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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

The Old School's Revenge

Upset by an invasion of urban culture into their Oregon town, those who funded scholarships to every graduate pull the plug.

November 15, 2002|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

PHILOMATH, Ore. — Nearly 40 years ago, Rex and Ethel Clemens, a couple with no children and a sizable timber fortune, made a remarkable promise: They would pay college tuition for any graduate of Philomath High School.

Their generosity benefited thousands, helping daughters and sons of loggers and mill workers move on to careers as engineers, teachers, nurses and business executives.

But over the years, the town moved away from its blue-collar roots as timber work dwindled, high-tech plants opened and equity-rich newcomers moved in.

The change is most vivid at the high school, where students have shocked some old-timers by dying their hair in fluorescent colors, piercing their noses and forming clubs like a gay support group.

Unhappy with what they were seeing, the Clemens Foundation board of directors decided last month to teach the school a lesson. They yanked the scholarships.

John Ayer, 57, a former school board member who sympathizes with the action, said the school has sullied "the values of the old timber families ... working hard, God, America and apple pie."

"We've had enough of political correctness," Ayer said.

What happened in Philomath resonates across the country, where once-rural communities, especially those near high-tech hubs, have grown into bedroom communities.

The foundation's decision has sharply divided the 4,000 residents of the town, whose name means "friend of learning." Members of some families have stopped speaking to one another. Both sides agree the heated bickering over the school is fueled by deeper resentments built up during the town's transformation.

The town's timber industry was hit hard in the 1980s by recession, foreign competition and environmentalist efforts to save habitat for endangered species.

High-tech jobs multiplied at a nearby Hewlett-Packard printer plant and other companies. Philomath got subdivided and suburbanized, what locals called "Californication." Wooded hillsides were cleared to make room for cul-de-sacs of look-alike houses resembling parts of the Antelope and San Fernando valleys. Philomath's population today is more than double its 1970 size.

Newcomers were suspected of moving in expressly for the scholarships. In 1990, the Clemens Foundation limited awards to those who had lived in Philomath for three years; in 1993, it raised the minimum to eight years.

Hard Feelings

Some old-timers tagged the changing culture of the high school not as a normal evolution, but an import carried in with the commuters. Marlene McDonald, 68, a local historian, opposed killing the scholarships. But she said she understands how longtime residents occasionally feel slighted.

"There's a perception that we're rednecks ... that we're ignorant," McDonald said.

The hostility surfaced at a June school board meeting. Ron Yechout, a retired banker, attacked newcomers whose "values were different" because they criticized logging but "were first in line to accept the handout of the Clemens scholarship." His remarks drew long applause in the packed gymnasium.

At that meeting, Steve Lowther, one of the Clemenses' nephews, implied that today's Philomath students are not the children of "the man in the woods, at the mills, driving trucks" that Rex and Ethel intended to help.

Students are outraged. Philomath High senior Mischa Brittin, 17, said it is absurd to knock the town's shift from logging, because the scholarship is partly responsible. "They gave families money so their kids would not have to work only as loggers. The kids did that, and now they are mad."

A visitor to Philomath might wonder what all the fuss is about. The subdivisions, if charmless, are tiny compared with the sprawling suburbs ringing Portland, about 80 miles to the north. The town remains middle-class and homey: News still travels through Tuesday Rotary and Wednesday night bowling league.

Philomath retains the feel of a lumber town, even if the industry is a shadow of its dominant past. Two sawmills remain open and flatbed trucks loaded with freshly cut firs regularly roll by.

If Philomath today is uncomfortable with change, some say it was once downright hostile. Joyce Nesson remembers when locals were largely able to keep change outside city limits.

Nesson, 55, said she was kicked out of a grocery store shortly after she moved here in 1972. Her offense, she believes, was her appearance: long hair, jeans and a T-shirt with no bra.

"There was a cultural chasm," she said, splitting Philomath from even Corvallis, the college town five miles away.

Indeed, the 1970 Philomath High yearbook -- the era in which Lowther and his brothers attended the school -- shows a campus without a trace of the counterculture or antiwar movements then spreading across the country. Pictures of short-haired boys in letterman sweaters and girls in skirts and neatly coiffed hair fill every page.

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