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If you got married at Oaks Pioneer Church in Sellwood anytime since the mid 1990's, you probably met Lori

EILEEN G. FITZSIMONS - After three decades of managing Sellwoods SMILE Station and Oaks Pioneer Church, Lori Fyre is now looking forward to retirement. The Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood association, SMILE, is unique among the City of Portland's 95 official neighborhood associations for several reasons. It was first of the 95, since it existed before Portland neighborhood association system was first set up. And, it manages two buildings – one of which they own, and one for which they are the renting agent. The owned building is SMILE Station, the 1925 former fire station at S.E. 13th at Tenino; the rental is Oaks Pioneer Church on lower Spokane Street just above the Springwater Trail crossing, which is owned by the City of Portland. The church was saved in 1961 by an ad-hoc group of Sellwood and Westmoreland residents who did not want to see the historic 1851 structure, then in the City of Milwaukie, demolished. They quickly raised funds have it barged down the Willamette River to its current lot on City Park property. After the move, hundreds of hours of mostly volunteer labor was necessary to settle it into its new home, and add landscaping. SMILE considered that it might be used as a museum, but in January of 1964, the first inquiry was made by the public about the possibility of holding a wedding in the church. Since that first wedding, on February 20, 1964, the church has been the site of thousands more, as well as memorial services and other gatherings. SMILE soon had a part-time employee to handle reservations for both structures.

Since 1995, that job has been impeccably handled by Westmoreland resident Lorraine (Lori) Fyre, who retired at the beginning of this year

The job "came to Lori", rather than the other way around, in 1991. At the time she was a member of the volunteer SMILE Board (the annual Board election is on May 5 this year), serving as its secretary. The Board had just negotiated the purchase of the old fire station, which had closed in 1955 and was then hard-used for the next three decades as the Boys & Girls Club. When that organization moved, the building became city "surplus". After much discussion the Board decided to bid on the building, in order to have a community meeting place independent of the Sellwood Community Center, which was busy with Parks & Recreation Department programs. Its bid was successful. An ambitious remodeling plan was drawn up for SMILE Station, which included meeting ADA accessibility requirements, a new kitchen, a single large meeting space for at least 80 people, an office, and a separate meeting space in the basement. In 1991, as the remodeling was finished, the Board had a request for its first reservation for a meeting there, but there was no plan in place to allow it.

Lori had served on the remodeling committee, and knew the potential uses of the building, but was surprised when the Board asked if she would be willing to undertake the as-yet undefined job, and develop an administrative structure (fees, rules for use, insurance, etc.) for its operation. Looking back, she recalls that with the help of Nancy Walsh (then employed at the Community Center) and Matt Hainley (volunteer SMILE treasurer) a plan took shape. Laurie set up her office in the windowless basement with a desk, a phone with answering machine, and a paper appointment calendar. She later got a headset, so she didn't have to hold the phone in the crook of her neck; but until recently, operations hadn't changed very much.

The demands of the job have changed over the past 30 years, and sometimes it has been a steep learning curve. But the personal touch is what Lori brought to the position, making it so rewarding for her and successful for SMILE. She recounts with satisfaction the pleasure of welcoming a wide range of visitors to the neighborhood facility. That includes wedding receptions, graduation parties, birthday celebrations (from a one-year old to a 100-year old, and including at least one German Shepherd), anniversaries, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, family reunions and holiday gatherings, and memorial celebrations. Other uses include business training sessions and retreats, tutoring, lectures, and continuing education classes.

"The original intent of the SMILE Board was to offer the station to nonprofit neighborhood groups and SMILE subcommittees, but the size and amenities we provided made it very attractive for rental at other times," explained Lori. A plus (until COVID-19) were nearby restaurants, where attendees at an all-day meetings could break for lunch, or gather after a long day. In addition to building maintenance costs, the rental fees help pay for SMILE's free programs, such as the annual neighborhood cleanup, Sundae in the Park, youth programs, and summer music concerts. SMILE has been a registered 501c3 nonprofit since the neighborhood organized to save the Pioneer Church – at least 15 years before the city was divided into neighborhood associations.

In 1995, as Lori was adjusting to the job as SMILE Station's manager the long-time employee at the Pioneer Church retired. Noticing what a good job Lori was doing with management of SMILE Station, the SMILE Board asked if she would also assume responsibility for the church as well. "This was a time before cell phones were common, so communication was difficult. I had a beeper and when it buzzed I had to find a pay phone." She informed the Board that she would need to hire some part-time employees to be present at the church while it was being used, to open and close the building, troubleshoot, and to make sure it was cleaned up afterwards. "Fortunately, I've had some excellent longtime employees from the neighborhood who are calm, when sometimes the brides are not," says Lori. Forgetful ministers who are "late to the wedding" can escalate emotions. These part-time employees now have cell phones, and carry a reserve list of individuals who may legally perform marriage ceremonies.

"I will miss it," commented Lori. "Juggling the scheduling of two separate facilities could be exhausting, but I also enjoyed the variety. I am a multi-tasker, and never tired of welcoming visitors to the SMILE Station or the church, and making sure all of the details were taken care of so their experience was enjoyable. Neither job would have been possible if it had not been for the many volunteers who serve on committees, and who quietly donate their time to making the neighborhood so great. "However, after 30 years, I am looking forward to having my weekends free again."

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