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SOUTHEAST HISTORY



EILEEN G. FITZSIMONS - Scott Ninneman, deadheading azaleas in front of his house on S.E. Thirteenth in Sellwood. The house at 7126 S.E Thirteenth Avenue, between Rural and Ogden Streets, recently changed hands, after being occupied for almost thirty years by Ruth and Scott Ninneman.

After raising their four children in the house, and seeing them into adulthood, the couple decided to downsize, and have moved to Gladstone. According to Scott, their new house, built in 1925, is just one year newer than the one they sold in Sellwood. It is smaller and suits their retirement lifestyle, but it’s large enough to host their three young grandsons.

As in their former neighborhood, they are still near a big public park with plenty of play equipment, a network of bike paths, and proximity to the river – the Clackamas River, in this case.

The house they sold on Thirteenth in Sellwood, with a distinctive curved roof over the front porch, is partially hidden behind a massive native White Oak. The Ninnemans rejected an offer from an anonymous investor in Japan whose primary concern was the strength of the house foundation – and opted instead for a couple with young children.

Although Ruth and Scott are now living in Clackamas County, they have not strayed far from Southeast Portland, where they both grew up. In a way, Ruth (neé Hanchett) is reconnecting with Oak Grove, where one of her grandmothers was raised. Ruth herself grew up in her family home near 39th and S.E. Lexington Street, attending both Duniway Elementary School and then Cleveland High School. Her grandfather lived in Errol Heights in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood, and operated one of the cars on the Sellwood streetcar line, on which, as a young boy, her father sold peanuts.

As for Scott – beginning at the age of six, his family lived in a house on Southeast 28th Avenue just south of Steele in the Reed neighborhood. The street was a horticultural holdover from an earlier period: The famous Lambert Gardens, which closed in the late 1960’s, were still standing on the north side of Steele. Fenced off, its shrubbery now overgrown, the garden was haunted by the eerie cries of wandering peacocks.

The Ninnemans were literally sandwiched between two households of the Rivelli family, who owned and farmed most of the land west of Reed College, along 28th Avenue. Scott recalled he could walk out the back door of his home into the Rivelli’s truck gardens. He also had a Rivelli son on either side of him in age, and they all became playmates.

Across the street from the Ninneman home was Okamoto’s Market which, in 2016, continues operation under different management. The business that Hisashi and Misuyo Okamoto featured fresh produce that was grown by them and the Rivellis, from whom they had purchased the property after returning from an internment camp. The Okamotos had lost their small grocery store on Hawthorne Street when they were forced to leave Portland after the United States entered World War II; their only crime was possessing a Japanese surname. After returning to Portland Mr. Okamoto, who had been a farmer in Japan, mowed lawns and washed dishes at Reed College until he saved the money to buy his new property. He built a modest house behind his market, and there he and his wife raised five children, and a nephew from Japan. The Okamoto boys were older than Scott, so were not pals, but the two sisters were his occasional babysitters.

Scott attended Sacred Heart Grade School in Woodstock, and spent a lot of free time outdoors, but Mr. Okamoto must have sensed his potential for hard work. When Scott was seven, he was offered his first paid employment: Pulling nails out of wooden boxes. Over time he advanced to unloading delivery trucks, and by the age of thirteen he was waiting on customers and running the cash register. He said that the Rivellis also sold fresh manure to gardeners in the neighborhood; one of his less pleasant jobs was shoveling it into sacks and putting the bags into the trunks of customers’ cars.

Although the Ninneman family moved to Westmoreland in 1969, Scott continued to work at the market. The Okamoto children all had university educations, funded by earnings from their parents’ market – but they chose not to assume operation of the family business. However, as Scott was graduating from La Salle High School in Milwaukie, Mr. Okamoto offered to sell his business to his apprentice, who reluctantly declined because he was heading for Oregon State University.

By the time Scott entered high school in 1969 his family had moved to a house at 7883 S.E. 15th near Lexington Street. The family had purchased the house in 1964, but did not move until they had completed a five-year-long remodel. Although Scott and Ruth lived only 25 blocks apart on Lexington Street, they did not meet until a fateful dance at Marycrest, a Catholic girls’ school in far Northeast Portland. Scott was then a junior and Ruth a freshman but their romance flourished.

The couple married at Moreland Presbyterian Church in 1974 and left for Corvallis, and settled into married student housing. Their initial plan was for Ruth to work, and put Scott through school. However, after a year Ruth realized that she, too, wanted a college degree, so she worked on hers in home economics, while her husband finished one in forestry and horticulture.

Unable to find a job in his field, and with a growing family to care for, Scott took a series of positions in related fields. His youthful experience with the Rivellis and Okamotos, and strong work ethic, proved useful as he managed several plant nurseries, and later worked for a company that ran a wholesale berry processing business. In between raising four children Ruth worked in several fabric stores and a bridal shop.

While Ruth and Scott pursued their careers and raised young children, Scott’s parents left their Lexington Street house and purchased the house on S.E. 13th. Scott’s father soon moved to California for work, and when he developed health issues his wife left Portland to care for him. In 1989, the last year she was in the house, Scott, Ruth and their two young children moved in. The young couple began making the monthly house payments, and the house became their responsibility for the next 28 years. As his children grew, Scott coached youth basketball and baseball teams in the neighborhood and assumed leadership of Cub Scout Pack 64.

The new generation of Ninnemans – Bryan, Arianna, Cary, and Brett – all attended Llewellyn Elementary School, Sellwood Middle School, and finally Cleveland High School.

At least one of them still resides in the old familiar neighborhood, so perhaps a third branch of the Ninneman family tree will take root there.

Contract Publishing

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