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Ashland celebrates reading

John Jorgensen had just finished narrating a fairy tale story to a room full of first-graders in Casper, Wyoming, when a teacher approached and reminded him what his childhood reading program was all about.

Jorgensen’s program, Wyoming Reads, gifts hardback books to children during a special, half-day event, books which they are asked to select from a list months prior. But one boy in the teacher’s class named Jimmy was unable to pick out which book he wanted. He had a good excuse: he couldn’t read. Jimmy was determined, however. He told the teacher, a Mrs. Jones, that he would stay in class during every afternoon recess to practice so that he would be able to read his book at Wyoming Reads.

“And now, Mr. Jorgensen,” Mrs. Jones said, “Jimmy would like to read his book to you.”

Retelling the anecdote during a break in Wednesday’s first-ever Ashland Reads event, Jorgensen paused to let it sink in. It’s only one of many such stories, dozens perhaps, but it’s his favorite.

“The crusty old banker in tears,” he said, holding them back. “That can keep you going for another 10 years, just one story like that.”

One hundred and ninety-two Ashland first-graders bounded off school buses and into the first Ashland Reads celebration Wednesday at the Southern Oregon University campus, where they were greeted by cheerleaders, ushered down a winding path towards the music recital hall auditorium by men and women dressed as storybook characters and treated to music, storytelling and lunch. In between, each student was surprised with a backpack stocked with, among other things, a hardcover book — a personalized gift selected for each child based on a question they answered months ago, “Which of these eight books do you like best?”

The point was clear, summarized by Jorgensen himself at the end of a short play he narrated about the good queen Sue: “If you can read, if you can dream it, you can do it.”

So read, he said. A lot.

The message, like the program itself, is personal for Jorgensen. His wife, Sue, was an educator who was passionate about reading, literacy and children before she died in a car accident in 1996. Soon thereafter Jorgensen, to honor Sue’s memory and help their five children cope with the loss, created the Sue Jorgensen Library Foundation which, three years later, led to a celebration of literacy festival, then called “Casper Cares, Casper Reads.” It expanded across each of Wyoming’s 23 counties in 2006, becoming Wyoming Reads.

The program’s journey to Ashland could almost be turned into one of the books Jorgensen’s organization gives away (140,000 have been distributed, at last count, he said). Dr. Carol Fellows moved to Klamath Falls from Casper, Wyoming, about 28 years ago, but retained a subscription to Casper’s weekly newspaper, the Casper Star-Tribune. In its pages, she read about Casper Cares, Casper Reads and was intrigued.

“Is this as good as it looks?” she asked her friends back in Casper.

They said it was, so the next time Fellows visited Casper she met with Jorgensen and a librarian there. Fellows came back to Klamath Falls inspired, and Klamath Cares, Klamath Reads was born. It drew elementary students from throughout Klamath County, from Chiloquin to Bly to Beatty, and within two years expanded to Tulelake, California. Before long, 1,000 Klamath County first-graders a year were getting their hands on free hardbacks, and on Thursday, Klamath Cares, Klamath Reads celebrated its 15th anniversary at the Steen Sports Park fieldhouse.

Fellows moved to Ashland in 2006 and joined the Rotary Club. Last July, Ashland Rotary President Paul Nicholson came back from a district conference excited about a reading program he had heard about which distributes books to first graders. He didn’t know Fellows was instrumental in expanding Wyoming Reads to Klamath County and later to Springfield.

“I said, ‘Paul, I think I know how to do this,’” Fellows said.

She did, and Wednesday was the loud, hectic, but ultimately “rewarding” payoff, the first of what she hopes will be many Ashland Reads festivals.

“It was a huge team effort,” she said, noting that about 36 Rotarians and another 50 or so community volunteers donated their time to the cause.

To the children, the finished product appeared to be well worth the effort that went into it.

Once the students were led through a balloon archway into the auditorium and took their seats, four Ashland High School cheerleaders performed a routine choreographed specifically for the event, Jorgensen narrated his story as seven students from AHS acted it out on the stage behind him and Tish McFadden of the Rum Yum School of Music performed (with help from the audience) a song she wrote for Ashland Reads titled “Inside a Book.”

The backpacks were then distributed, each to its intended owner, and the kids were instructed to pull out each item from within only when prompted. The final item was the book they had chosen, inside of which they found their name inscribed on a book plate, designed by Ashland Art Center executive director and founder Denise Baxter.

After that, they broke up into smaller groups, some taking over portions of the stage and some spilling out into the grass in front of the building. Volunteers and teachers read the books until it was time for the barbecue.

“I felt kind of like excited,” Bellview Elementary first-grader Nicole Compeau said between books. “I think (the stories) were really nice. I love the backpack.

“I kind of read every night. Sometimes I read books about reptiles, because I love reptiles.”

Josie Christensen, who attends Helman Elementary, also had a blast Wednesday. She picked “This Book Just Ate My Dog” and was excited to crack it open later.

“It’s really funny when everything gets swallowed into the book except for the girl,” she said.

Christensen said she won’t have a problem following Jorgensen’s advice and reading every day over the summer. She’s currently working her way through the Harry Potter series, but has a long way to go.

“I love to read. I’m on the third one right now, ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’” she said. “I’m reading Harry Potter until I’m on the last one.”

Besides providing three dozen volunteers, the Rotary Club also funded the event with a $3,500 grant and other club funds. The backpacks were provided by the Ashland Friends of the Library, and TreeHouse Books offered the books at a huge discount.

Jorgensen said every town that adopts his program adds its own spin to it, and he described Ashland’s theater setting as, “just really about as close to perfect as we get.”

The story about the good queen Sue that he tells at every festival comes from the heart, as anybody who knows his story can tell. In it, the “very good and very beautiful” queen who ruled over the magical kingdom of books loved two things: books and children. When an evil Grinch threatens the good queen and her royal subjects, she defeats him with a magical spell, which the students shout in a deafening chorus: “Sniggeldy snee, we want to read!”

Near the end, Jorgensen explains that if you read every day, the good queen will look down and say, “This is a good and wonderful thing.” It’s a line that still gets to Jorgensen. Every time.

“In all honesty, I’m talking to Sue when I say that,” he said. “Every so often, even after all these years, it’s still, 'Oh, there was a little quiver in the voice there.’ It is between she and I at that moment.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.