â-  Gales Creek neighbors hold community together since campus' closure

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: DAVID ROZA - Barbara Delgato (far right), retired music teacher at the shuttered Gales Creek Elementary School, talks with Shawn Twiss (far left), a former student of hers, as well as Forest Grove School Board member Kate Grandusky (second from right) and an unidentified reunion attendee. Barbara Delgato had just graduated from the University of Oregon when she got a job teaching music at Gales Creek Elementary School in 1980. As she approached the small hamlet for the first time, the Bronx native was in for quite a shock.

“Mt. St. Helens had just exploded, the ground and all the streets were covered in ash [and] it looked like snow,” recounted Delgato at the Gales Creek Elementary reunion last Saturday. “I was worried about the culture shock in such a small town, but I felt welcomed right away.

“The man who hired me let me live in his house with his wife and children before I found an apartment. Then I ended up teaching his grandkids here. It comes full circle I guess.”

More than 30 years later, at the inaugural reunion organized on Facebook by graduates of the school, Delgato caught up with her former students, many of whom now sport beards, families and careers of their own. The 150-plus graduates who arrived at the school’s playground in the bright afternoon sun July 26 — ranging in age from 13 to 98 — hailed from South Dakota, Washington and Canada. As they shared stories over a potluck dinner of hot dogs, burgers, corn and cake, they were reminded of what united them: a childhood spent together at this tiny school. A log-cabin model of one of the early buildings now graces the Gales Creek School entryway.

“We were hoping to start this as an annual tradition,” said Ted Murdock, one of the first graduates to start organizing the event. Murdock went to the school in the late 1970s and now lives in Washington. “It’s great to keep in touch as we get older and I’m just happy to see everybody here.”

“Remember when we played football during recess out at the yard back here?” asked Murdock’s classmate, Gales Creek resident Todd Gobel. “Sometimes we couldn’t play because of the elk crossing through!”

While on one hand the gathering had the happy vibe of a reunion, it also carried the pressing sadness of a funeral. The closure of Gales Creek Elementary by the Forest Grove School District during budget cuts in 2011 left a void in the community that has since only been filled with memories.

“I was at the school board meeting the day they shut the school down and it honestly felt like somebody died,” said Delgato. “It was so sad because of the small intimacy of the town. When a place like that closes there’s a great loss.”

Gales Creek Elementary, the reunion attendees agreed, was a place that tied the community together.

Sharon Hundley went to first, second and third grade here and owned the Gales Creek Country Store from 1998 to 2006. “People would stop by for sandwiches and drinks on their way to and from school,” she said. “When the school closed, it impacted the store.”

Sure enough, the store closed soon after the school did, as well as the town tavern. While the store has since re-opened, the school is now home to a therapeutic day school for children with behavioral problems who can’t participate in regular classes.

“It’s frustrating because there used to be 115 kids in school here,” said Melinda Fischer, who graduated in 1978 and helped organize the reunion. “Nowadays we just see two kids who get off the bus. The nearest elementary school is an hour away (by school bus), and if my kids were still in elementary school they wouldn’t come home until 4:20 p.m. or later.”

Gales Creek residents suspect the school was closed for political reasons.

The reunion brought graduates of all ages and their families to the old Gales Creek Elementary School, which closed in June of 2011.“The fact that they’re still maintaining the entire school for just two kids doesn’t make sense to me,” said Delgato.

“If you look at the numbers it doesn’t save any money,” added Hundley. “It was definitely a political thing.”

In protest, residents of the tiny community gathered signatures on petitions that removed two school board members shortly after the closure — but have not yet made any progress toward re-opening the school.

“If we remember and talk about our little school there’s a hope we can reopen it,” said Fischer. “But mostly it’s great to have such a good [reunion] turnout and see so many people again.”

Joyce Sauber has lived in Gales Creek all her life and graduated from the school in 1949. “Gales Creek kids always stood out at other schools for their good behavior and good grades,” she said. “And it was rated ‘exceptional’ for test scores by the state for 12 years before it closed.”

Sauber, the de facto historian of the school, set up an exhibit in the main classroom building that included pictures of when the school was first built as a log house in 1859 and models built by the parent of a graduate for the school’s 150th anniversary in 2009.

“I miss the music from the music room and from the playground,” said Sauber, who lives right next to the school.

While the loss of the school was palpable at the reunion, so was the strength of the Gales Creek community.

“Rural people are different,” said Hundley. “Everybody cares about everybody and tries to be a good neighbor. If we keep talking and have a sense of community, then maybe we can resurrect it so my grandkids can go there. too.”

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