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Jim Wright lost his sight but still has vision

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 longtime businessman Jim Wright.

Q: You’ve spent your life in Southern Oregon, have you ever seen anything like the Almeda fire?

Jim: No, I’ve never seen anything as destructive. I was born in Ashland and lived all my life in Southern Oregon. I’ve seen local disasters. In 1958 fires were set by an arsonist on Dead Indian Memorial Road, behind the Lithia Park watershed and up in the Applegate area. They caught the man. But it was nothing, nothing like this. There were no residences lost, nothing like this. These are the kinds of things that seem to happen to other people. You hear about the tragic fires in Napa or Paradise. This is Southern Oregon, this is us. I’ve never seen anything like this, not in Southern Oregon.

Q: How can we rebound from the fires?

Jim: One of the gentlemen I’ve always admired was Jackson County administrator from the late 1980s into the early 2000s, Burke Raymond. Burke said, “Southern Oregon is unique because it is far enough away from the power centers of the state that they have to just buck up, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take care of themselves. They don’t look outside for a lot of other support. They do it themselves.”

I’m certain that’s what will happen with these fires. The people of this valley, as is already evidenced by the number of donations at The Expo, many businesses and various nonprofits, are helping those who have been terribly devastated by this fire — offering their hand out and a hand up. I watched a press conference with chiefs of police and fire chiefs sharing what they were doing. They were working together and cooperating with the power company and other utilities. We will overcome these fires and come out of this stronger.

Q: The medical community is a big part of Southern Oregon. Tell us about the Asante Foundation and the work they’re doing.

Jim: The Asante Foundation is another example of local people working together to build outstanding medical facilities for our region. In 1958 when the original hospital was built on Barnett, way out in the country at the time, they raised $2.8 million. In today’s dollars that would be close to $29 million dollars. The Carpenter family gave a $500,000 lead gift. Then other community leaders jumped on the bandwagon, people like Otto Frohnmayer and Glenn Jackson. I understand the organizers provided breakfast for 250 people and then sent them door-to-door to raise money for the hospital. That’s how grassroots it was.

I’ve been affiliated with the hospital and the Asante Foundation since the mid 1990s. In 2003 we raised $13 million for the new tower addition to the hospital. The Asante Foundation recently launched a $50 million campaign with leadership of the Campaign Council. The money is being raised to build multiple medical facilities. This campaign is helping build a new behavioral health unit and a new pavilion that will house a women’s and children’s hospital, a cardiac and critical care as well as a new surgical platform, and an addition to the Spears Cancer Center in Grants Pass. The most obvious addition is a new regional cancer center that is being built near Rogue Regional Medical Center that will offer advanced cancer services. Patients can get the majority of the work done right here in Southern Oregon. The Asante Forward Campaign is far-reaching and will touch everyone in the valley.

Q: What about Southern Oregon makes it a desirable place to live?

Jim: In my estimation there’s four basic pillars that make a community like Southern Oregon a great place to live. Outdoor recreation: skiing, fishing, hunting, water recreation and forests. Then you have education. We have that pillar with SOU and RCC through the Higher Ed Center in downtown Medford. The elementary and secondary schools are solid, and the cooperation going on with Oregon Institute of Technology and SOU is exciting. Southern Oregon has always excelled in the availability of cultural activities: Britt Music Festival, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Cabaret Theater, the performing arts at SOU. We are rich with arts and culture. Health care is one of the stronger pillars, because it involves everyone in the valley. Asante now employs 6,000 people. We are somewhat isolated in Southern Oregon and we need to take care of our own. A high-quality health care system and a regional hospital is the fourth pillar that makes this a wonderful place to live.

Q: Why is community involvement a theme for you?

Jim: I had a wonderful childhood in Ashland. I went to Southern Oregon College where I met my wife, Judy. We raised three sons in the Rogue Valley. I’ve been blessed in so many ways. When you’ve received as much as I have from a community, involvement is a small way I can give back. I continually find that I get more out of my involvement than what I put in.

Q: You lost your vision, tell me about that and how you accommodate?

Jim: I have a progressive eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa. They diagnosed it when I was 12 years old, but it was slow progressing. In 1987 I had to quit driving. I was fortunate that LTM (Lininger True Mix) found a way that they could hire a driver to keep me involved. My driver did other work for the company when he wasn’t driving me. I had enough eyesight to do most aspects of my job. My wife and friends stepped up to help. So, I’ve been blessed with people surrounding me who helped me remain involved. I joined People’s Bank Board in 2003. Bud Kaufman would pick me up and we’d go to the meetings together. Now Roy Vineyard, Judy and my kids take me. We have two sons still in the valley, and David will pick me up and take me. LTM sold to Knife River, and they helped me adapt with screen reading programs for my computer. I was blessed to be losing my eyesight at a time when technology could help me accommodate. And people accept me. I learned to enjoy friendships in ways that most people don’t get to. I can’t imagine myself at this point being sighted. The biggest thing I miss is not being been able to see my grandkids. That one does bother me.

Q: What was it like growing up in Ashland?

Jim: We lived close to Lithia Park. When I was 6 or 7, I’d spend the day at Lithia Park playing. Never worrying. My Grandfather Wright, in his late 70s, would typically sit at the entrance to the park and I’d stop and talk with him in the morning. It was an idyllic childhood. I graduated in 1958 from Ashland High. I’m still close friends with my high school and grade school classmates. At that time, there was about 10 sawmills in or near the Ashland city limits. Any kid that graduated from high school immediately had a job working in one of the mills if they decided not to go on to college.

Q: Tell us a little about your professional career.

Jim: My grandfather on my mother’s side was M.C. Lininger, he was an entrepreneur. He came to Ashland in 1911 as a telegrapher for the railroad. He got involved with the cannery with my Uncle Bruce. Then my grandfather started a hardware business. He noticed nobody was providing plasterers with materials. So, he found a location out by Jackson Hot Springs to begin making plaster sand. My Uncle Raymond and a friend would go after high school classes to screen sand and deliver it. By the late 1930s they were in the sand and gravel business. When Camp White was being built, they opened M.C. Lininger and Sons in Central Point. I worked there in the summers from the time I was 12 until I graduated from high school. After graduating from Southern Oregon, I sold ready mix and worked in the field for years. My brother and four cousins were all involved in the business. There were basically six family members in the company working together. I ended up in the early 1980s being president of the company. We merged with True Mix in 1988 and then sold the company in 1990 to Knife River. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the company through all those steps.

Q: What would you like to see improved in Southern Oregon that would make life better?

Jim: I would like to see more work opportunities for young people in the valley, which I think we’re doing. Working as a community together to rebuild the areas devastated by the fires in Phoenix and Talent will be unifying. While they are very different from when I grew up, Medford and Ashland are better in so many ways than they were then. I would like to see a continuation of progress in the valley, to reach out for more people to be involved.

Q: What’s clearer to you now at this stage of your life?

Jim: It is clear that community leadership and visionary people have made a difference in this valley. Organizations need visionary leadership to strategically see and plan growth to make it better for everyone. Elmo Stevenson was one of those visionary leaders at what is now Southern Oregon University. Tom Becker, in association with others, planned property acquisition for the Rogue Valley Manor to grow as it has. Roy Vinyard served as a visionary leader for Asante. Ironic for me is the importance of vision. You don’t have to see to have vision.

Q: What would you like to say to the Rogue Valley?

Jim: How many ways can a person say thank you? When you’ve had a life as blessed as I have, you look back and say, “Why me?” I was fortunate to be born in this country and surrounded by remarkable people. I don’t know enough ways to say “thank you.”

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

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Asante Regional Cancer Center

“You have cancer.”

Each year in Southern Oregon, more than 2,000 people hear those life-altering words. Chances are, every member of this community will come face-to-face with this devastating illness either personally or alongside a loved one.

Asante’s planned regional cancer center will establish the Rogue Valley as a destination for coordinated, integrated cancer care that puts patients and their families first. Talented physicians — medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and specialty providers — will collaborate to deliver the best care possible. In this facility, patients will have access to state-of-the-art infusion and radiation treatment facilities in one location.

This cancer center will redefine compassionate care, wrapping around patients and their families in their time of need.

The goal is to raise at least $10 million to build the new cancer center. In order to meet that goal, Asante Foundation is depending on the generosity and compassion of donors.

To learn about the Asante Forward Regional Cancer Center Initiative and how to support it, see www.asantefoundation.org/cancer-center/

Longtime businessman Jim Wright, 80, serves on the board at Asante Foundation. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune