A trio of Baker stories that swelled the heart

Written by Jayson Jacoby August 02, 2013 09:08 am

He was a black child who prospered in a town that was about as white as a town can be.

They are a family which has raised six sons, each of whom has reached the pinnacle of Boy Scouting.

Here is a group of teenagers who epitomize the concept of handling guns safely, and with the respect such instruments demand.

Three stories we’ve published over the past couple weeks.

Each struck me as an example of how the people of Baker City and Baker County can achieve the highest standards to which a civilized society aspires.

The stories of Bill Tebeau, the James and Marjorie Kerns family, and the Youth Hunter Education Challenge team are vastly different, to be sure.

Yet each is a tale to swell the heart, a reminder of the goodness and the harmony of which we are capable.

Bill Tebeau’s story seems to me especially noteworthy because he achieved his status as a racial pioneer not in his hometown of Baker City, where such a thing might have seemed more likely given its scarcity of black residents, but many years later, at Oregon State University.

Bill was the first black man to graduate from the university, earning his degree in chemical engineering in 1948.

I was shocked, when I first heard Bill’s story many years ago, that his landmark achievement happened as late, as it were, as it did.

It’s true, of course, that in the 1940s civil rights was more an idea than it was a movement. It had no leaders of the eminence of Martin Luther King Jr., nor any epochal events such as Rosa Parks’ bus ride to invigorate its membership.

Except it’s also true that Corvallis is not Montgomery.

Oregon has nothing like the racial divide that’s so apparent, and so persistent, in the Deep South.

Had I been asked to hazard a guess, I would have said Oregon State’s first black male graduate had earned his degree no later than the first decade of the 20th century.

And yet, though Bill is an extraordinary figure in OSU’s history, his classmates in Baker City remember him as a boy who was smart, engaging and popular, but hardly a breaker of barriers, racial or otherwise.

“We didn’t think anything about his color,” Juanita Van Cleave, who attended Baker schools with Bill from first grade through 12th, told me.

Which statement nicely describes how we want things to be.

The Kernses’ story reminds me that the desire to succeed and to serve your community can spread, in the manner of a virus, throughout a family.

Each of James and Marjorie’s six sons has achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. The youngest, 18-year-old Eli, recently joined his brothers Dan, Adam, Aaron, Matthew and Nathan in reaching the highest level of Scouting.

I suspect there was an element of competition in the Kerns brothers’ pursuit of the 21 merit badges required to earn Eagle Scout accolades.

I grew up watching my older brother excel in athletics and although I had nothing like his talent I was driven to put more effort into honing my meager skills than I might have had he not been all-state in multiple sports.

The Kernses focused their efforts on something more important than sports.

Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) is a program that Baker County teenagers have participated in for more than a decade.

Although the shooting events get a lot of attention, YHEC competitions also require teens to learn how to navigate with a map and compass, and to identify wildlife species by examining tracks, bones and swatches of pelt.

Brian Staebler-Siewell, Nicholas Vowell, Sarah Spaugh and Braden Staebler-Siewell represented Baker County on a 10-member Oregon team that competed in the national YHEC event earlier this month in New Mexico.

I’ve interviewed and written about several YHEC teams in previous years and I’ve always been impressed with how these teenagers, who are in most ways typical kids, prone to giggling and cutting up, transform when they have a gun in their hands.

I can’t help but believe that these teenagers, who understand how grave their responsibility is when handling a potentially deadly tool, are likely to be equally savvy in similar circumstances.

Driving a car, for instance.

I don’t mean to come off as a pollyanna, or to imply that the people of Baker County, now and in decades gone, possess special attributes which are lacking in other places.

We are some distance from perfect; check out the police blotter during Miners Jubilee if you’re not convinced.

Yet I think too that we might have a trifle larger share than average of those residents whom any community would happily welcome.

I’m glad we told a few of their stories.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.