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Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Camp Howard Outdoor School supervisor Andrea 'Coho' Hussey shows visitors Martin Kuns and Wally Cole whats changed and whats stayed the same from earlier times.To the roomful of sixth-graders, Mr. Gil was just another grown-up, a guest at the table who got the extra chocolate chip cookie at the end of the meal. 


As they finished their meal of taco stew, the 92-year-old stood to introduce himself. 

“I’m Mr. Gil, and I was the first director of Outdoor School, back in 1966,” he said with his hand raised, his voice booming. 

The children whooped and hollered. 

Warren Gilfillan, known to everyone for the past 48 years simply as “Mr. Gil,” is a living legend, the founding father of outdoor education in Oregon. 

“Thank you,” he said to the hundreds of students and adult leaders at Camp Howard one clear morning last month. 

Spry as a 40-year-old, the nonagenarian made a rare visit to the Outdoor School site between Corbett and Sandy, east of Portland, to visit with campers and reunite with a handful of other Outdoor School pioneers. 

As per tradition, they all called one another by their Outdoor School names, which people choose for themselves and proudly wear on a “wood cookie” necklace while at camp. 

Mr. Gil met with Wally “Wapiti” Cole, Marty “Spike” Kuns, Jim “Duster” Gorter, and Bob “Name Tag” Mann, all retired Outdoor School administrators from around the region during past decades. 

“I went by this name until I was 50,” Kuns said. “It still has the same magical effect.” 

They chuckled at stories from the good old days, and marveled at how most things at camp appeared unchanged from their time.  

The food is basically the same, but “back then we didn’t have drink options,” Mann noticed. There was no pitcher of water on each table. They just drank milk. 

“I’d come home from camp with a bad case of heartburn,” Mann said. “I didn’t realize I was lactose intolerant.” 

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Kim Silva, executive director of Friends of Outdoor School, walks the grounds of Camp Howard with Outdoor School founder Warren Gilfillan, better known as Mr. Gil. Three generations of Oregonians have now experienced the rite of passage that is Outdoor School, created as a weeklong environmental learning experience in the field. For many Oregon youth, it has been a formative experience, the first time they get up close with nature.

Short schedule

Yet more than half of the students who participate nowadays do so for a condensed version of three days, rather than a full week, because of their school districts’ unstable funding. 

It’s primarily the private schools — such as Holy Cross and Portland Jewish Academy — and small districts like Riverdale that send their students for a full week. Those schools, or their parents, can afford to buy a full week for their youth.

Portland Public Schools and other districts have had a rocky time trying to piece together funding since 2011. Centennial School District had to bow out altogether. 

“In Portland, immediately we had schools and parents calling us and saying ‘Can we raise money so our kids can go for a full week?’ ” says Outdoor School coordinator Dan “Teal” Prince. “But we really supported PPS’ decision to maintain an equitable participation; everybody’s going to go at the same level.” 

Funding has stabilized in the past two years, but Prince says he’s always seen this period as a bridge to the long-term big picture, wherein supporters find a way to sustain the Outdoor School’s legacy for generations to come. 

“A solution is finding a solution to allow everybody to go,” he says. “It’s such a cool way to get kids engaged with nature, so much of what makes Oregon Oregon.” 

Seeking statewide funding 

Advocates, including Mr. Gil, have been lamenting this reality for years, and kicked off a new statewide effort this fall to allow every middle schooler in Oregon to attend Outdoor School for a full week. 

That would about double the number of students participating, from the 26,000 Portland-area students currently attending.

The movement is called Outdoor School For All, organized by a group of advocates called the Oregon Outdoor Education Coalition, a partnership between Friends of Outdoor School, the Gray Family Foundation, Metropolitan Group, and other parents, educators and supporters.

“All our kids need it and

deserve (a full week),” says

former Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, who’s been leading efforts to fund Outdoor School since 2006. “We are building a structure.” 

A bill sponsored by then-Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland, died in the Oregon Legislature two years ago, but now organizers hope there’ll be a much broader grassroots effort to change the political discussion, Burkholder says. 

Another bill is being readied to go before lawmakers in the 2015 legislative session.

The coalition will use funds from the Oregon Forest Resources Institute to conduct statewide outreach through early next year. Supporters will ask people what it would mean to their community Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mr. Gil, second from right, stands with fellow Outdoor School pioneers Bob Name Tag Mann (left), Jim Duster Gorter, Wally Wapiti Cole, and Martin Spike Kuns. to restore or expand Outdoor School. 

“We believe there’s a lot more interest statewide” than a few years ago, says Kim Silva, executive director of Friends of Outdoor School, which works to support students in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. 

The cost of sending all sixth-graders in the Portland area to Outdoor School for one week, she says, is about $6 million. 

Silva says the Friends group has an aggressive long-term goal of raising $1 million per year through philanthropy, which would cover one day. 

Metro funds could cover a second day, she says. Silva’s hoping to fill in the gap for the other four days. 

“It could be a school district funds part of it, parents fund it, other types of partnerships,” she says. “We’ve been exploring that at a regional level.” 

Longevity through nature

While the Friends group hits up its donor base and the coalition lobbies the Legislature, advocates are gearing up for 2016, Outdoor School’s 50th anniversary. 

Prince has some 16-millimeter films of the early days he’d like to show around town, featuring none other than Mr. Gil, as a young man with Buddy Holly glasses, looking very much the same as he does today. 

The program wouldn’t be what it is today without Mr. Gil’s vision, Prince says. “He has an unbelievable amount of energy and creativity. ... When I look at the 1967 movie, I see kids doing the same stuff today. Wow, that’s endurance. ... He had such a positive outlook on youth.” 

Mr. Gil grew up in Seattle, earning a degree in wildlife management, then working for the Oregon Fishery Commission. He next served as director of camping for the Boy Scouts of America, which inspired many of Outdoor School’s traditions — everything from the wood cookies and family-style meals to the repeat-after-me cheers and silly skits that build routine and camaraderie for Outdoor School campers. 

Ironically, Mr. Gil never got to send his son to Outdoor School in its first year, 1966, despite the fact that he was in sixth grade. 

“It would’ve been nepotism,” Mr. Gil says, so he chose other schools to participate. 

Five-hundred students from Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington and Columbia counties participated in that first spring session. 

His daughter did get to go, eight years later. 

Mr. Gil’s son now owns a pyrotechnics business and his daughter, Jule Gilfillan, is an Oregon Field Guide producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. 

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Outdoor School students get ready to go to their next activity.Mr. Gil traveled with them both until last year, to places such as Nepal, Tibet, China and Europe, but says he’s “too old” for that now. 

He has a couple of grandkids and a great grandchild and lives in Wilsonville half the year while wintering in the Southern California desert. 

The secret to a healthy, long life? 

Living in the outdoors, he says.

“I’ve been a hunter and a fisher all my life. … That, and I quit smoking … at age 12.” 

Ode to Outdoor School

There have been many efforts to raise funds for Outdoor School over the years. 

Rachel “Radish” Byron-Law, a science teacher who was inspired by her Outdoor School experience as a camper, volunteer and staff leader, has taken one of the more creative approaches. 

The 30-year-old Portland singer and her band, Arbielle, wrote a song about Outdoor School called “Sandy River.” Band members hope downloads of the song will raise money to restore Outdoor School to a full week for students in Multnomah County. 

“Outdoor School is where I learned to teach,” says Byron-Law, who teaches chemistry, AP chemistry and the natural history of Oregon at Sandy High School. “It’s where I first saw how much a young person can transform in a nurturing, stimulating environment.”

Byron-Law says she wrote the song out of her intense feelings for the program, as an alumna and past leader. 

“It was heartbreaking to watch ODS crumble from a thriving, historically rich, full-week program to a three-day field trip,” she says. 

“We didn’t just lose breadth and depth of academic content. We lost that ‘magical’ time part-way through a week that is the heart and soul of the program. ... That is what makes the rest of the field studies amazing, the tree-planting ceremony so special, and the end of a week so sad. Without it, Outdoor School becomes just a weird, extended field trip, as opposed to a culturally defining moment.”

A friend who lives in the Bay Area offered to record the song in his studio for free. Arbielle signed with Electronic-Boy Productions last winter and their album, “Roots Grow Deep,” is out in iTunes, Amazon and elsewhere. 

They performed the song on their last tour as well as on KBOO’s “Movin’ On” folk show.  All proceeds from each $1 download of “Sandy River” benefit Friends of Outdoor School. Here’s a sample:radishoutdoorschool.bandcamp.com/track/sandy-river

— Jennifer Anderson

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