Philomath, Oregon Brouhaha a 2nd  'Monkey Trial'...Or Worse

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The Clemens

Another 'scandal' has been brewing in Philomath. There are a few facts which are undisputed in the case:

Hazel Lowther had some property for sale which the school board coveted for building upon. Hazel is related to the late  Clemens, who gave away great amounts of money to ease the life of children who grow up in the Philomath, Alsea, and Eddyville - areas where the Clemens made a good deal of money in the logging business, and in an Eastern Oregon town where they owned, lived on, or simply cared for, ranch property.

The school board asked if Hazel would consider donating the 5.9 acres. Hazel made a somewhat generous counteroffer - not as generous as the Clemens would have made, but nonetheless a generous offer. Instead of the $550,000 at 8% she was offered by a developer, she sold the land to the school board for $500,000 ($84,700 per acre - does anyone harbor any doubts as to why farmers are selling their land?) at 5%. 

"Kneisler first contacted my Mom about the property on 19th street, he wanted her to donate it to the school district. While it was on the market she received an offer of $550,000 at 8 percent interest. Through a realtor, she told Kneisler she would sell to the district for $500,000 at 5 percent interest. She thought the school district should have it because of its location to the other schools, but she did not want to give it away."  - David Lowther, letter to the Gazette-Times.
"There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure." - Sam Clemens (Mark Twain)

After the deal was consummated, the school board discovered a buried oil tank and soil contamination.

"But in July, as crews began construction on the primary school that will bear the name Rex and Ethel Clemens, they found an underground heating oil tank, another 5,500-gallon tank and a septic system with hazardous waste.

The school board also learned the soil was contaminated, probably from cleaning solutions used at the trucking office." -Gazette-Times
"I never did a thing in all my life, virtuous or otherwise that I didn't repent of within twenty-four hours." - Sam Clemens ( Mark Twain)

The contamination cost the school board $110,000.00 to clean up. 

The law seems to indicate that the responsibility for such cleanup costs is shared jointly by the current landowner(s), the person(s) who owned the property when the pollution occurred, and the person(s) who caused the damage (click here) - unless, of course, someone sells the land knowing it to be contaminated. 

At the request of the school board, Kneisler wrote Hazel a letter telling her that 'we' believed she knew about the tanks and that Kneisler had contacted a lawyer.

Enter the Lawyers

"We have learned that these items were generally known in the surrounding community and now have enough information to believe that you knew of these items. I have discussed this matter with counsel but choose to proceed informally." Letter from Philomath School Superintendant Kneisler to Hazel Lowther - Gazette-Times
"Lawyers are like other people--fools on the average; but it is easier for an ass to succeed in that trade than any other." - Sam Clemens ( Mark Twain)

Hazel became understandably angry upon receipt of the letter and she herself turned then turned to a lawyer.

"Lowther's response, a letter from her attorney Ronald Marek of Corvallis ... said Kneisler's letter accused Lowther of lying to the district."
"Carlyle said 'a lie cannot live.' It shows that he did not know how to tell them." - Sam Clemens ( Mark Twain)

After a spate of letters to the local gazette, the school board decided after all that Hazel probably didn't know about the tanks. Hazel seems to be forgiving of the matter.

"I sincerely hope this will bring closure to the matter and, in time, it will all seem like just a bad dream." - Hazel Lowther, letter to the Gazette-Times
"Forget and forgive. This is not difficult, when properly understood. It means you are to forget inconvenient duties, and forgive yourself for forgetting. In time, by rigid practice and stern determination, it comes easy.
- Mark Twain

There are those who are not, including her son David.

"The school board and Kneisler have been chewing on the hand that feeds them. While it has not yet been bitten off, it may soon bleed to death. I do not blame them for trying, just the way they went about it. And apologies now just don't cut it." - David Lowther, letter to the Gazette-Times
"Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take the pen and put them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are wasted because I can't print the results." - Mark Twain

A son can be forgiven for seething when his mother's character is questioned. However, others have asserted themselves in discussion of the issues. Questions regarding the school board's integrity, amidst issues of nepotism and cronyism, have been raised.

"Other complaints surrounded the alleged ongoing practice of hiring family members or those who have served on the school board" - Gazette-Times
"To be good is noble; but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble." - Mark Twain

More insidious elements have also asserted themselves.

“It’s a travesty to teach children their parents and grandparents destroyed something of value,” said John Ayer, a former school board member. “They’re the people who built the community and continue to support it. We’re here to let you know that we’ve had enough political correctness." - Gazette-Times
"If the man doesn't believe as we do, we say he is a crank, and that settles it. I mean, it does nowadays, because now we can't burn him." - Mark Twain

At least one of the Lowthers seems to share those views and is dressing in religion to justify threats.

"Asked directly whether Clemens Foundation members would like to comment before the meeting, Steve Lowther took the floor. Lowther is one of three family members sitting on the foundation’s seven-member Board of Directors.
“We did not say what we said last week without a lot of prayer and thought,” Lowther told the audience. “My heart has been preparing for this four years.”...
“Terry Kneisler runs the school … and most of his support came from staff. We want to change (the school) to be better than it is.”
Making it better may mean increasing citizen participation or removing staff, Lowther said." - Gazette-Times

"Lowther said he doesn't think Philomath students can succeed unless a spiritual element is incorporated into school and the "liberal gobbledygook" from the state and federal government is tossed out. - Oregonian

"There is more real pleasure to be gotten out of a malicious act, where your heart is in it, than out of thirty acts of a nobler sort." - Mark Twain

The school board will make up the $110,000.00 by deferring plans.

"Instead, they'll look to make up the extra costs by putting some projects at the middle school on hold until spring. A $600,000 piece of the project would have gone to remodel the science wing, expand the counseling center, put a brick facing on the front of the school and make more bathrooms at the school accessible to people with disabilities." - Gazette-Times
Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog." -Sam Clemens ( Mark Twain)

A Few Considerations

Any one who buys an old residence, of any size, anywhere, in Oregon, and is asked by the realtor "if he wanted soil samples taken" and declines - such a man or woman is either simple or negligent, in this case with public funds. If, after discovering that one of the once-near-universal oil tanks exists, he or she expresses shock, a stay in either a group home or a prison is in order. Seeking out a lawyer is appropriate in the latter case. Threats never are, and especially threats against citizens whose character and good will are without doubt in a community.
Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid. - Sam Clemens ( Mark Twain)
Arrogance, even high-handed belligerence, is unproductive but it is not unexpected of either School Superintendants or School Boards. It is part of the training curriculum, it seems, for either avocation. It is quite one thing, after all, when someone offers a gift of half a million dollars. It's entirely another to put that person, and oneself, on the spot for it.

School boards, however, are elected. They can be unelected as well, if people are as willing to organize as they are to speak. 

"In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards." - Mark Twain
Croneyism and nepotism are as endemic as fleas in Oregon. Both beg to be addressed by strong measures. There can be no ducking of the issue. Part of the reason school boards behave crassly around money issues, is simple arrogance. Another part is the lack of funding for schools, and part of the reason for the shortage of funds is the School Land Frauds (click here) which took place at the turn of the century. 

A disproportionately large number of Philomath and Corvallis residents were involved in those frauds, and the frauds brought things to a head. The public won't stand for it any longer. And shouldn't. Bluster and stonewalling is not going to stop people from raising their voices.

"It is wrong to put a sheepskin under your shirt when you know that you are going to get a licking. It is better to retire swiftly to a secret place and weep over your bad conduct until the storm blows over."- Mark Twain
It's statistically documented that children absorb much of their values from their parents in early childhood, unless something is seriously amiss at home. Any parent who is afraid their child will encounter views different from his or her own, in this life, is 'clueless' - better watch MTV or listen to a kid's conversation with his or her friends. It is probably a good thing. The 'Marketplace of Ideas' is essential to the well-being of a people. 

'Political correctness' is a broad complaint, without specifics, and nine times out of ten, is a coded resentments of restraints on the belittling or abuse of others. 

As a people, we in this area have been damned by the treatment - by 'parents and grandparents' -  of the Kalapuyans locally, by the slavery of the Williams and the Mulkeys - who played a part in the history of Philomath and Corvallis, by the Siletz Indian Land Frauds (click here), by participation in the anti-Japanese riot in Toledo,Oregon in 1925, by Dee Andros' problems at OSU - when every African American student at OSU walked out of town altogether, and a good deal more. 

Any sentiments on our part which seem to spring from prejudice will be suspect for a long time to come. And rightfully. 

"An antipathy with a reason back of it has no advantage in lasting qualities over an inherited antipathy whose origin has been forgotten."- Mark Twain
David Lowther is understandably angry about the reprehensible mistreatment of his mother but he is mistaken when he speaks of the abuse of Hazel Lowther as "chewing on the hand that feeds them". It was the Clemens who provided the scholarship funds, not the Lowthers. Any attempt to use the funds to blackmail the citizenry into following Lowther philosphies is as misguided as was the action of the School Superintendant. It not only negates the rightful dignity of one who was wronged, but opens the Lowthers to the possibility of a 'raft' of lawsuits from local parents. It is, and will be seen as, the tactic of a bully, however cloaked in religion it may come. 

When the demands of the Lowthers supersede their just complaint, and involve firing "staff" because they support the policies of their boss and of a school board which has been elected (as Steve Lowther has not, yet, been) it sounds as though someone has completely lost touch with the Clemens' overriding concern for employees and their families. He is teetering on the brink of forsaking their role of selfless benefactors for one of autocrat. He says he has been teetering there for four years, which implies that this recent meanness has little to do with Steve Lowther's feelings. 

The Lowthers are also mistaken when they tell the media that 'we built this town'. They did not, nor did the logging industry. Philomath was built by the mmbers of the United Brotherhood wagon train, and the Brotherhood had some very clear, and very 'political correct' ideas about education. Their Philomath College was the only college in Oregon, and one of few in the nation, which was intolerant of discrimination on grounds of race or gender. The Lowthers had nothing to do with that.

"He would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off and he would go to hell for a whole one." - Mark Twain

The saddest part of this affair may not be the loss of scholarship money for kids who would otherwise be hard pressed for college tuition. It may well be the loss of the Clemens story of a couple of benefactors in our midst who said to us, to the ordinary: "You did right by us. We shall do right by you. And by your children, and by your neighbors, and by all of their children, until the end of time."

This was not a case like the Rockefellers (click here) or the Fords (click here) or the Carnegies (click here), where men and women doled out part of their vast fortunes to charities in the hope that a lifetime of viciousness would somehow be forgotten and forgiven, like the purchase of Indulgences from the medieval church.

The Clemens were themselves ordinary, distinguished only, it seems, by their generosity. In times like the present, when the rich appear to consist of petty tyrants bent only upon enriching themselves, whatever the cost in human misery to others, whether aged or infirm or simply ordinary, the story of the Clemens generosity, the story alone, was a great part of this community's heritage. An unnecessary  act of great kindness, it was perhaps the most important lesson taught in any Philomath class room.

That story is tarnished now. There is an edge, a certain resentment, which has crept in alongside the Lowthers' inept stewardship of that story, of the Kindness. The petty threats and strong-arming by  members of the family have made it difficult for anyone to remember as foremost, more important than the money, the example itself.

"All the talk used to be about doing people good, now it is about 'doing' good people." - Mark Twain

Note: The Lowthers have decided to demolish the scholarship fund set up by the Clemens, insofar as Philomath students are concerned. The Clemens Scholarships had bestowed upon its benefactors with the status of Saints in this community, Saints whose scholarship fund was as near to the Grace of God as many of those children ever experienced. 

Perhaps that Grace was too heavy a responsibility for a single family to bear with dignity. It certainly proved to be too much for the Lowthers.