Our Stories: Pete Wernick

by Paul Gibb

Joan and Pete Wernick at a Fellowship potluck

How many of us are aware that we have among our members a person who has:

– performed in all 50 states, in several European countries, at Carnegie Hall, at the Grand Ole Opry, and at McNichols Arena in front of a crowd of 19,000 – all of that in addition to performing on our dais during Sunday services;

– founded and has played over 40 years with one of the most successful music groups in our region;

– appeared on the David Letterman show along with his friend Steve Martin and musical hero Earl Scruggs;

– created and oversees a musical instruction program that is taught by 50 individuals in the United States, Europe, the Czech Republic, and Australia;

– survived a horrific airplane crash along with his wife and son.

Pete performs at eTown in 2018 with his bluegrass band, Hot Rize

Regardless of his fame, Pete Wernick is not the least bit pompous. He comes off very much as a human being like the rest of us, and as someone who is happy just to be with us at the Fellowship. And he is  someone who follows his interests and dreams, and not just in the musical world.

Pete grew up in the Bronx in a Jewish enclave dominated by a socialistic cooperative housing development. His parents’ strong Jewish identity included little emphasis on the religion itself. He was Bar Mitzvahed and took the religion seriously at least until his mid-teens.

His journey to UUism started with his realizing he was an atheist while in high school. When they discussed it, his father told him that the Holocaust had convinced him there couldn’t be a loving, protecting God.

About the same time he started playing the banjo with his neighborhood “folkie” friends and teaching himself the intricate “Scruggs” style from records.

Pete entered Columbia College in New York City, hoping to be a journalist. But his experiences as an English major and working on the Columbia Spectator newspaper discouraged him and he switched his major to sociology, ultimately earning a PhD and working at Cornell’s International Population Program. In the summer of 1969, the 23-year-old traveled the country in a small sports car and met his future wife Joan while visiting a friend in Colorado. His parents did not at first approve of the relationship, due to Joan’s Catholic background, but in time they became very supportive.

Just after finishing his dissertation, Pete wrote a popular book teaching bluegrass style banjo. Earnings from that and another bluegrass book were substantial enough to give him ideas of launching a music career, having already found success recording original music in Ithaca with the band Country Cooking. By 1976 Pete and Joan moved to their current home in Niwot and Pete became known as “Dr. Banjo,” leaving academia behind.

Within two years, Pete recorded his first solo album in Boulder and launched the Hot Rize bluegrass band, merging talents with Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster,  and Charles Sawtelle. The foursome toured the country in their own bus, and performed in Europe, Japan, and Australia, and also regularly on TV and Prairie Home Companion. After 12 years full-time, Hot Rize switched to occasional/part-time, still releasing albums and recently celebrating its 40th anniversary. Pete feels a close connection to the world-wide bluegrass community, “about as diverse a collection of white people as you’ll ever find” and largely broadening to include more non-whites. Pete served 15 years as the first president of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).

Searching for a fuller spiritual life beyond his atheism, Pete started attending the UU Church of Boulder, where he discovered humanism thanks to a guest speaker.

In 1988 he initiated and ran “spiritual” humanist meetings at the Boulder Crossroads Mall. With attendance static after five years, he wanted to see “how a pro does it” and started attending our Fellowship when Catharine Harris was the minister. “It was close enough to what I sought,” Pete said, and he started attending regularly. In time, with the Fellowship in Lafayette and Rev. Lydia as minister, he finally realized he’d found a spiritual home and joined ten years ago.

In 1989, Pete, Joan, and son Will (then six) were heading east for a family visit and a Hot Rize gig when their flight (United flight 232) to Chicago suffered a blown engine which disabled the plane’s controls. With 296 people on board, the DC-10 was in serious trouble, though the pilot revealed to the passengers only that the plane would make an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa. When it hit the runway at over 200 mph, the plane catapulted and broke apart, killing 112 of the passengers. The Wernicks were in the sturdiest, center section of the plane, which protected its occupants. They escaped into the dense cornfield surround the airport. Pete ran through the rows of corn carrying Will to safety and the family reunited in a clearing.

When interviewd by Life Magazine for a cover story called “Finding God on Flight 232,” Pete offered his view that if a good God really existed, he could have and would have saved everyone. Pete became concerned about the reaction in the bluegrass community – which included many evangelical Christians. But to his surprise he continued to be reelected as president of the IBMA.

Asked if he has had any sort of PTSD from the experience, he replied that for months he was haunted by dreams of being dead or of his son being dead, but would awaken to great relief.

In 1992 Pete formed a new group called Flexigrass, combining Bluegrass and Jazz by supplementing his banjo with a vibraphone, a clarinet, and a drum kit, along with Joan as a vocalist. The group earned recognition at festivals in the U.S. and Ireland, but its popularity was limited by its not fitting neatly into one genre or the other. The band still plays locally and was to perform in Lafayette last March 13, the same day the pandemic shut down concerts. Pete and Joan also perform locally as a duet and occasionally at our Sunday services, as well as during tours in Russia, Europe, and Israel. 

At BVUUF Pete has been a frequent contributor to Sunday services as a musician and as a Service Associate, now in his third term. He is comfortable in that role, having done public speaking since being a deejay in college. He says it’s an honor and privilege to have a respectful audience to create and deliver reflections for. Like other Service Associates, he puts in considerable effort to make what he says clear and also touch people. He says it’s great to work with Lydia and be mentored by her.  

Asked what has been his biggest joy in the last 50 years, Pete answered, “Becoming a dad, raising a child, and having a lot of time with him thanks to working from home. And I have loved Joan dearly for over 50 years.”

It is a joy for all of us to have him here at BVUUF, spending time with us and not only with the bluegrass world.

To order CDs of some of Pete’s many recordings, go to the drbanjo.com website.