When Stephen “Steve” Gerus receives his doctoral degree in sociology at Graduate Commencement on Dec. 16, his family, including his grandchildren, will be in the stands at Cassell Coliseum to watch him. At 75, he will be one of four graduate students in Virginia Tech’s history to complete a Ph.D. at age 75 or older. He smiles at the distinction.

“My research is more important than my age, but if it encourages someone to continue their education, that’s fine,” he said. 

His degree marks the end of a journey begun 42 years ago at Pennsylvania State University, where he and his wife, Dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture, Arts, and Design Rosemary Blieszner, were graduate students. In 1980 he earned his master’s degree in anthropology and completed his doctoral exams, and was looking forward to field work in South America, when his committee chair, Napoleon Chagnon, left Penn State for another university. He said his committee chair urged him to transfer so he could continue his research.

“But Rosemary convinced me that maybe it would be better if she got a job and I could continue down here,” he said. 

Blieszner accepted a faculty position at Virginia Tech and joined the university in 1981, and the two moved to Blacksburg. Shortly thereafter, the university’s Sociology department discontinued its anthropology program.

“At that point, I decided to take a risk and start a business,” he said. “It was either that or change my major to sociology and I was not interested in sociology whatsoever.”

While he did not have a business background, Gerus had served a four-year apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and so had a strong background in commercial and industrial construction. His father had belonged to the union and the family traveled throughout the east and south, thanks to his father’s specialized skills, before settling in Erie, Pennsylvania. Gerus said there were no opportunities to be a union contractor in Montgomery County, so he made a non-compete agreement with the Roanoke local and launched Bell Electric

“I said I would never compete against a union contractor in my area, and I kept my promise for 37 years,” he said. “That way I could express my gratitude for my union apprenticeship and remain loyal to the union.”

His interest in anthropology began when he was young, and never waned. Thirty-five years after he started his business, his friend, Professor Neal King, who knew of his two previous degrees in anthropology, suggested he might be interested in a graduate seminar called Culture and Society. 

“That course was so interesting that for the next two years, I took one course at a time, while I was still running the company.” And then he took an even bigger risk, sold the company and went back to graduate school, full time.

Gerus worked with Professor Shannon Bell in the Department of Sociology after completing coursework and the preliminary doctoral examination. Bell remembers first meeting Gerus during her interview at Virginia Tech in 2017, after she gave her research talk. 

“He came up to me after my talk, which was about my research in coal-affected communities in Appalachia, and he shared his experiences working with coal miners when he was an electrician,” she said. 

Gerus later took an Environmental Inequalities graduate seminar with Bell. She recalls that he was “a wonderful student to have in the class because he had so many life experiences and observations to draw on.”

During his graduate career, he was keenly aware of the fact that “when I walked into a classroom, there was nobody nearly my age." But his anthropological background suggested that his classmates’ similarities were at least as important as any differences. “I was particularly impressed by how respectful people were of all the diversity in those classrooms. That’s an important part of the Sociology Department’s culture.”

Gerus’s dissertation research focused on the people who live within what’s called “the blast zone” of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia. That is the area along the pipeline route that is most susceptible to incineration in the event of a pipeline explosion. He was interested in their perception of the risk associated with that danger and with disruption along the pipeline route. 

“Risk is a social construct,” he said. “You have to take that into account. I was keen to include the perceptions and attitudes not only of those who opposed the pipeline, but also those who supported the project. My research explored how differences in landowners’ social history influenced attitudes toward the pipeline. Unless we understand why our neighbors may have a different point of view, there is no basis for common ground.”  

Data for his dissertation drew from a secondary analysis of a mail survey that Bell and her collaborators, Professors Mike Hughes and Korine Kolivras, sent to 2,600 individuals living in 10 of the counties through which the Mountain Valley Pipeline is being constructed. They received 783 responses to the survey, split between people who live in the blast zone of the pipeline and a control group of people who live at least ten miles away from the pipeline in the same counties. 

Gerus was involved in the development of the 92-question survey instrument, which included questions that were directly related to his research interests. He also conducted follow-up interviews with 25 of the survey respondents who live in the blast zone. 

Bell described Steve as an “invaluable part of the research team,” because of his knowledge of the area, his deep commitment to the people who have been affected by the pipeline project, and his “intellectual curiosity.” As Bell related, “I have always thought of Steve as a colleague with a great deal to teach me and others. It’s truly been a joy getting to work with him over these past five years.”

Through his interviews, Gerus learned that people had different perceptions about danger, based on their lived experience. 

“I assumed being so close, the physical danger of an explosion would be top of mind for them,” he said. “Well, they expressed that they were actually more afraid of ticks and copperheads and the occasional bear than that pipeline. Those were real to them and often made more sense in terms of probability.”

The disruption associated with the pipeline – the clearing operations, construction and threats to their water supply – were far more important than the potential danger and were considered intrusive. Rural people in the path of the pipeline recognized that any disruption to their fragile water sources could be devastating to them, as well as to their crops and animals. The residents of those areas also knew that the pipeline would bring few jobs to their region. Gerus said landowners recognized early on that construction workers would be from out of state because of the specialized skills needed. 

Gerus said what he learned from the interviews offered a fresh and nuanced look at landowners’ perception of danger, both personal and to their water, and also to the disruption to people’s attachment to their land.

“Almost 50 percent of surveyed landowners reported that their families had lived in the same county for more than one hundred years. Incredible. I found associations in the survey data that were not reflected in the literature. So, I went to the qualitative data from the interviews to explain those differences, and that's where the new knowledge was.” He said much of that new perspective was related to the ideas that interviewees had about danger and disruption. 

 “I owe these people a lot for telling me their stories, on their porches and at their kitchen tables,” he said. He dedicated his dissertation to the individuals he interviewed. 

Gerus said he hopes the research will contribute to the scholarly literature, particularly in environmental justice. One co-authored article has already been published. But he wants to write something for a broader audience than an academic journal might reach, “something that would be a popular version so that those people who are in similar situations then have some idea of the kinds of things that they're going to run into: the issues and the possible solutions and the impact that it's going to have on their communities.”

He and Blieszner are also looking forward to a slower-paced lifestyle. In the meantime, he will teach Introduction to Social Anthropology in the Department of Sociology during spring semester.

Gerus will be one of three student speakers at the Dec. 16 Graduate Commencement. He said he knows what his granddaughters might say as he nears the podium: “Grandpa, tell us a story!”