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Bill Thorndike: Medford is home, not a stopover

Interview by Steve Boyarsky

Editor's note: Community Builders is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local individuals who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today's interview is with Bill Thorndike.

Q — How long have you been a resident of Southern Oregon and how has the region changed in this time?

Bill T. — Both sets of grandparents moved to the Rogue Valley in the early 20th century. My mother’s father, Carl Tengwald, arrived in early part of 1900s in his teens and Grandfather Thorndike came to Medford in 1924. He was a banker and the Commerce Club (predecessor to Medford Chamber) promised him that he could heat his house in the winter with just one cord of wood.

Coming from Montana, this sounded pretty good. My grandfather always kept a shed of full of wood at the house, not that he burned much wood, but he kept his insurance policy in case of cold winters. My grandfather was the manager of the First National Bank of Medford. At the time of the move, my father was 6 months old.

My mother’s father was the nephew of John Westerlund, who built the Holland Hotel and developed much of east Medford. The orchard industry of the Rogue Valley was originally apples, but with no irrigation. John Westerlund was very successful and political; he was a state senator. My grandfather arrived from the Midwest and Westerlund, who had no sons, kind of took care of my grandfather.

My grandfather loved the new national parks created at the start of the 20th century. At that time the National Guard was in charge of overseeing the national park.

We have a photo from my grandfather as a Oregon National Guard officer at Crater Lake firing artillery on a snow field, not something that would play well now, but my family has had a long history in Southern Oregon.

I went through the Medford school system and graduated in 1972. I went to Lewis and Clark College and then half a year at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. After college graduation I started working at the family business, Med Fab, in White City. I spent five years in the White City operation and then moved to the main business. This will be my 40th year at Medford Fabrication.

Q — You’ve seen Medford at 25,000 and now somewhere at 80,000 people.

Bill T. — I remember growing up in the “cycle,” the price of lumber and the price of pears. Those two products pretty much determined if Southern Oregon businesses were expanding or contracting. In the early 1980s, as timber practices changed, the conversion of wood products had to be more efficient. Medford Fabrication used to build wig-wam burners. At the time, the timber producers took the very best of the logs and you had to get rid of the unused portion; that got burned up. I remember the smudge in the spring from heating the pear orchards. Older kids worked smudging the orchards.

Between the wig-wam burners and smudging the orchards and stuff, it was a different time. By the 1980s I’m back in the main facility in Medford. I remember feeling the effects of the recession in the business, but not seeing it in the town as the opening of the Rogue Valley Mall.

I think it is interesting as we look at the evolution of industries in the state, in Southwest Oregon still wood products are important, but we have that category called “other” that might be the best definitions of what has happened to us. We have evolved into a very diversified economy. There are small manufacturers and people working in the Rogue Valley now doing unbelievable things, in tiny niche markets, most people don’t have a clue. There is a machine shop that machines parts out of some of the hardest materials known to man. In Oregon Business Magazine there was an article talking about a business in Southern Oregon that has figured out how to lay down gold at the micron level. We don’t hear about these companies, you might hear about Brammo but there is this diverse economy in small pockets.

This is a strength, but it also challenges in the future is how to keep those businesses here. How do we develop the type of talent that they want and need? So like Linx Technologies in the Merlin area, how do we provide the basics so we can meet their employment needs so when they grow or want to stay here there is an opportunity to keep those businesses here?

This is probably the biggest challenge that we have. The reality is we probably won’t see another Harry and David-size food processing plant, we probably won’t see another Amy’s Kitchen, but again we might have 20 other small operations that are involved in food that collectively will represent 200 to 500 employees, but they are spread out throughout a lot of different companies. That is one of the things we are going to have to figure out; how do we maintain that?

Tangentially to that, the opportunity I had as I developed my career and community involvement was …. I had access to a lot of mentors, who were assigned here to work, but also contributed tremendously to the community. This is one of the challenges we have now.

The banks … we used to have Jim Ford, bank managers that really participated in the community. They were local. We used to have the utilities, the Skip Pattersons, the Gary Millers of the world that were assigned to relatively smaller territories. Current managers are assigned to a much wider areas. We don’t have that intermediate management group who also were given enough latitude by their employers to be involved in the community. Even to the point that these people were involved legislatively.

It was a gift to me to have these individuals in the community to serve as teachers and mentors — Al Meyer, Ben Tyrans of the world, Otto Frohnmayer, Dunbar Carpenter, all were there to help develop younger community leaders.

I’m also aware that during my life, that generally speaking, these were white male business people who helped me. I’m fully aware that structurally and demographically our community is going through so many more changes in becoming more diverse there are so many questions around equity and participation and, again, it is an opportunity or a challenge because as it is more complex as we have become more complex to build that infrastructure.

Q — Is it possible, in today’s world, with more consolidated organizations, to build community leaders in a way that has been done in the past or does it have to be in a different way?

Bill T. — I think it just has to be done in a different way. There are opportunities to participate in the American Leadership Forum, that is done on a statewide basis is very unique. You go back to the Don Frisbees, the Dick Hensleys, what the leaders knew they were seeing happening, they recognized the solution was “how do we improve leadership and community responsibility among groups who honestly didn’t have a seat at the table in the past.” We are moving towards that, it’s still new, it’s still different for me to think in different ways. Generally communities while they like improvements, they are resistant to change.

I was at a meeting yesterday that was citing as an example Yakima. Roughly one-third of the population is Latino, half a dozen years ago there were no Latinos on the city council — zero/none — (and) that same situation existed on school boards. We are starting to see the evolution, the crotchety white guy city councilman in a photograph with a bunch of similar white males was the norm 10 years ago; today he is the only white male left. The counsel is now much more diverse.

Q — Would you say Southern Oregon is a better place to live now than it was 40-50 years ago, or a different place to live?

Bill T. — I think it is a different place to live, but also still a tremendously rich place to live. I’m a member of the Medford Rogue Rotary Club on Friday, we recognize students from every public and private school in Medford during the year; it still so inspiring to hear what so many young people are involved in, what they are doing, where they want to go and do. I still feel that the opportunities are tremendous.

The other area, honestly, we experienced it, but probably didn’t realize it, was the effects of better physical and mental health. As a kid I certainly had friends that had mental health issues or physical issues that weren’t really taken care of as well as they could be, whereas today those kids are part of our community, and with the challenges and opportunities.

That brings with it the challenges of how do we keep kids in the system, rather than being separated and segregated, a pretty fundamental shift. There was a time, “What happened to Johnny?” “Well Johnny isn’t around here anymore.” Today Johnny is worked with — again, those are things that improve the community but some people just looking at the community would say “Poor Medford, I saw this today,” or whatever. So again I’d say we are making some progress.

Q — You’ve identified a couple of challenges for the region: to support entrepreneurship; to support new development; to support small companies, what are some other things that you think are critical needs of our area that we need to focus?

Bill T. — I have an awful time saying no to anything, but I always said two positions I have said no to are serving on a country club board and a school board. But when we were able to get regional authority over our university, this is just too incredible. It is integral to what we have to do.

Southern Oregon University now has its own local board which changes all the dynamics of relationships. Now we are on a more equal footing as the community colleges, the local school districts, the ESDs, where also now we can figure out how we can get kids to move within our system.

It will take some continued caring and involvement but what we have done around the workforce council, what Jim Fong has done, I think the opportunities that have presented themselves based on Rogue Community College coming into Jackson County developing a whole new relationship with the higher education system. We really do think of it as student-centric, credit-based (we don’t care from which institution the credits are generated) to help develop that educated workforce.

That is a huge thing for us to do. I’ve spent a lot of time right now dedicated to that, between the bond issue for RCC, serving as chair of SOU Board of Trustees. The SORS project. We have so many things going right now, we need to continue the consistent pressure of moving all this forward.

The other thing I continue to be struck with, and it is opportunistic right now, is around the Rogue Valley Transportation District to enhance public transport. Some of the work I’m involved with to reduce poverty is centered around “How does a young family manage a budget to have the resources to provide the type of nurturing and safety, etc., for our families?"

One of the areas that unfortunately they are at a disadvantage is around transportation. You are a young couple with a couple little kids, that car is costing $500-$1,000 per month to maintain to run, to get kids to school, to get to doctor appointment to get to and from work. It is something that we as a community need to come to grips with the reality that in today’s world a lot of people would like to have alternatives to driving their own car or a second car and hogging up a piece of road. To me there are two issues: improvement around quality education and refining our transportation alternatives.

Q — Are there communities in your travels and work with other boards that we could emulate, who should we look to for ideas?

Bill T. — There is the uniqueness of our size right now, we probably have to stretch ourselves right now. Benchmarking ourselves to Redding or Chico.

Q — What image or vision do you have for our region? What do you see coming down the road?

Bill T. — I think we have to continue to be aware that we share resources, whether it is air, water quality or transportation systems, where we keep up with the infrastructure such as the Internet, how fast a speed we have for that. We are seeing some challenges to that, particularly with our friends in Josephine County, again knock on wood, we dodged a lot of bullets by accepting the diversification and the changing economy. Not that that bullets aren’t still out there, but we’re in a little better shape.

An example, the reality is one-third of the best jobs we have have to do with health care. That immediately poses the question, “Can we produce the type of workers that will be successful in the health care industry?” In a very different health care industry than you and I got 25 years ago. Informatics, electronic medical health records. I think there is a tremendous opportunity to think about this more actively.

We are exploring at SOU, a bachelor’s degree in life or health sciences. When integrating life science, with the technical skills, the soft skills, the people skills. There is a tremendous opportunity for that. Here is RCC getting a wonderful grant to help educate folks for entry level positions in health care. The first thing I ask myself is what are we going to do for students who really excel in this, first generation people, many of them coming out of poverty have a skill set that they can get an entry level job in health care. What are we going to do then for those who have the drive, the stamina, the brains to produce the technician, or the registered nurse, or the doctor?

Q — Let me preface this with my observation, I would like to get your response. I moved to Medford in 1975. In 1975 there were 300 days in which the air in the Rogue Valley was out of compliance with federal air standards. Air quality was horrible. It had a small town, but kind of a provincial feel to it. I think the Rogue Valley is a better place to live now than 40 years ago, because of things that have changed. There are more opportunities, more cultural activities, it just seems like a better place to raise a family than when we first moved here.

Bill T. — I would agree. How many more soccer fields, more baseball fields are there now? We could still use some more public swimming pools.

Right now we are benefiting from the generosity of families that have really … they continue to pay back: the Carpenter family, the Naumes family, the Mahar family, the Meeses, the DeBoers. We are so fortunate to have people to have considered it to be home and that they were willing to help improve their community.

One of the things that scares me, I asked a PSU professor in the Urban Studies group, “Why does Medford have more of a downtown like Portland than a Beaverton, or a Tigard, or a Hillsboro?"

His answer was that the businesses that people are working for: the Textronics, the Nikes, the high tech firms, these employees they parachute in and while they are here they want everything for them and their families. They want to get to the coast in an hour, they want to ski they want this, this and this. When if you ask, “What are you going to do for Oregon in the long term?” (they respond) “Well, this is just a stopover, this is not the destination.”

To a certain degree Medford for me and my family has been the destination. The destination is the place you care about for the long term. When I think of Oregon Community Foundation, the Carpenter Foundation, I see the results of the commitment to the community for the long term. It is a very critical thing for us to keep our hands around. It is kind of the “secret sauce” type of thing.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

A third-generation resident of the Rogue Valley, Bill Thorndike operates Medford Fabrication and is involved in a wide variety of boards and commissions. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch