April 5, 2012

A piece of history, a legacy for the University, and a timely reminder to look beyond ourselves and give back.

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One of the myriad pieces of history you will find in the Old College Hall museum is a small violin that once belonged to Grandma Brown.

Tabitha Moffatt Brown is something of a storied character in both Pacific University and Oregon history. I’m really just learning about her, but something about her intrepid spirit calls to me.

For those who don’t know the tale, she was 66 years old when she came across the Oregon Trail with her family. They were lured off course along the way, taking a “shortcut” in the Applegate Trail, which stranded them in a snowstorm and eventually led them to Salem—not Oregon City—on Christmas Day 1849. She had little, but she enjoyed her first summer on the coast swimming in the ocean in Astoria. She sewed gloves to make ends meet, then later worked with Harvey Clark to found an orphanage and school (she was a school teacher in her younger days) for the children who lost their families to the Oregon Trail or the California Gold Rush. She was caretaker for the children for many years. That orphanage became Pacific University’s roots.

When I toured the Old College Hall museum last month, docent George Williams told me that Grandma Brown looked a little mean in the one photo that exists, but that she was much beloved. Of course, no one looks particularly happy in a mid-1800s photograph—as I understand it, photos took a really long time back then, so they didn’t try to hold a smile.

Still, one has to imagine that life wasn’t particularly easy for Brown. She married at 19 and was a widow at 37. She had four children, but lost one at age 6. She worked as a teacher to support her family. And, she crossed the Oregon Trail at age 66, for pete’s sake, and nearly got lost in the snow along the way. She arrived pretty near penniless. She would have earned a hardness, a tiredness, by that point in her life.

But that's not the story we hear. Williams told me that the violin in the museum is from when Brown used to wake the orphanage children singing each morning.

She had her share of troubles, but she put them aside to care for her adopted wards, to make music, to give love.

Next week, when the Spring 2012 issue of Pacific magazine publishes, you'll read a little more about how this legacy inspires Pacific University in its civic engagement and community service.

Today, though, I hold on to the lesson for myself: We all have our trials, our crosses to bear (a phrase perhaps particular relevant to some this Easter week). We all fall on hard times, experience our share of heartaches. It's what we do next that matters—how we hold on to our passions and joys, how we find ways to lift up those around us. Grandma Brown reminds us that even when we're tired, poor, aged, we can still be thankful for what we have and find a way to give back.