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by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Charbonneau resident Vern Wise is one of four nominees for the 2014 Wilsonville First Citizen Award. Vern Wise counts each day as a new gift.

After all, he had less than a 5 percent chance of survival when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer 18 years ago, yet battled the seemingly intractable disease into remission.

“After that time I said, ‘You know what? I’m very blessed with the fact I have a second lease on life,’” said Wise, who took the opportunity to dedicate himself to the Wilsonville community he has called home for well more than two decades now.

“I’m not an overly religious person, but I do believe in God and Jesus, and we go to church,” he said. “But it’s one of those things that I feel like it’s a mission for me to do for somebody else, and that’s when I started getting involved in the community.”

Once he made that pledge, Wise jumped in with both feet. These days, he can be found all around Wilsonville working alongside other volunteers at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Lamb’s Thriftway, Wilsonville City Hall or numerous other locations. And that work has not gone unnoticed.

Wise, who lives in Charbonneau, recently was selected as one of four finalists for the 2014 Wilsonville Rotary Club’s First Citizen award, given to the individual or couple that best exemplifies Rotary’s motto of “Service above self.”

For example, since his bout with cancer Wise has volunteered for community organizations and projects that include the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility Public Advisory Committee, the Charbonneau Mariners (affiliated with Lake Grove Presbyterian Church), the Wilsonville Kiwanis Kids Fun Run, Wilsonville Rotary’s Through a Child’s Eyes, the Wilsonville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Wilsonville Community Center Senior Advisory Board, the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, the chamber’s Government Affairs Committee, the Wilsonville Advisory Master Planning Committee for parks and recreation and the Wilsonville Public Library Advisory Committee.

He also serves as a community relations ambassador for Lamb’s Thriftway and delivers donated baked goods from the store to the library, SMART, Wilsonville Police Department and local Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue stations.

The First Citizen award is given annually at the Heart of Gold banquet, set this year for 5 p.m. March 15 at the Wilsonville Holiday Inn, 25425 SW 95th Ave.

For more information, visit the Heart of Gold website at wilsonvilleheart.com.

Leaving home

From humble beginnings on a Montana farm, Wise learned the value of hard work early in his life.

His father died when he was just 6 months old. He was an only child, so his mother packed them up and moved them to her husband’s parents’ farm outside Billings in western Montana. She remarried three years later, but her second — and last — husband died just five years after the nuptials. Wise knew well before he graduated from high school that he wanted a better life, one far away from the isolation and drudgery of an existence spent between endless rows of plants.

“My mother and I were talking, and I said to her, ‘I don’t want to be a farmer,’” he said.

So off he went to telegraph school, after which he took a job with Southern Pacific Railroad operating its telegraph networks across the western United States.

Wise worked for the company more than 35 years, until the day management announced that Wise would be retiring. It came as a surprise, but it didn’t take long for Wise to realize the company’s action actually was a gift.

That freed him to begin volunteering around the community, first with a citizen advisory committee serving Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and later an ever-increasing number of causes.

“One day they came in and said, ‘You’re retired,’” Wise said. “And it was a blessing in disguise. There’s a reason for everything, and I don’t look back, I look forward. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”

His work with Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon’s only women’s prison, is of particular note. There, Wise has been involved with a number of groups and initiatives as a volunteer. He said it’s because even the most hardened inmates need to have someone show that they care about them. It’s a basic human need.

“There’s so many inmates up there who’ve lost hope for society,” he said.

One of the first groups he worked with was a focus group that helped mediate minor disputes between inmates and staff.

“They’d bring in six inmate representatives from different cell blocks and they’d have six staff members,” he said. “And we’d sit there and just kind of observe, and if they asked us for input we’d give it to them.”

The discussions typically involved things such as the supply of shower sandals or television privileges. But it was a productive way to solve disputes before they boiled over into larger problems.

The group also worked to provide more educational opportunities for inmates.

“I’d always try to attend the graduations of the inmates when they got GEDs or diplomas,” Wise said. “It’s to give them credit and give them support.

Since then he’s also worked with the Wilsonville Rotary Club’s Through a Child’s Eyes program, which brings inmates and their children together for bi-annual event days.

“A lot of them are up for narcotics and prostitution, but society has given up on them,” he said. “I got the feeling of the inmates being positive and trying to improve themselves.”

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