Jerry Rasmussen was not the inspiration for “the most interesting man in the world” beer ads, but he could have been.
- He spent three months on an iceberg.
- He cared for a rhesus monkey at UW-Madison in the 1950s. The monkey later flew on a space mission.
- He was part of the storied folk music scene of 1960s Greenwich Village and produced several albums.
- He, a white man, was invited to join an all-black gospel choir.
Not bad for a kid from Janesville, the son of Elmer, who worked at General Motors, and Esther, who worked at Parker Pen.
Along the way in his 84 years, he also managed to attend the Woodstock music festival, be director of a museum and write Christian inspirational books.
Rasmussen sat down for an interview when he visited his hometown this summer.
He recalled attending UW-Madison in the mid-1950s, when he worked in the primate laboratory, testing rhesus monkeys. Researchers placed a white rat with each monkey. Nearly all the monkeys killed the rats.
“It was pretty gross,” he recalled.
One monkey accepted the rat as a baby, he recalled. Sometime later, Rasmussen saw a news article and realized that same monkey was named Able and flew into outer space and back on a 1959 NASA mission.
Able is now stuffed and part of an exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum.
Rasmussen got a master’s degree in geology from UW-Madison in 1958 and in 1960 went to New York City’s Columbia University to work on a doctorate.
That’s where he answered a job ad posted on a bulletin board and ended up on the iceberg, about 800 miles north of Point Barrow, Alaska.
Various scientists in the 12-person crew were studying things such as plankton and underwater sound transmission. Among his jobs was to plot the iceberg’s changing location.
Things did not go well at Columbia, which he found to be less than inspiring, at least in his area of study.
“That’s when I discovered Greenwich Village and folk music,” he said.
It was 1960, before the folk scene became well-known nationally.
While he found the city cold and alienating, The Village was something else.
“Wow, I feel like home,’” he recalled thinking.
The Greenwich Village folk scene launched musicians. This included Bob Dylan and many others who were well-known at the time but not so much now, such as Dave Van Ronk, who encouraged Rasmussen to get up and perform at his first open mic.
Until that time, he had been too shy to play even for his parents. He was astonished when people clapped.
“Everybody was treated as if they were great. That’s an atmosphere I’ve never seen again,” he said.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, another famous name, once sat down and told Rasmussen how much he liked his music. For years, Rasmussen received Christmas cards from Noel Stookey, the “Paul” from Peter, Paul and Mary.
He heard Arlo Guthrie perform at age 15, and he recalls Dylan and Johnny Cash performing together.
He now plays in a jazz combo and, despite his folk roots, thinks of himself as a lover of rockabilly and other early rock. He would break out “Blue Suede Shoes” when performing at folk fests, even though folk and rock/pop performers were artistically opposed to each other in the early days.
In 1964, Rasmussen moved to Connecticut, where he worked at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center. He became its director in 1970.
He attended the Woodstock music festival in 1969. He still has the tickets.
His wife was pregnant with twins at the time, and an early birth was a worry. He remembers enjoying The Who and Country Joe and the Fish, but the crowd bothered him, food had run out, and he wanted to get home to his wife. He and a friend left early. They had parked and walked for miles to get there. He still doesn’t know how they found the car.
He has been married three times, the last time to Ruth, for 20 years. She died two years ago. Ruth was one of the members of the all-black church he joined.
In a recent post, he wrote about how he got the gospel gig. He had attended a Lutheran church in Stamford, Connecticut, for many years when the gospel group from the Baptist church across the street needed a place to rehearse.
Rasmussen became friends with the music director and a fan of the church’s men’s chorus, attending performances for a year before the director invited him to join.
He also eventually joined the church, becoming the only white member. He felt welcomed and formed friendships. He joined the church’s committee for the sick and shut-ins. He invited Ruth for coffee to learn more about it, and they never got around to talking about the committee.
He talks about Ruth as a soulmate. They didn’t have much in common, but the marriage worked.
“The thing that makes a marriage great is love. It’s not common interests,” he said.
Rasmussen has a girlfriend now.
“I think Ruth is tickled pink because she wants me to be happy,” he said.
Rasmussen’s musical efforts include songs inspired by growing up in Janesville.
One, called “Silver Queen,” recalls the barge of that name that hosted dances as it traveled up and down the Rock River.
Rasmussen imagined two dancers, a young woman and a man who was about to go off to World War II.
She writes him letters every day “until he answered her no more/Now in a front room window, there hangs a faded star/And the Silver Queen lies empty on the shore.”
In “Ships on the Prairie,” written for Janesville’s 150th anniversary, he sketches the city’s history. The song dropped on his 1989 album but could have been about more recent events:
“There’s talk out on the prairie now you never heard before,/
“There’s rumors that the plants are shutting down./
“And the sons whose fathers’ fathers came here long ago/
“Can’t find a job and have to leave the town./
“And the railroad yard stands empty now that once was filled with life/
“And the cotton mill will never roll again/
“And they boarded up the windows over at the power plant/
“And the old men go out fishing on the dam.”
Other Janesville-inspired songs mention old houses with porch swings, playing along the river and skating in the moonlight.
Today, he can’t seem to stop writing, regularly posting blog-like personal stories of humor and philosophy for friends on Facebook.
He keeps busy enough to make a man half his age jealous. He’s working on his sixth CD, “Still Jerry After All These Years.”
He never intended to make money by making music, and “so far, so good,” he said jokingly.
“I’m still excited by life,” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful life, and I’ve not sought attention. I’ve never tried to be anybody but myself.”
Rasmussen has been relatively lucky with his health, but that changed in summer 2018. He thought he might die.
After four months of tests and two stents in his heart, he pulled through. He said the brush with death deepened his faith.
“Now when I get up in the morning, I say, ‘OK, God, what are we going to do today?’”