When Irv Pils was a little bitty boy, his mother took him to the doctor, worried about his humped shoulders.
“Well, you know what mothers do when they take their children to the doctor,” Pils, 73, growled. “They dress ‘em up in a nice little suit.”
The doctor in Elk City, Idaho, had no answer for Mrs. Pils’ worries.
Not until he saw young Irv headed down the street one day, wearing his everyday bib overalls, pockets loaded down with rocks.
From that day to this, rocks have fascinated Pils. He and his wife, Diana, 66, own Irv’s Rock and Jewelry on Trent Avenue. They raised four children in the Spokane Valley. Their son, Irvin Jr., works with them. One daughter, May Brown, does the books for the business; Sheila Peters is a teacher; and Elizabeth Fletcher is a respected gem cutter in her own right.
Pils’ shop is jammed with rough rocks, cut gems, polished beauties, well-used machinery and, well, stuff. The blue wax models that are the first step in making a gold ring or pendant. Templates, boxes, dust.
“Face it,” Diana said, “rocks are dirty.” Cardboard boxes labeled “tourmalines” and “garnets” fight for space with a heap of uncut thunder eggs.
Pils claims he can find anything, “if they leave my stuff alone.” But as he maneuvers through the clutter, he mutters a hard truth: “I got too much stuff.”
A “museum” case in one corner of the showroom is filled with unusual rocks and oddities. Each has its own story - but listening to Pils, it’s sometimes hard to sort tale from truth. One rough, rounded rock is dinosaur dung, he claims. Three unnaturally smooth rocks came from a dinosaur’s innards, where they helped its digestion. Story?
“No, hon, that’s the truth,” Pils remonstrates.
When he tells of instructing daughter Elizabeth in her first rock polishing, he says she was 9 years old, but Diana ventures an aside: “It gets younger every year.”
Pils’ growing-up years in Idaho bequeathed him with backwoods’ tales that any grandpa could tell with pride: how the winter snows would top the roof of the Pils house. “We’d cut the limbs off one side of a fir tree and nail up a ladder, climb the ladder to the top, put on our snowshoes and head for town.”
Or how awkward and tiring it was for him and his brothers - there were 11 kids in the family - to pack board after board, miles back into the woods, where his father built a cabin. “Mother made us slings to wear, and we carried ‘em two by two.”
Or how he and his brothers swam in Tolo Lake outside Grangeville - “I musta swam in that lake a thousand times.”
They found a jawbone. “We thought it came from a horse.” Since then, scientists realized Tolo Lake holds a collection of mammoth bones.
Storyteller or not, Pils more easily remembers formulas showing how much harder diamond is than sapphire, than what year he was married.
“Forty-eight? Forty-nine?” Pils said, reaching for his little brown book.
“Trouble is, I never did set in my mind which year it was.”
He does remember courting Diana in California. “I met her at a dance, and I courted her in a logging truck. A big ‘un, not like the little rigs you see today.”
Pils is proud of the turns his life has taken, from driving that logging truck, to building a thriving refrigeration business, to 24 years of carpentering, to having the great luck to find a hobby that’s blossomed into his business: the art of cutting and polishing gems and setting them into jewelry. He’s particularly proud of a faceting machine he designed and sells. Named Irv’s Pride, the prototype is still in use in the shop.
He has few regrets - never taking a course in gemology is one. Losing that refrigeration company to an unscrupulous lawyer is another.
There are a few things he missed, but doesn’t regret. “I never flew an airplane, and I never rode a city bus,” he said.
What accounts for Pils’ amazing drive?
“He’s here at 6:30 in the morning,” said Diana. “He runs home for dinner, and then he’s back here until 10 o’clock at night.”
The answer’s simple. Pils said, “There’s nothing I’ve enjoyed as much in my whole life.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: Saturday’s People is a regular Valley Voice feature profiling remarkable individuals in the Valley. If you know someone who would be a good profile subject, please call editor Mike Schmeltzer at 927-2170.