The Power of Encouragement
Astoria, established in 1811 by the Astor Fur Trading Company 38 years before Pacific University was founded, is one of Oregon’s oldest and most beautiful cities. It’s also my birthplace. My family was among the ranks of that coastal city’s middle class. We lived in our own home, perched with a view of the Columbia River out to where it meets the Pacific Ocean, and enjoyed a desirable location.
My early years were rather conventional, undistinguished really. Much of the home neighborhood, including my family, was of Finnish descent. My mother’s father came to the U.S. from Finland in the late 1890s. Her mother was a Norwegian immigrant, but may have felt a little less out-of-place than my father did, he of Scots-Irish ancestry. His grandparents on
both sides had come to the U.S. during the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century and then crossed the prairie by wagon train to settle first in Portland and later in Clatsop County.
My family and I lived in a tight-knit society where the families were as close to something resembling a single unit as may be possible in the U.S., not unlike many other immigrant neighborhoods founded in the 19th and 20th centuries. In short, it was a place where everyone looked out for everyone else.
I characterize myself as a blithely happy kid during my early childhood as well my as grade school years. I enjoyed a lot of friends and participated in a load of school activities, including school sports, school plays, Cub Scouts and other school-kid interactions common at that time. My getting lost began when I entered high school. A major part of it, I’m sure, was due to my lack of maturity. So, for whatever reason or reasons, I became a disenchanted student, uninterested in high school except for its access to the opposite sex.
I did manage to get to school on a regular basis
but it was unheard of in Astoria to do anything
but attend in those days. Meanwhile, I did not take my studies seriously and cannot now recall having ever taken a textbook home or reading anything except the “funnies” outside of class.
With a healthy economy in the mid-1950s that readily provided jobs without a college degree,
I had decided by senior year that I’d find work
of some kind in the Astoria area. Back then, a young person could handily secure employment
in the fishing industry, forest products, military service, retail operations or the transportation field. I was, after all, able to read and write at my age level, and I had held part-time jobs since I was 14 years old so I knew how to work and harbored no fear of it.
It was my mother who insisted I go to college. She believed then, and she was right about it, that before long a college education would be the path to securing a job with a future. Whenever she brought the matter up, however, I’d ask what she thought I should study, given my less-than-stellar high school academic record. She didn’t know and I didn’t either; hence, our conversations on the subject always ended in impasse and inaction.
"Indeed, it worked almost like magic! By the end of my first year I had developed a desire to learn and even found learning fun."
However, something that seemed incidental at that time, but was quite auspicious as it turned out, occurred on a Sunday morning in mid-March, 1956. It happened at the Finnish Congregational Church we attended. At the service, there were two guests from Pacific University. They were Mr. Charles Trombley, director of admissions and Dr. Meredith McVicker, dean of students. They sought recruits.
After the service, my mother, not so sneakily as I knew what she was up to, invited them to our home for lunch. To my surprise, they appeared interested in me, telling me not to worry about declaring a major because most students took the same courses their first year. They further told me that even though my academic record wasn’t strong, there would be plenty of help with studies.
So, I enrolled that fall on a provisional basis, but was able to achieve a 3.5 GPA at the end of my very first semester. Part of that achievement was due to the fact that for the first time since elementary school, staff and professors, like Mr. Trombley, Dr. McVicker, and a whole host of others at Pacific, took an interest in me. That made a huge difference.
Indeed, it worked almost like magic! By the end of my first year I had developed a desire to learn, even found learning fun, and achieved an overall GPA close to 4.0. I never looked back after that; ultimately, I graduated with honors. I taught in a public middle school for a few years after graduation and, with the foundation laid at Pacific, I went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. and to work in education and training positions my entire work life.
In large measure, I owe what I achieved in academics and my professional work to what was fostered and encouraged at Pacific University. My success is a testimony to what a group of dedicated teachers and staff can bring about through a caring, supportive learning environment.
My experience at Pacific is an old story with a timeless moral: Young men and women are sometimes not mature enough in high school to recognize the importance of learning and don’t apply themselves. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that while it’s rather easy to write someone off because their behavior leads people to see them as a lost cause, that judgment is often premature and inaccurate.
This story first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Pacific magazine. For more stories, visit pacificu.edu/magazine.