by Graham Lee Brewer
When Gary Linderman died last summer, I couldn’t help but think the town of Picher, or rather the former-town, was finally dead. Gary was the last holdout in Picher, a man who refused to leave as the town around him withered and died, staying long after tornadoes and lead poisoning had taken its toll on the meager little municipality in the northeast corner of Oklahoma.
Many of us by now know well the story of Picher, a town built on vigorous lead and zinc mining in the early 1900’s. The towering piles of chat, discarded left-overs from the large mining efforts, loomed large on the edge of town. Driving by them years after Picher was reduced to mostly the concrete slabs that once served as the foundations for homes and a tiny strip of store fronts left to rot, it was interesting to consider what it was like to live in the shadow of those mountains of the past. After a tornado leveled much of what was left of the shrinking town, Picher was officially dissolved.
I first met Gary while working on a profile piece about him several years ago. I’ll never forget how tickled he was that I had shown an interest in him. And, as I found out when I first entered Ole Miner Pharmacy, the town’s last remaining business, I wasn’t the first journalist that found Gary’s story endearing. Hanging on the walls were several clippings of articles over the years that hinted at the same fascination with Gary that I had, which was: why stay? Why stay in a dead town? Where would he even find customers to support his business?
I ended up spending an entire day with Gary, who was an exceedingly cheerful and gracious host. Sporting a silver mustache and an infectious smile, he was happy to show me around his humble business. I recall a bear skin tacked to one wall, which Gary proudly told me he had shot years ago, and a feeling of surprise when I walked in to find several customers milling about and talking.
One thing you have to know about Gary is that people LOVED him. There was this ten foot bubble around him that was impossible to stand within and not smile. I came to learn that when the town dwindled and people left, Gary’s store became the last bastion of socializing for the families that called Picher home for, in some cases, many generations. People would go out of their way from towns several miles away to get their prescriptions from Ole Miner because they knew they would see their old neighbors and coworkers.
Gary and I went in the back and sat down for an interview. At one point, his phone rang, and it was a local man who needed money. He was having a hard time, and he called to ask Gary for some help. Gary, without batting an eye, said yes, no problem, come by whenever you want and I will be here. It’s not the first time, Gary said after hanging up, but he needs help and I have the means, so it’s no trouble.
As Richard Chubb, a friend of Gary’s, told the L.A. Times after his death, Gary was as kind as they come.
“If somebody couldn’t afford the drugs the doctor ordered he’d give them free samples, or if he didn’t have samples he’d give them free drugs. He was as good a person as you’ll ever find,” Chubb said.
But, it wasn’t just that Gary liked Picher and the people and they liked him back, that made his shop so special. Gary also loved his work. He was dedicated and diligent, and it was obvious he derived pleasure from helping others – from being a stabilizing force in the area. One of his staffers joked that Gary was so laser focused on his work that he once did paperwork straight through a tornado, apparently oblivious that the world around him was being whipped by deadly winds.
Those who were too old or without the transportation to visit Gary’s pharmacy didn’t miss out, either. Gary literally delivered their medications to them. I rode along with him on one of those deliveries. We drove nearly to the Kansas border to bring an elderly, disabled woman a bag of medicine. I can still hear the excitement and joy in her voice when Gary showed up on her doorstep. She invited us into her modest trailer, and I listened to her and Gary talk about the old days in Picher. “I’ll never go to another pharmacy as long as I live,” she told me over the roar of her wall unit, which was rattling away as it tried to fight back the thick Oklahoma heat.
After that, Gary drove me around in his Dodge pickup, telling me the history of the land, who owned what and where random events took place.
“My brother told me not to bring any reporters around anymore,” he said, giggling, as we drove toward his brother’s house. We arrived to find the home empty, and Gary was a little disappointed he wouldn’t get to irritate his brother by sicking a journalist on him to ask a million questions. [see footnote]
Gary and I ended up speaking a few times by phone, but my visit was the only time I ever saw him in person. In one of those conversations, Gary told me that he would be the last to leave Picher. “I’ll turn the lights out,” he joked. And, considering that Gary and his pharmacy lasted years longer than the town itself, I think he did just that. Rest well, Gary. You are missed.
About the author: Graham Lee Brewer is writer, photographer, and journalist from Norman, OK. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals and news publications, and he has won several local and national awards for his reporting. Brewer currently works as a reporter for The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, where he covers areas such as crime, the state prison system, and the death penalty.
Editor’s note: Our Every Point on the Map team visited Picher this past year, and we’re currently posting information about our stops in the area. We had wanted to visit Gary Linderman while in town, but our schedule placed us there on a Sunday when the pharmacy had closed. Graham, the author, called a few days later and asked if we had visited the pharmacy; he wondered because had received news that Linderman had died. We are grateful for Graham choosing to honor Linderman’s life and story.
Footnote: A reader shared that Gary Linderman was an only child, although many friends he had “were” or he “called” brothers. Such is the quality of a great man, to pass those around him off as genuine family members.