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SOHS at a Crossroads: A Crucial Moment in His Story

Executive Director John Enders has had to cut staff at the Southern Oregon Historical Society by half since he came on board in 2002. / Bob Pennell — — — With Southern Oregon's cultural database at stake, its supervisor faces troubles of his own —

An institution that has been the repository and caretaker of Jackson County's rich history for 60 years is showing the strain of a decade of staff cuts and an uncertain future.

The Southern Oregon Historical Society could see roughly 60 percent of its revenues disappear if the county refuses to continue funding the society when its budget is renegotiated by July 2007.

At the society's helm during this tumultuous period is John Enders, a former journalist who has had to cut staff by half since he came on board in 2002. His leadership style is praised by board members who applaud his ability to make tough decisions. But some current and former employees and ex-volunteers say Enders alienates people at a time when the society needs support the most.

A key and well-respected employee, library manager Carol Harbison Samuelson, said she considered resigning Friday, citing a hostile work environment fostered by Enders.

We've never had an executive director that has spoken to staff the way he has, said Harbison Samuelson, who has been with the historical society for 21 years. It isn't the cuts that have led to all the turmoil ' it's John.

— She said Enders has intimidated staff and has blown up and yelled at her and other employees, cutting off anyone with viewpoints in opposition to his own.

Harbison Samuelson said Enders, who instructed his staff members last week to speak their mind to the for this story, has spent the past three years surrounding himself with employees who don't challenge him.

While Harbison Samuelson and others think Enders isn't the man to lead the organization through these difficult times, a majority of the historical society's board members and many employees endorse Enders' performance.

When you do this kind of transition, and when you do the kind of downsizing that we've been forced to do, you hurt people and you hurt programs and you create an incredible amount of tension and stress inside the organization, said Enders, a former and Associated Press journalist who receives &

36;64,800 annually as executive director.

Enders acknowledged that not everyone warms up to his style of management.

I'm not very patient with incompetence or unprofessionalism, and there is a lot of that in this valley, he said. Some people are relieved to actually have a director who says what he means and doesn't play games, and other people aren't used to that.

He said many employees miss the days when they could bypass him and report directly to the board.

If I think something is going on that shouldn't go on, I'll tell people that, said Enders. What you see is what you get.

Board member Tom Pyle said he supports Enders.

When you cut a staff 44 to 19 people, you're going to have a bunch of upset people, he said. I don't think you can be totally warm and fuzzy doing that.

But Harbison Samuelson and another longtime employee, who asked not to be identified, said Enders has a much more abrasive style than board members might imagine.

When Harbison Samuelson tries to speak up with Enders, she said, He seems to take pleasure in humiliating me and telling me to stop it.

Though Enders can be charming and nice at times, she said, If I express concern about something, he uses intimidation and he will cut you off and say it's over.

Harbison Samuelson, who agonized over her decision to speak publicly about her views, said other employees share her concerns.

Enders, Harbison Samuelson and some supporters of the historical society worry that negative publicity could hurt the organization in its efforts to generate more income.

This is not about me, said Enders. It's about the future of the (historical) society.

Enders said to survive financially, the historical society has cut its living history program, no longer has daily programs at Hanley Farm in the summer, closed its administrative offices in downtown Medford, cut back on its outreach to schools, raised fees and relies more and more on volunteers.

In its current &

36;1.1 million budget, about &

36;700,000 comes from county funds, an arrangement that likely will end in July 2007 as the county itself faces its own budget problems.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour said he is doubtful that the county could come up with money to help the historical society.

Saying that the county's expectation is that funding to the historical society will be phased out, Gilmour said, We're hoping that during that transition period that they would become more independent.

Enders said he believes the county has a responsibility to send some financial support to the historical society, which is caretaker of county buildings such as the Beekman House, the Beekman Bank, the Jacksonville Museum and the U.S. Hotel.

The society is also keeper of some 80,000 Southern Oregon artifacts and 750,000 photographs.

While the deep cuts have been painful, Enders said the historical society has become more efficient, has a clearer focus and has cut away financial fat. He said this has meant getting rid of pet projects and pet agendas.

He said there is no magic bullet that the historical society has found to make up for the loss of county funding.

The future is very cloudy, said board president Bob Stevens. We may be a totally member-supported organization in a short time ' that's the worst possible case.

Ben Truwe, a volunteer who was fired by Enders shortly after he publicly criticized the director at a board meeting last fall, said Enders has been making enemies at a time when he should be building bridges.

The larger issue is the society is dying, said Truwe, who said he was rookie volunteer of the year in 2005. In a year there will be nothing.

Instead of supporting volunteers like himself who want to do everything they can to raise money for the society, Truwe said Enders is pushing them out.

Efforts made to raise money from archival footage of the Peter Britt House or other suggestions have been turned down, he said.

Enders scolded me like a naughty little child, said Truwe.

April Thomas said she was also fired as a volunteer after she tried to raise money to help rehabilitate the historic Beekman House in Jacksonville.

Thomas, who said she ran a visitor center at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, said she and other volunteers were organizing a boutique before Christmas 2004 to sell craft items that they made to benefit restoration of the Beekman House.

A local television station came out to report on the benefit, which she said raised &

36;400.

We were forbidden to talk to the press, she said.

She said she sent Enders letters explaining her position, but received no replies. He sent me something back saying you'd be better off somewhere else, said Thomas.

Enders said that there are many proposals for raising money before the historical society, but they need to cleared through the proper channels and some are too expensive to pursue. Still, he regrets that Thomas and Truwe feel the way they do.

We've alienated a couple (volunteers) clearly, said Enders. It's unfortunate. It's not our intention. They can't get on board with our program.

Enders said Truwe has made a number of allegations about employee unrest, but the society has had only one informal grievance from an employee, and it was resolved. The rest is hearsay and unsubstantiated allegations, Enders said.

Enders insists the historical society has a strong volunteer program with 250 volunteers.

Tracy Murphy worked at the historical society for two years before she was fired as graphic designer and photographer.

She said she worked closely with Enders and generally got along with him fine.

My complaints were that my workload was a lot for one person, she said.

Though 15 people lost their jobs because of cutbacks, Murphy said, the amount of work remained the same. Murphy said she was working 70 to 80 hours a week on deadline for the society's magazine, Southern Oregon Heritage Today.

Enders told me to work faster, she said. I was working at home, after hours and on weekends.

Then on Oct. 6, 2005, she received a written reprimand from Enders because she didn't show up for work.

Murphy said she had been at work, but had to leave early because her daughter was taken to the emergency room.

She wrote a letter to the board of trustees, explaining her situation.

Murphy said she was fired on March 6, her birthday.

I think he (Enders) saw me as a troublesome employee because I went over his head, she said.

Murphy, who is unemployed and looking for work, said she plans to file a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industry.

Enders said he couldn't discuss personnel issues that have been raised by former or current employees.

Jay Leighton, a former employee in the programs, exhibits and oral history and a current volunteer, said, In many ways John has done a brilliant job.

However, Leighton said Enders has a rough technique for dealing with problems. I've seen him be abrupt and harsh with people that is totally unnecessary.

Leighton believes with the emphasis mostly on downsizing in recent years, there hasn't been enough fundraising efforts.

He said Jackson County residents need to become more aware that the history of this area is at stake.

The historical society has been entrusted by the citizens to take care of artifacts and buildings, said Leighton. The citizens of the county need to take responsibility.

Other staff members present a far different picture of the inner workings of the historical society.

Harley Patrick, the public relations and marketing coordinator, said he thinks only a small percentage of employees are upset with Enders or the direction the historical society is headed.

I've been here just over a year now and so far for me it has been a really great experience, he said.

Staff members have pulled together, and the staff reductions have been handled as well as possible under the circumstances, said Patrick.

The majority of the people work together really well, he said. I've never seen an organization where everyone is thrilled and happy about what's going on.

Richard Seidman, development coordinator for the past three years, said the historical society is moving in an exciting direction away from an assured funding source to one that is more dependent on memberships for survival.

It forces us to be more responsive and sort of assertive in getting our message across, he said.

Membership, he said, declined three years ago during a lawsuit with the county but is back up to 1,500 members now, about the same as it was in 2002. Memberships brought in about &

36;75,000 during fiscal year 2004-05.

He said the society will try to get more members this coming fiscal year by reaching out to families and newcomers to Jackson County.

Regarding Enders, Seidman said, I really enjoy having John as a boss. I appreciate his leadership, and I don't envy his decisions in light of the financial realities.

Board member Kathie Olsen said she realizes a lot of the staff are under great pressure, being called upon to do the work of two or three of their former colleagues.

Real human beings are really being humanly hurt, she said. Inevitably people are unhappy.

But she believes the steps Enders has taken and the progress he has made toward making the historical society more financially sound have been painful but necessary.

I don't think it's fair to smack John around for something that is the community's problem, said Olsen, who thinks the residents of Jackson County need to show their support for the historical society. We would not keep someone there if we thought they were hurting our organization.

Of the 14 board members, seven gave Enders a ringing endorsement, two wouldn't comment, two gave him mixed reviews, two couldn't be reached, and one, Ed Jorgenson, was critical.

The guy is in over his head, said Jorgenson. He's not an historian. He has no people skills. He rubs people the wrong way.

He describes Enders' style as autocratic. He runs things very much like the Bush White House, he said.

Jorgenson acknowledges that much of what he bases his feelings on is hearsay, but he believes Enders does not have the experience to lead the historical society through these difficult times.

Enders, a lifelong journalist, was hired in 2002 just as the historical society and the county faced off in a legal battle over funding. Since then, because of reduced funding from the county, he has been forced to cut the staff by about 50 percent.

I clearly rub Ed Jorgenson the wrong way and for the life of me I can't figure out why, said Enders. Essentially we have one person on board who's really not on board with our agenda.

Stevens, the board president, said the historical society has endured some rocky times. At the moment Ed is the only one who does not endorse John.

Stevens, however, firmly endorses Enders. John is the right man for the job, he said.

Another board member, Warren Merz, said he's not sure whether there is a problem with Enders.

I can't condemn John, he said. On the other hand, I can't endorse him.

He does believe Enders runs a tight ship, but he said he doesn't have a good idea of the inner workings of the historical society, although he's heard a lot of anecdotal complaints about Enders.

Another board member, Pat Clason, said there is discontent among current employees and much criticism of Enders' management style.

With the kind of staff and budget cuts the historical society has sustained, Clason, like several other board members, said, John Enders does not have an easy job.

Harbison Samuelson said she agonized over whether she should resign, fearing that staying with the organization would jeopardize her health.

Ultimately she said her love for the historical society and what it means for the citizens of Jackson County persuaded her to stay.

The historical society is important to me, she said. You do it for the love, not the money.

SOHS at a Crossroads: A Crucial Moment in His Story"dmann@mailtribune.com.

Executive Director John Enders has had to cut staff at the Southern Oregon Historical Society by half since he came on board in 2002. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune images