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July 24th, 2002 Jessica Etheridge | News Stories
 

Philomath Divided

Spat over mascot threatens timber town legacy.

     
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ILLUSTRATION BY PAUL SOLEVAD
For as long as anyone can remember, the entryway to Philomath High School was guarded by the school's mascot, the Warrior--a carved wooden Indian that represented the rough-hewn pride of an Oregon timber town. Today, however, the Warrior is imprisoned in a basement woodshop, scarred both by vandals and by a larger controversy that threatens the education of thousands of students.

Philomath is a two-stoplight logging town 93 miles south of Portland, best known for its annual Frolic & Rodeo and the greasy eggs and bacon at CD&J, one of the town's few cafes.

This is where I grew up. I can still pull in to Java Connection, the town's only drive-up espresso stand, and hear Dave, the owner, say, "Hey, gorgeous, how's the big city treatin' yah? Sugar-free English toffee latte?" McDonald's is still considered "new," monster trucks rule the road, and cowboy hats are as common as ball caps.

Behind the small-town smiles, however, Philomath is being torn apart by a $32 million legacy.

In 1959, lumber baron Rex Clemens established a foundation to pay for college for graduates of Philomath High School. The foundation pays the equivalent of Oregon State University's tuition (now around $4,000) and students may take the money to any institution they choose. The only stipulation is that recipients must have attended Philomath schools for at least eight years.

Now, however, the foundation's most powerful director, Steve Lowther, says those schools have gone soft--and says that his family's generosity is being abused.

"We sincerely want what is best for the kids, and we want them to learn right from wrong," says Lowther, Clemens' nephew. "We are taking timber dollars and giving them to kids, and basically they come back [from college] wanting to shut down the woods."

Fit and rugged at 52, Lowther graduated from PHS in 1968 and now owns a logging company and rock quarry. As the Clemens' closest living heir, he is spittin' mad about the way Philomath has drifted away from its small-town values--so mad that he is threatening to terminate the scholarships unless the Philomath School District pulls up its socks.

If Lowther carries out his threat, scores of Philomath graduates will not have the means to pay for higher education, according to student-body president Lizzie Esterderg. "There are a lot of poor families who would not be able to go to college," she says. "Everyone is worried."

Lowther's gripes begin with the wild fashions kids are wearing these days: midriff-bearing tops, low-slung jeans, shirts sporting beer logos, even dog-collars.

"Things have gone too far," says Lowther, who sports Wranglers and buttoned-down flannel shirts. "Philomath is not Portland."

To tamp down this MTV-beach-house atmosphere, Lowther proposes a strict dress code. "Why not wear white blouses and blue jeans, everybody wearing the same thing?" he asks.

More important, Lowther says, Philomath teachers are flaming environmentalists--and they're telling schoolchildren that logging harms the environment.

The last straw was the school's decision to exile the Warrior to the basement--a decision that represented exactly what Lowther is fighting against, "liberal gobbledygook" and a loss of pride in Philomath and its history.

Lowther's wrath has focused on the Philomath School District's superintendent. Terry Kneisler, 53, is a practicing Bahai with an affinity for fine clothes and fedoras, which makes him stand out among the big belt buckles on Main Street.

A Chicago import, Kneisler's efforts to honor diversity, particularly by encouraging funding for liberal-arts programs, have generated resentment among traditionalists. "It's like the Clinton administration," says Lowther. "You know something is wrong, and you can't put your finger on it. It's the same with Terry Kneisler. We want change. If Terry has got to go, he's got to go. I don't think he needs to be running the district."

The simmering tension boiled over at a July 8 meeting of a "fact-finding committee" of school-board members and Philomath citizens.

Lowther accused the administration of shunning school spirit in the name of political correctness. Esterderg agreed. "There was no reason to get rid of the Warrior," says the student leader. "Everyone liked it."

But administrators insisted that political correctness was not the issue--and say the statue was removed because it was defaced by graffiti and cigarette burns.

Next, the committee turned to Lowther's gravest charge--that Philomath students are taught that cutting down trees is bad.

This claim was backed up by parent John Ayer, who says his daughter, now 22, was taught in fifth grade not to chop down trees.

Jeff Mitchell, a biology and ecology instructor at the high school, says he teaches the pros and cons of clear-cutting. "A small minority of people would believe that cutting down trees is wrong," he says. A recent videotape shows Mitchell teaching students how to identify diseased trees for harvesting. He then discusses how to fell a tree and sell it for the best price.

But Lowther has not been easily mollified. At the meeting, he dangled the idea of ending the Clemens scholarships--and instead setting up a religious charter school where teachers would be expressly permitted to use corporal punishment.

The faces around the table recoiled in shock. "This is scaring me," gasped my eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Wold.

Can a gravel excavator single-handedly terminate the Clemens scholarships? Without a mission statement locking the foundation's money into a scholarship fund, Lowther can do whatever he wants with it, says Victoria Cox of the Oregon Department of Justice--as long as it is somehow "charitable."

More to the point, will he do it? Some Philomath insiders believe Lowther will cool off when he realizes that his gripes are rooted, not in ineptitude, but in the fact that Philomath is changing.

Forty years ago Philomath's population was 1,359; today it is 4,010. Timber is no longer king in Benton County, having been usurped by education, research and development, and agriculture. The city's largest employer is now in nearby Corvallis. The 5,800 workforce of Hewlett-Packard is five times that of the town's lumber mills and paper plants combined.

There is a fundamental irony in all of this. Rather than reinforcing Philomath's small-town values, as Lowther wants, the Clemens scholarships have actually broadened them. By helping two generations go to college, the Clemens family has made my hometown a more sophisticated, diverse community--where deference to the timber industry is no longer automatic. That's progress.

The traditionalists who fear that Philomath is destined to be a "hippie-haven" should talk to my parents, whose two children went through the school district. Thanks to the Clemens foundation, their elder has a degree in journalism and works for a liberal weekly in Portland. The younger, who thinks his hair is long when it passes a quarter of an inch, is forgoing the scholarship and is on his way to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Last week, Lowther told WW that the foundation was still considering whether to terminate the scholarships. He was cheered by a small bit of good news, however: The fact-finding committee apparently agreed that the Warrior will be restored to his rightful place in the entrance to the high school.

 
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