At Robert Gray Middle School, teacher Thom Powell leaves a big imprint

A few months into one’s freshman year at Wilson High School, alumni of Jackson Middle School in West Portland Park will start forming friendships with those of Robert Gray in Hillsdale. They will trade stories of their middle school years, recounting horrific homework assignments and raving about favorite former teachers. But while former Jackson pupils tend to have a long and varied list, Robert Gray alums all seem to name the same one: Mr. Powell, a teacher of eighth-grade science with a penchant for Sasquatch. Not the annual music festival, but the mythical creature also known as CONNECTION PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Eighth-grade science teacher Thom Powell with a plaster track cast of the Sasquatch in his classroom at Robert
Gray Middle School.

Thom Powell has taught at Robert Gray Middle School for nearly three decades. He is a tall, gray man with a

raspy voice and a disarmingly piercing gaze. Though his appearance is domineering and almost off-putting,

his students know better. They flock to his classroom as soon as the bell rings, vying for his attention to their preteen attempts at sarcasm and deadpan. Powell meets them bit for bit, speaking with complete candor to his 14-year-old pupils. Truly, he is a gentle giant, and so, he says, is the Sasquatch.

In the 1990s, looking for a fun, light way to cap lessons the day before winter break, Powell would screen footage of Bigfoot available through the school district as an example of pseudo — read: phony — science.

“I used to teach it for years just as a misapplication of science In other words, it was something that wasn’t valid science. It was fanciful; it was baloney. But it was interesting to the kids,” he recalls. “But then I moved out to (rural) Clackamas County, and in talking to some of ... my neighbors, they said, ‘Oh no, this is the real deal ... you don’t understand. Us folks out here in the country, we bump into these things.’... That blew my mind.”

As a man of science who studied environmental education in college in Ohio Powell sought out concrete physical evidence that Big- foot was not, in fact, baloney. He got in touch with a man near his home who was making plaster casts of tracks in the dirt that he believed were of the Sasquatch. Powell was still skeptical, but asked if he could borrow some casts as a visual aid for his lessons.

“He started setting things aside for me, and then even found a particularly good one and said, ‘Here, you can have it’, and so I started acquiring things myself, but also then started really reading the information and finding that, indeed, science is just as prejudiced as people in general can be, and this is definitely a subject that science doesn’t know what to do with because it’s

not verifiable, it’s not quantifiable. You can’t run a controlled experiment for some strange reason, and the reason most people of course embrace is that ... it’s fake.

“But,” Powell continues, “When you run into people who are saying, ‘Oh no’, of course you have to reconcile that. Anecdotal (evidence) does not hold water in science; people’s stories are not good enough. But when you talk to people who are credible and aren’t ballyhooing it - they’re not putting it on the Internet, they’re just saying, ‘Look, I know what saw’ — you have to factor that in.”

Powell decided to try and see if he could experience for himself what so many told him they had experienced, and became, in the late 1990s, one of the first to use motion sensor cameras to attempt to capture Bigfoot on film. Motion sensor camera, and later on, streaming video, did seem to substantiate the existence of the Sasquatch, though not in the way that he had expected.

“We never got great video, but we did get some really interesting things,” he says. “Once I was satisfied that I wasn’t being hoaxed, that were something genuine going on, then it gradually began to emerge that the problem was most likely that we’re dealing with something that’s so intelligent that it knows what you’re doing ... You’re being watched when you’re putting out the cameras ... they’re very sentient beings that are aware of your coming and going. One of the patterns that really became pretty vivid was that every time I would show up, everything would stop, and as soon as I would leave it would start again.”

This meant, he says, “that while you’re studying them, they’re studying you — which is pretty much what ... CIA people know about intel. That’s where I started to realize ‘Okay, you’re not really doing science because we can’t do science, because they’re too intelligent, but you can do intel, you can do what spies do, and that is, you just gather all the information you can get. Nothing is verifiable, nothing is provable, but you can assemble patterns that are fairly bulletproof, and you can predict what’s going to happen next, and you can assemble a profile that matches other peoples’ profile and has predictive value.”

What Powell found was that in the Pacific Northwest, “There were certain hotspots, especially the closer you to Mount Rainier, the more stuff goes on.”

But, he adds, “They’re not just in the Pacific Northwest; they’re all over. There aren’t too many states in the United States where there isn’t some of this that goes on. As long as you’ve got forests and places where people don’t live, and the ability for nocturnal operators to move about, it appears that they’re much more widespread than people realize.”

Not just widespread, but also “much more intelligent than people realize,” Powell says. “They have capabilities that we don’t have because they’re nocturnal operators and because they’re not technologically inclined and watching TV all day, so their sensitivities are much greater than ours. They can see and operate in the night; they know you’re coming before you get there.”

Powell compares this heightened sensitivity brought on by living in nature to that of aboriginal populations in South America and Australia, which would make sense, as research into over 100 supposed Bigfoot DNA samples by Melba Ketchum, published earlier this year, purports to have proven that the Sasquatch has at least half human DNA. Powell personally agrees with her, but says going through the traditional channel of publication in a scientific journal will mean little to society at large right now.

“People are arguing for and against Ketchum’s scientific paper and the results that are described therein. In truth, her work is so, you know, out on the fringe of what’s known and accepted that only once somebody does the same work again will she gain credibility that comes from being replicated by another scientist.”

More importantly, he says, modern science can’t or won’t accommodate the possibility that such a creature exists.

“It’s a very difficult thing for the public to accept that not only are there wild creatures out there — that’s not that radical — but wild creatures that greatly resemble us,” he says. “It’s too radical, and it’s almost sort of politically too unpopular to even float. It might even destabilize the religious paradigm of the Judeo-Christian culture that we’re in; it threatens resource extraction in the federal lands — logging, mining, how much land are they entitled to — and then of course if there is another group of people, then they’re entitled to recognition and an embassy.”

Powell says the Sasquatch’s anti-industrialized ways by and large run counter to everything we know in mainstream society. While waiting for the dominant paradigm to shift, he is content with speaking at Bigfoot seminars, where he answers questions and reads passages from his two published works, “The Locals: A Contemporary Investigation of the Bigfoot/Sasquatch Phenomenon” published in 2003 and “Shady Neighbors,” a work of fiction published in 2011. Powell says members of the CIA came to a recent book signing and told him, in short, “You nailed it.”

Of course, he continues to teach, and every year, when he delivers his lesson on Bigfoot, he teaches not that the Sasquatch is pseudoscience, as he used to do, or even that that it exists, as he now believes.

Instead, he says, “You let them tease you about it. You don’t want to upset the apple cart by being too insistent to a group of kids about something that cannot be proven, so we throw it out there as an intriguing idea — as an example of what science really hasn’t yet come to grips with, which hasn’t been proven and may never be proven — but certainly, for the benefit of kids and as a science teacher, part of the message has to be that they may not exist at all.”

More often than not, however, Powell’s eighth-grade students come to the same conclusion that he has. And they show their work.

“What happens is, every year — this is the most interesting thing — a few kids will always go, ‘My uncle has a story’, or, ‘My dad has a story’ ... and then, all of a sudden, all this stuff starts coming my way,” Powell says. “Just by sampling a population, you actually get stories much more frequently than most people realize.”

The students have proven to be a vital resource not only for Powell, but also for their family members who have experienced a Sasquatch sighting. They get the validation of knowing that a respected teacher could take them seriously, and Powell, in turn receives anecdotal evidence to add to his ever-growing file of so-called intel.

“Isn’t it interesting,” he muses, “that kids are wanting to jump out ahead of grownups in their interest in the unsolved mysteries of the world?”

That, he says, could be what helps the Sasquatch finally get its day in the sun. “As this generation comes on, they are probably going to carry that interest into adulthood, and you’ll see an ever-expanding interest in this thing.”

And although that day may be long in coming, for now, generations of students who come out of a middle school in Southwest Portland have an enduring interest in both the Sasquatch and one of its most ardent investigators — so much so that he has become the stuff of legend himself.

Sarah Miller, a 23-year-old student at Oregon State University, took Powell’s class nine years ago. Today, about to graduate from college and start her own career as a science teacher, her memories of a Powell sighting have left a lasting impact. And, she says, she’s not the only one.

“His unorthodox style of teaching leaves students remembering him in a way that they don’t remember anyone else,” Miller says. “And that’s why he’s become a bit of a ‘Hillsdale icon’ — because everyone has a story to share from Mr. Powell’s class.”

He is an icon with a simple but powerful message: “If you’re going to be scientific, you can’t rule out anything,” he says. “You have to leave everything on the table.”