruited teachers from nearby states – people likely to share the values of Coloradoans and be happy to relocate not too far from family. The school district had recruited Larry to teach art, placing him in Evergreen while Gary elected to accept a job in Nebraska. Gary’s first thoughts when he heard of Evergreen were reminiscent of “Little House on the Prairie.” “I want to move forward, not backward,” Gary thought initially.
It would be their first real separation, an opportunity to dress and act differently, and an opening for establishing their own identities.
“There was no fine arts support in the school” where Gary was teaching in Nebraska, and his first year of teaching was so discouraging that he considered going back to milking cows. The level of resources available in Jefferson County schools played a part in his decision to relocate to Colorado a year later and join the district.
Whether matching a teacher from a rural background to a rural school or thinking the brothers would do well in the same community, the R-1 school district also placed Gary in Evergreen – at the brand-new Wilmot Elementary School. Teachers were paid $200/year more as an incentive to work in the mountains. He chose to live in Golden and commute at first.
For perspective, in 1962 Evergreen had not yet earned the badge of being a bedroom community, a designation that wouldn’t take effect until the Interstate linked it to Denver a couple of years later.
Growing up on a farm
For eight years the brothers had attended a one-room schoolhouse themselves, making up 25 percent of the student body. There was no electricity; and play equipment consisted of one bat, one ball, one glove and, strangely enough, a merry-go-round, Gary recalled. “There were never any new books,” he said.
The boys walked the two-plus-mile route to the schoolhouse before they began running it, something that made them naturals for track in high school. Gary recalls one time when a blizzard moved in; his dad rode the tractor to pick up the boys at school, pulling a wagon with a tarp to cover them while Dad sat in the driver’s seat, exposed to the heavy snowfall. The twins would later ride horses to school before graduating into a Model A Ford for transportation.
Once the boys moved on to the upper grades, the statistics changed dramatically; their high school graduating class numbered about 15. Diplomas in hand, they ventured out to attend the university at Kearny, about 20 miles away.
Coming from such a rural area, career choices seemed few beyond farming. “I knew it would be teaching because an older brother worked Monday through Friday and didn’t have to milk cows,” Gary says. “But there was no reference point for art teachers.”
Prior to attending college, the brothers had never had any introduction to art in school, but they were always very creative. Their parents were creative too, although in very different ways. Gary thought he’d be pursuing science when he attended college, but he ended up filling an elective spot with an art class because his first choices were not available. Fortuitous.
“I loved to draw [as a kid] but never had any instruction,” he recalled. The first day of class the teacher gave instructions about primary colors, and Gary had to ask the guy next to him what “primary colors” were. It was likely a subject he would cover the first week of every class he taught in the years to come.
A career in art
Evergreen proved to be a move in the right direction, even though Wilmot had been built without an art classroom. It seems that the elementary school was undersized from the start, needing to utilize temporary buildings from Year Two. Gary did have a cart on wheels, however, that took him from one classroom to the next until he was shifted over to teach art at the high school after a couple of years.
A year or so into his teaching role at Evergreen High School, he met Nancy Widmier, a counselor originally from Kansas City, Missouri. They married in the summer of 1967, and one month into the new school year administrators pointed out regulations that prohibited spouses from teaching at the same school. For the balance of the school year, the infraction was condoned, making Gary and Nancy the first husband-and-wife team to be allowed to work at the same school. Nancy was transferred to being a counselor at Evergreen Junior High School the following year.
Using the word “pregnancy” was taboo in those times, Gary remembers. Pregnant women were referred to as being “in family way,” and teachers were not permitted in the classroom once they began to show. The couple had two daughters, so Nancy’s career was short-lived. Gary would spend the 30 years of his career at Evergreen High School, retiring in 1994.
His walls at home are filled with the art of his students who've pursued careers in art, a few of whom have been featured in Southwest Art. “It’s just comfortable,” he says.
After retirement, Gary started producing and selling art. “I couldn’t juggle teaching and then going home with enough energy to do my own artwork,” he explained. Two other artists invited him to join them in plein air painting on a regular basis, an activity that enabled him to learn how to focus and work on composition. He started with landscapes and moved into painting hats and boots on boards – and later dong fish – made distinctive by colorful patterns cut out into rigid shapes. His works are for sale at Spirits in the Wind gallery in Golden and another gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The brothers were both involved with theatre in Evergreen. They often combined their talents to create stage sets for the Evergreen Chorale and The Evergreen Players.
Since retirement, Gary shows his identity with the visual arts while brother Larry has spent a good deal of time working with the performing arts. They respect one another’s territories but are supportive of each other’s pursuits. They continue to be best friends.
When The Evergreen Chorale honored Larry by remodeling the Green Room at Center/Stage and dedicating it to him, Gary painted a mural on the wall as part of the recognition for his brother.
“We’ve always been very supportive of each other. We’re extremely fortunate that for all these years we’ve not been separated.”
Church and community
Evergreen Lutheran Church (ELC) has been his spiritual home for the past 50 years. Karen Schutt’s idea for a huge rummage sale in the grove next to the church outgrew her ability to manage the gigantic event when the church expanded and the sale space doubled. Gary’s been part of the sale nearly every year, and for the past eight years Gary has co-chaired the event with Jan Blumenstein and Carolyn Bergner. “We have LOTS of volunteer help. The buy-in of the volunteers has kept this strong.”
“Our mission has always been to help the community,” Gary says of the sale. He likens the effort to ELC’s being “the silent Samaratin” because the people they help are faceless and nameless. All the proceeds from the sale – approaching half a million dollars after 24 years – are disbursed by groups such as Evergreen Christian Outreach, Mt. Evans Home Health and Hospice, and the Seniors’ Resource Center.
The schoolhouse kept them grounded, Gary reflects. There were many lessons to be learned on the farm … knowing about life and death … being responsible for the lives of the animals around you that rely on you to milk, feed, and protect them. Seeing the neighbors who’d experienced extreme hail or tornado damage provided learning experiences as well.
Gary remembers taking cover from a tornado in a storm cellar when downed limbs kept them from exiting the shelter after the storm. Growing up on a farm, he’d see crops eaten by grasshoppers, wiped out by tornadoes, and destroyed by hail – sometimes just a week away from the harvest.
He didn’t want the stress his parents experienced while making a living farming. Farming had a reverse effect on the twins, causing them to have perfect attendance their senior year, as they knew – sick or not – there would be a lot of work to do at home if they weren’t in school.
“We lived on the very fringes of the Norman Rockwell atmosphere.” The Sohrweids didn’t even have electricity in their home until they were in high school.
His grandparents had homesteaded the 320-acre farm years before. He feels the greatest gift his parents gave their three sons was to allow them the freedom to choose occupations other than farming.
They’ve had fun with their identical likenesses over the years. In high school they played on the same basketball team; and oftentimes when one fouled out, the other would be tapped to take his place, making referees question the changeover. When running relays in track, one would start the process and the other would be the one to cross the finish line, sometimes puzzling onlookers with questions of endurance.
They took most of their classes together. They dressed alike. They thought alike. When Larry met Gary at the train station when he visited his brother in Colorado, they realized they’d dressed the same, although living hundreds of miles apart.
When Larry was cast [by The Evergreen Players] as the frog who turned into a prince, Gary jumped in as his double, dazzling the children in the audience as he walked onstage as the prince just moments after the frog exited the other side of the stage, obviously without time to have changed costumes or to have walked behind the backdrop.
After years of dressing the same and doing things together (they had to open Christmas presents at precisely the same time so as not to spoil the surprise to the other), the identical twins have finally achieved some degree of distinction.
After more than half a century since the Sohrweids moved to Evergreen, the community is doubly endowed with two talented members of the same family who continue to influence the small-town feeling we’re trying to preserve. They’ve taught our children with their wholesome, Midwest values, made theatre experiences more memorable, and helped behind the scenes to ensure the community takes care of its own. You might think of them as being the the good guys – the ones in the white hats.
But remember, Gary’s the one with the cowboy hat.