William Tebeau, pioneering student and Baker native, dies

By Jayson Jacoby July 12, 2013 09:11 am

By Jayson Jacoby

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William “Bill” Tebeau, a Baker City native who made history in Oregon both as a student and as a professional, died July 5 in Salem.

Tebeau was 87.

After graduating from Baker High School in 1943, Tebeau, who wanted to be an engineer, was accepted at Oregon State College.

The school, now Oregon State University, was renowned then, as now, for its engineering program.

Tebeau didn’t mention on his application that he was black.

This might seem a trivial matter these days — or, more likely, a matter that is nobody’s business — but in 1943 it was rather more significant. 

In that year, 75 years after the college was founded in Corvallis, no black men had yet graduated.

Five years later, in 1948, Tebeau became the first.

He earned a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering, persisting despite a recommendation from an Oregon State official that he consider applying instead at the University of Oregon.

Tebeau was born on Nov. 23, 1925, at Baker to Henry and Frances Tebeau.

He was related to another pioneer, being a cousin of Claude Hines, who was the first African American student-athlete at both Baker High School, from which he graduated in 1928.

The Tebeau family was “very much respected” in Baker City and Baker County, said Phyllis Badgley, a local historian.

Bill Tebeau grew up in the family’s home at Washington and Clark streets, near Brooklyn School.

Juanita Van Cleave attended classes at Brooklyn with Tebeau, and they remained classmates through their graduation from Baker High.

“He was really smart in school,” Van Cleave said. “I had problems with algebra, and any problems I had he was more than willing to help me.”

Although Baker City’s black population was small then, as it is now, this was of no consequence to Bill’s classmates, Van Cleave said.

“We didn’t think anything about his color,” she said.

Clarene Rohner also was a member of the Baker High Class of ’43.

She remembers Tebeau as “a wonderful classmate” who was “very popular.”

Tebeau returned to Baker City in 2010 to attend his graduation class’ 67th reunion.

Tebeau’s complete obituary will be published in Monday’s issue of the Baker City Herald. A celebration of his life will be July 20 at 2 p.m. at Center 50+, 2615 Portland Road N.E. in Salem, where Tebeau had lived since 1956.