Former Great Falls resident Nelson Getchell donates $1 million to George Mason, endows economics chair

Martha and Nelson Getchell in an undated photo. Nelson Getchell has donated $1 million to endow a chair in free-market capitalism, in memory of his wife. The two lived in Great Falls for almost 40 years. (Courtesy Nelson Getchell)

At 96, Nelson Getchell has lived a diverse life. The former Great Falls resident has been a scientist, an outdoorsman, the inventor of the permanent pants leg crease, a world traveler, an investor, and for more than 20 years the co-owner of the Village Gallery art and antique shop in Great Falls with his wife Martha. He even lived in Great Falls before it was called Great Falls, when it was “wild untouched country so close to the capital.”

Now he is donating $1 million to George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, the renowned economics school in Arlington, to endow the Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism. The chair will first be occupied by Donald J. Boudreaux, the former chairman of the economics department at Mason.

The Village Gallery, the art and antique store on Walker Road in Great Falls that Nelson and Martha Getchell owned from 1966 to 1987. (Courtesy Nelson Getchell)

Getchell never attended George Mason or had any tie to the university. He originally intended to name the chair only for his late wife, but Mason officials eventually talked him into calling it the Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair. “I think that speaks volumes to his humility, the kind of guy that he is,” said Brian Hooks, chief operating officer of the Mercatus Center.

Getchell was not available for an interview. But he provided a statement to Mason in which he said that “This is an opportunity for me to honor Martha and make a permanent investment in the teaching of free market capitalism. Capitalism is the reason why I, a hardworking outdoorsman from Massachusetts and my wife, an elementary school teacher from Maine, have lived lives of freedom and prosperity.”

The Getchells moved from Great Falls in 1990. But the New England natives lived in Great Falls for nearly 40 years, settling in what was then called Forestville in 1951, when Nelson Getchell began working for the National Cotton Council. His career-long scientific study of textiles, and how to produce the most durable clothes and fabrics, led him to invent and patent the way to put permanent creases in slacks in 1960, and the method of creating permanent trouser cuffs in 1965.

Around the same time, he and his wife opened the Village Gallery. According to his autobiography, “Fin, Fur & Fiber,” Getchell and his wife, a first-grade schoolteacher in Fairfax County for 13 years, and then a kindergarten teacher at Great Falls Methodist Church, had been collecting antiques and became interested in art.

Martha and Nelson Getchell, beside their beloved Volkswagen bus, outside a friend's house in Vienna in 1958. Nelson Getchell donated $1 million to George Mason University to endow an economics chair in his wife's honor. (Courtesy Nelson Getchell)

The Getchells had the idea of opening a chain of art franchises called the Village Gallery, in which they would find and sell art by undiscovered or underappreciated artists, and they opened one shop in McLean. But their flagship store was a small pea-green cottage on Walker Road, with both art and antiques, which operated from about 1966 to 1987.

The idea of a national chain of Village Galleries never took off, but the Getchells got plenty of experience dealing with the free market, from pushing for Fairfax County’s permission to open a store, to haggling with antique sellers and buyers, to investing the proceeds.

In the book, Getchell tells the story of picking through a garage sale in Maine and, on a friend’s insistence, buying a tree stump with a bear’s head and shoulders crudely attached. He paid the sum of $15. Back in Great Falls, at his friend Mac MacConnell’s advice, he priced it at $450.

“A week later, a little lady came into the shop,” Getchell wrote, “and bought it without asking for a lower price, saying it was exactly what she had been looking for to decorate her garden. It expanded my horizon about what people might be interested in buying.”

Getchell’s profession was textiles, and after working for a manufacturer in his hometown of Lowell, Mass., he moved to Forestville, Va., in 1951. The closest post office was 10 miles away, in Vienna. He commuted easily to Washington, where he researched and promoted the values of cotton, and devised the idea for pants leg creases which didn’t have to constantly be ironed.

He mixed up a resin of formaldehyde and acrylic to be placed inside the pants legs and ironed into a permanent crease. It worked but smelled terrible. Eventually, colleague George Buck suggested adding an acidic-salt catalyst to the fabric, and they named it “the Re-Creasing Process.” Buck and Getchell obtained the patent in October 1960.

Forestville became Great Falls and got its own post office, where Martha Getchell taught first grade. But it became too busy, a “rich man’s ghetto,” Nelson Getchell wrote, with too many liberal neighbors. So the Getchells sold the Village Gallery, and then their home, and moved to Seneca, S.C. Martha Getchell died in 2006, and Nelson Getchell lives there today, where Hooks said he remains extremely knowledgable and involved in his investment portfolio.

“He’s a scientist first,” Hooks said, “and economics is a science of how the world works. So I think it’s a natural connection.”

Getchell started from modest means, grew up through hard times in the Great Depression, and “he’s the real deal American success story,” Hooks said. “He credits the capitalist system for that success.” That made the donation to the Mercatus Center “a natural fit,” Hooks said.

NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, I teach a course at George Mason University as an adjunct professor in the criminology department. The financial remuneration is quite small, and my position is unrelated to this story.