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A lifetime spent opening up the world

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Larry Smith, a retired educator, Crater Lake ranger and executive director of the Jacksonville Woodlands Association.

Q: The theme of your community involvement is preservation and development of outdoor space. Why are hiking trails and outdoor space important to you?

Larry: There are several reasons for having trails. One is just the old saw; get healthy, get fit and get outside. In 1989 we started the Jacksonville Woodlands Association just to preserve land. Then we realized people want access to this land, so we started working on that and pretty soon we had 16 miles of trails here in Jacksonville. We had gold mines here and no access to get up to them. Now 2,000 people a month are going up and looking at the gold mines. Another reason was education. When you get there, what is it? We have 40 plaques up now, big informational plaques. Plus, we have a book and a video tape. All of these goals have grown together, so it’s a package. You have to preserve the land. You have to have the access to it, and then you have to have information. No other place in Oregon has all of these things. People are so grateful that these trails are here, and they’re within one block of the historic district.

Q: Tell us more about the origins of the Jacksonville Woodlands Association.

Larry: We started out to preserve one 20-acre parcel behind the Beekman House and then we had planned just to go out of business. It so happened that Jacksonville was in a building moratorium. You couldn’t build any houses up there. It was zoned for 20 houses. We did an appraisal and found out it was worth $124,000. For 20 acres! So we negotiated with the state and managed to buy it and gave it to the city of Jacksonville. The city of Jacksonville didn’t really want it. They said, “What’s it going to cost us?” We told them, “Nothing. We will stay in business long enough to take care of that property,” and we’ve committed to that now for 26 years. Then suddenly Southern Oregon University decided to sell the Britt property, almost 80 acres. It was outside the urban growth boundary and couldn’t be developed. Plus, there was still a moratorium, so we got almost 80 acres for $140,000.

Q: How much money have you raised to buy these outdoor spaces?

Larry: We have raised $4.5 million. We started going to granting organizations. BLM came on board immediately. No real money, but a lot of technical support, initially. People really got on board. At our first meeting we raised about $20,000. We couldn’t believe it.

Q: What are you most proud of in the development of outdoor spaces?

Larry: No other city in Oregon has been able to create what we’ve done here in Jacksonville with a totally volunteer staff. Sure, Portland has a multimillion-dollar tax base to buy park land, and they’ve been buying thousands of acres up there. They have a professional staff of 50 people who are buying all this land and putting in plants. We’re a bunch of volunteers in a little tiny town, a little tiny staff. Jacksonville is run by volunteers, the Boosters Club and the Lions Club, the Chamber of Commerce and all of these other clubs. These are all volunteers. The Woodlands Association, with community support, is the most successful small-town volunteer land preservation project in the state of Oregon.

Q: What are the effects of exposing kids to the outdoors?

Larry: I’ll never forget a story from Dr. Irene Hollenbeck from Southern Oregon College. She said so many teachers go outside and they pick up an oak leaf. They walk in and they hold it up to the class and say, “Here’s an oak leaf kids.” I’ll never forget what she said next, “Take ‘em outside and take a look at the tree!” That became my philosophy in teaching. I wanted to get kids outside as much as I could.

When you take kids outside and they see their first Fritillaria growing in the wild, the excitement! We start counting them on a hike and the effect is that it opens up their eyes. There are only two rules in my outdoor classroom: Keep your hands to yourself and shut up when you don’t need to talk. I’d say, “If you keep those two rules, you’ll never have a problem.” Then the next thing I would tell them is, “My job is to open up the world to you.” That’s why we spent so much time outside.

Q: What does Crater Lake National Park mean to you?

Larry: My dad worked for Tucker Sno-Cat Corporation, and in those days Sno-Cats were invited to run around in the park. They’d take out full-page ads in the Mail Tribune saying meet us at Crater Lake and get free rides on the cats. They had this big trailer that would hold 30 or 40 people, and they’d run visitors all around the rim. The park was thrilled to have that type of activity. Now, of course, it’s illegal to run motorized vehicles in that part of the park. In my childhood I mostly saw the park in the winter.

Then, when I was 20 years old, I went to Crater Lake to visit my twin brother, who got a job up there building trails. The next summer, in 1961, I applied and got on, and I’m still involved. It’s been 56 years that I’ve been involved with Crater Lake. I run the winter volunteer program up there now.

So back to the original question, “What does Crater Lake mean to me? It’s my life. We raised our kids up there in the summer, it was their playground. What other kids could grow up inside of a national park like that? My son, Brian, climbed on everything in the park. He ended up climbing Mount Everest. I’ve got a grandson named Everest. He was named before the expedition. He’s 14 years old, neat kid. He’s named because his dad wanted to look at him every day and think, "That was my dream, to climb Mount Everest."

Q: You grew up in the Rogue Valley. What was that like?

Larry: I grew up on a little farm south of Phoenix. My father went to Los Angeles in 1928 to go to high school. He worked for several years in LA, but Dad wanted to raise his boys on a farm. He found eight acres between Phoenix and Talent. We got it for $500 an acre and we lived there for 20 years. We had milk cows and pigs and chickens. I was driving a tractor by the time I was 8. We grew our own hay and raised our own meat and milk. We did our own butchering. My dad was so handy. He could do anything.

Mother and Dad both left for work early in the morning. Dad was working for Snyder’s Dairy, and Mother was working for Harry and David. They would set a timer when they left, When it went off, “OK, it’s time to go to school.” We’d walk down Pacific Highway one mile to Phoenix Elementary. That’s what we did! Other kids would join us along the way, like a walking school bus. Oh, and Phoenix had board sidewalks. We’d walk on them to the elementary school, up Third Street.

All the kids who went to Phoenix were from farm or logging or trades families, so we all had a kindred spirit. In fact, three miles outside of Phoenix, people didn’t even have electricity. I remember the Kuzel kids coming in, talking about trimming their lamps, and it suddenly dawned on us that they didn’t have electricity. In seventh grade, they announced that they finally had electricity. That was that rural electrification program that Roosevelt started, but it didn’t get to Phoenix until 1951.

Q: Tell me about your twin brother.

Larry: When we started school, the principal said we had to be separated. Well, we only had one first grade, then only one second grade. By the time we got to third grade, there were two classes. My mother said, “You’re not separating these twins.” All through school, including college, we had only one class separate from each other.

My brother, Lloyd, has always been close. … We work together so well. He taught in Grants Pass for 25 years. He taught photography. I taught photography. We both worked at Crater Lake as park rangers for years. My two kids and his two kids grew up together at Crater Lake National Park. My twin brother is really special to me.

Q: What other people have been an inspiration to you?

Larry: My parents, oh, my goodness. We couldn’t have had nicer parents. Mrs. Sloan, my sixth-grade teacher, was outstanding. She could just sparkle people. Mrs. Thompson, my third-grade teacher, she could bring the Oregon Trail alive. Mr. Bertrand, who’s still living, was my seventh-grade teacher. We really enjoyed him.

Robert Cornwall, a minister in Ashland, was an inspiration. He found my wife for me. He knew Linda from working in a youth camp at Willow Creek. She was from Williams. He introduced us, and we’ve been together for 51 years now.

And, of course, my wife, Linda. If I needed a poster made, Linda would make it. She has this beautiful handwriting. If I need something hauled to get set up for a program, she’d help me do that. Linda loves to travel, and she puts together fabulous trips. Because of Linda, we have been in 75 countries in the world. I have a lot of travel stories that I tell in classrooms based on experiences that we’ve had.

Right now I find students inspiring me. I ran an after-school darkroom for 25 years. They had to roll their own film, develop it and print their own photos. Ten-year-old kids turned out some of the most beautiful photographs. How they could create things.

We don’t live in a vacuum. No man is an island. If you keep your hands to yourself and don’t use your mouth if you don’t need to, you’re going to have great success.

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

Larry Smith is director of the Jacksonville Woodlands Association. [Mail Tribune / File Photo]