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After offering the Ward Rhoden Scholarship for 50 years, family members plan to take the program in a new direction benefitting school athletics facilities

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY RON RHODEN - Ward and Kathleen Rhoden pose for a photo that was taken in 1924. At the time, Rhoden was living in Bend and working at Shevlin Hixon Sawmill. The family would later move to Prineville, where Rhoden would run the Pine Products sawmill.

Crook County seniors Caleb Parrott, Heather Ptomey, Elijah Becker and Tansy Clark were the latest recipients of the Ward Rhoden Scholarship earlier this month.

It turns out they were also the last ones to receive it. After 50 years, the Rhoden family has chosen to end the scholarship program and develop a new way to support student athletes into the future.

Ward Rhoden was born in 1900 in Kentucky but moved west with his family to Colville, Washington, at an early age. As a youngster, he logged and farmed until he joined the U.S. Army and went to battle in World War I.

Upon his return from military service, he married Kathleen Marie Dotts, and the couple moved to Oregon and started a family. Their son, Jack, was born in 1925. Ward worked as a lumber grader at the Shevlin Hixon sawmill in Bend until the family moved to Prineville in 1935 when Ward assisted building a sawmill that would go on to be called Pine Products.

During his time managing the mill, Ward acquired vast tracks of timber north of town. He farmed, owned race horses, and bought a ranch with each of his sons. But it was his love of sports, particularly high school and local team sports, that would ultimately lead to creation of the Ward Rhoden Scholarship.

"He was a real advocate of team sports simply because of the responsibility of teamwork," said Ron Rhoden, Ward's grandson and son of Jack, who oversaw the scholarship program in its early days. "One thing that is really important is how to deal with other people, and he just believed that — hook, line and sinker."

So when Ward passed away in 1969, and Jack and his brothers were looking for a way to honor him, they decided to create an athletic scholarship that emphasized team sports. The family members initially settled on an amount of $1,000 that the recipient would receive each year for four years.

To be eligible, a student athlete had to participate in a fall, winter and spring sport every year of high school — but the criteria didn't end there.

"A student athlete was required to show the ability to go on to further their education," Ron said. He added that grades mattered, but noted that a student could carry a 2.5 GPA and receive the scholarship if they showed a good work ethic and aptitude for future success. The Rhodens would talk to school counselors and athletic directors who would sometimes single out someone whose grades may not have jumped off the page.

Ron acknowledged that the criteria for the scholarship were more rigid in the early going and changed through the years to become more inclusive and reward more students. Some student athletes received the scholarship after competing in two sports a year. Also, Jack began to award one-year, $500 scholarships to people that he deemed deserving.

Ron remembers a time in the late 1980s when the family was considering 14 different applicants. They ultimately awarded a four-year scholarship, three two-year scholarships and six one-year awards.

"Dad goes, 'How do we not give these four (remaining) kids a scholarship?'" Ron recalls. "'They're awesome. They've done everything we've asked of them. They are exceptional students.'"

He ended up giving them all one-year scholarships with money out of his own pocket.

The Ward Rhoden Scholarship has gone to local student athletes who have used the award as a springboard to personal and career success. Ron notes that the first-ever recipient in 1970, Pat Ryan, wound up having a successful career with the Bureau of Land Management. The second recipient, Steve Schuette, went to college and studied law enforcement before becoming an officer with the Oregon State Police. He is currently a game officer in John Day. Another recipient, Jim Sloan, went on to earn a business degree and now owns a business in Hillsboro.

Steve Forrester, who enjoyed a long career in wood products before becoming Prineville's city manager, credits the scholarship with making college affordable and helping launch his career. Forrester was one of many one-year scholarship recipients.

"It was a big deal," the 1978 Crook County High School graduate said of the scholarship. "There wasn't a lot of local scholarships in those days." An Ochoco Lumber scholarship was the only other one he remembers being available and receiving.

"The Ward Rhoden Scholarship was really the biggie," Forrester said. "It was really a major scholarship available to student athletes at Crook County High School."

Forrester remembers the interview process as a challenging one. Not only was he interviewed by Jack Rhoden, a pillar of the community, and Jim Bodie, one of the most prominent attorneys in Prineville, he faced some tough questions about his future plans.

"My takeaway from that experience is it wasn't just about being a student athlete, but keeping your nose clean, having good grades and having a plan going forward," he said.

The scholarship ultimately helped Forrester pay his way through college, but that isn't all that he remembers about being a Ward Rhoden Scholarship recipient. He remembers hearing from the scholarship committee throughout his time in college, asking him about his grades and how he was tracking with his future plans.

"I think that was key in being able to hold yourself accountable," he remarked.

And after Forrester graduated from Oregon State University, he had an opportunity to reconnect with Jack Rhoden.

"He was so proud that I was a Ward Rhoden Scholarship recipient and that I finished school and graduated," Forrester said.

In the years that followed, the Rhoden family began to sense that it might be time to discontinue the Ward Rhoden Scholarship program. Ron pointed out that the $1,000 Parrott received this year for the four-year scholarship and the $500, one-year scholarships awarded to Ptomey, Beck and Clark pale in comparison to what students these days are awarded overall.

"I look at all of the students who received their awards this year, and it's a drop in the bucket for all of the awards they got together," he said, adding that some students received $12,000 to $15,000.

The other thing that has changed is that most of the students these days have little or no knowledge of who Ward Rhoden was and how he impacted the community.

So Ron and other family members made the difficult decision to forego offering a scholarship and go a different direction with the money annually donated to the program. Following discussions with the school district and Athletic Director Rob Bonner, they have decided to partner with the school district and match any dollars set aside for the enhancement of student athletics.

The money will go toward maintaining Ward Rhoden Stadium and any other facilities named for Rhoden family members as well as other maintenance projects or the addition of facilities that improve school athletics. Ron talked about potential renovation of the weight room or adding a batting facility as examples.

"We believe it is going to be a bigger asset to athletes at Crook County High School than the scholarship is," he said.

Bonner is pleased with the plan as well. He notes that maintenance is a huge, ongoing need.

"But more than that, it is the evolution of sports," he said. "There are always ways to help us be more competitive. There is always a need to help our scholar athletes improve … It's a blessing to Crook County School District."

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