Woodworking brought Russ Filbeck widespread recognition for his exceptional skills and a former president’s friendship. It also provided a salvation from an abusive childhood.
Born in 1944, he was brought up on a Missouri family farm along with three siblings. After his mother passed away when Filbeck was 5, his father raised the children and ran the farm.
Filbeck said his father became physically abusive, beating him and his brother. They were worked on the farm continuously with few interruptions other than school. They wore work overalls to school. Entertainment such as television and radio were banned.
“I envied my classmates for having normal lives,” Filbeck said. “I was full of rage and turned to lying, stealing and running away.”
At 15, he was sent to a boys ranch in lieu of reform school. He learned the value of accomplishment when he saved the lives of three calves and was placed in charge of the barn. Although he had planned to run away, he didn’t.
After returning to high school, he enrolled in an introductory woodworking class. He learned the basics, making entry-level pieces.
“That class made a lasting impression,” he said. “It made me proud to make something with my hands.”
“And, it was an escape from the things that made me angry.”
Five days after graduating high school in 1962, Filbeck joined the Navy where he spent 23 years and served in the Vietnam War.
He also met his future wife, Carol. The couple married in 1967.
Carol encouraged her husband to take up woodworking. A skilled artist in various mediums, including the making of porcelain dolls,
Carol needed display cabinets for her work. Recalling his high school woodworking class, Filbeck purchased a table saw and built them.
He progressed at woodworking by following designs detailed in Woodsmith Magazine. He sometimes took along his table saw when deployed to sea.
After leaving the Navy in 1985, Filbeck earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from San Diego State in industrial arts. He expanded his woodworking skills and learned to draw plans.
After graduation in 1990, he spent 22 years teaching Fine Woodworking at Palomar College in San Marcos to between 60 and 90 students annually.
While teaching at Palomar, he developed a specialized skill in Ladder Back and Windsor chairs. Prompted by his students, Filbeck published a book, “Making Ladder Chairs With Russ Filbeck.” He even got former President Jimmy Carter, a formidable woodworker himself, to write a page for the book. Filbeck had called the Carter Center in Atlanta and asked if he could talk to Carter about chairs. The request actually reached the former president and he enthusiastically agreed to chat.
Carter and Filbeck have since become friends, sharing their common interest in fine woodworking.
“I made him one of my cherry rocking chairs and a set of cherry Shaker boxes for Mrs. Carter in the fall of 2004,” Filbeck said. He delivered them to the Carter Center in June 2005. A picture of Carter sitting in the chair was taken in his office after Filbeck presented it to him.
“He took the chair to his home in Plains, Ga. Over the past 17 years, Carol and I have made and donated many of our wooden and fabric creations to President and Mrs. Carter for their annual fundraising auction to support the Carter Center’s world health initiatives.”
Filbeck has received widespread recognition for his work, speaking to groups and receiving honors in the U.S. and abroad.
Those who attend the Del Mar Fair have probably seen his work. Filbeck submitted entries for 23 straight years, receiving upward of 50 mostly first-place ribbons and Craftsman of the Year awards. Some of his favorite pieces have been a spalted curly maple rocking chair, a cocobolo rocking chair and a curly cherry rocking chair.
The Filbecks, married 55 years, have two children, six grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
Annually, he returns to the Missouri boys ranch and teaches a woodworking course. He espouses the value of accomplishment, something he also learned at the ranch. “I have them build Shaker boxes for someone who has helped them.”
He encourages beginners to take up woodworking and experience what he calls the “joy of creativity.” He suggests woodworkers at all levels join San Diego Fine Woodworkers Association, the largest of its kind in the nation. Filbeck, a former association president, says members are eager to share ideas and guidance.
“Get excited,” he said. “See a bunch of sticks and then, when done, enjoy the sense of accomplishment.”
About this series
Jan Goldsmith is a former member of the U-T Community Advisory Board. He is an attorney and former law partner, judge, state legislator, San Diego city attorney and Poway mayor.
Someone San Diego Should Know is a column written by members of the U-T’s Community Advisory Board about local people who are interesting and noteworthy because of their experiences, achievements, creativity or credentials.