Charitable organizations enrich our lives on the North Coast.
Youth athletics, child and human welfare programs and the performing arts are kept alive by generous donors. Looking at a donor list is like examining a tapestry. The list is an assortment of life stories, united by themes of generosity and gratitude.
The two pages in The Astorian on June 9 — dedicated to Astoria High School scholarship donors and recipients — reminded me of the cemetery scene in Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town.” In the graveyard of Grover’s Corners, the dead sit in chairs. They tell their life stories and describe the New Hampshire town.
Like gravestones, the donors’ names on the scholarships given to Astoria High School seniors evoke a succession of vivid personalities and great characters who walked our streets over several decades.
Ed Ross and his wife, Eda, set up the first of the Astoria High School scholarships. In the late 1950s, the couple capitalized their fund at $100,000. Ed Ross was a member of Astoria’s Class of 1923 and a University of Oregon graduate. He worked for Westinghouse until joining the military for World War II. Following his wartime service, Westinghouse made Ross president of a new company that installed coin-operated laundromats across America.
Immigration is an element in many of these donor stories.
The Silvers sisters — Elsie and Annie — emigrated from Finland to Astoria in the 1930s. Elsie earned a degree from the University of Oregon; Annie from Oregon State College. Annie also earned a master’s degree from New York University. They returned to Astoria as teachers — Annie for 31 years and Elsie for 18. At the close of their careers, they separately established scholarships.
Bing Gong Fong came to Astoria from China. As a chef, he owned and operated a restaurant. In gratitude for assistance he received as an immigrant, he gave back to the community through an Astoria scholarship.
Another immigrant was Lilian Johnson, who was born and raised in Rangoon, Burma. She came to America in 1969 at the age of 18. Her husband, Robert, says, “Lilian exemplified the immigrant spirit by being accepted at Linfield College only months after arrival. She put herself through school. After graduating with a business degree, she held several junior management positions in the Portland area.”
I remember the sumptuous Lunar New Year dinner that Lilian pulled together at the old House of Chan. Following Lilian’s untimely death in the spring of 2001, Robert established the scholarship in her name.
Some of the donors’ stories are reminiscent of the 1996 book, “The Millionaire Next Door.”
Robert W. Cummings earned a degree in chemistry from Oregon State. While doing information technology work for Hauke’s Sentry Market, he was an astute investor. Cummings died with no heirs, and he left $500,000 gifts to the Astoria scholarship fund, the Columbia River Maritime Museum and Clatsop County Historical Society.
Kenneth and Robert Drucker came to Astoria following World War II. Ken invented the oscilloscope, and the brothers’ company manufactured them in a building at the former U.S. Navy hospital. Neither brother had heirs. An initial gift came following Ken’s death. When Bob died in 2009, an even larger gift to the scholarship fund followed, along with gifts to the Maritime Museum and the historical society.
One of the largest funds in the Astoria scholarships program came from Don and Grace Gramms Goodall. Don graduated from Astoria in 1936; Grace in 1937. Don worked briefly at this newspaper. He had a career in public relations. The Goodalls’ gift is in memory of the teacher Fern Curry, who impressed upon the young couple the importance of how they wrote and spoke.
Other teachers are represented among the donors. They include Phyllis Edy, Marjorie Halderman, Rose Tolonen and Ann Marie Frederick.
Arvid Wuonola contributed a physical element to Astoria’s appearance in the midcentury years. I remember seeing Arvid in a choir robe, walking down the aisle of Grace Episcopal Church in 1988. Wuonola was a sign painter whose work was apparent throughout Astoria’s downtown. When the Hotel Elliott was restored in the early 2000s, Wuonola’s sign, with his signature, was retouched on a wall that faces Commercial Street.
Some of the scholarship fund’s gifts were born of tragedy. The Lavis-Navarro scholarship was created in memory of two Astoria students. Honour Lavis and Margaret Navarro died in an automobile accident near Youngs River Falls in the spring of 1992. Honour’s father, Pat, established the fund, which received contributions from the girls’ friends and classmates.
Cheri Folk’s name is on the newest fund. Her death in 2019 was a shock to many Astorians who had relied on Cheri’s leadership and civic involvement, including service on the board of the scholarship fund. The fund’s trustees established the Cheri Folk fund, which is receiving contributions from her friends and family.
Dr. Blair Henningsgaard Sr. and his wife, Edith, came to Astoria following his World War II combat experience in Europe. Henningsgaard’s 101st Airborne unit was surrounded in the Bastogne. As an Astoria internist, he became president of the Oregon Medical Association in 1960. He died of a sudden cardiac event at the age of 61 in 1980. The scholarship was given by Edith, who would become Astoria’s first female mayor in 1983 and serve until 1990.
These lives would make a compelling “Our Town” cemetery scene. But the larger metric is that Astoria’s rich concentration of humanity is well beyond what you find in most American towns of about 10,000 people. A friend of mine explains our rich concentration of humanity by likening it to the fertility of the estuary that lies nearby.