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Whether scaling mountains, serving as a big brother to his sister or running the Smilin’ O Ranch, Bill Oberteuffer was a dedicated educator.
Bill Oberteuffer and his first wife Margaret, who died in 2000, during their early years, resting on a summit. - Photos from ‘Gazing Down From The Mountain’
Today, two years after his death, Oberteuffer is teaching again.His lessons are shared in a new biography by Berkeley Carnine, “Gazing Down From The Mountain, The Story of William H. Oberteuffer.’’
The book provides a comprehensive and detailed look at the life of a man who was a teacher and so much more, including a prominent land steward, talented square dance caller, prolific and outspoken letter to the editor writer, adventure-seeking horseback packer and world traveler.
Carnine’s biography, written at Oberteuffer’s request, is his last life lesson.
“He wanted to let people know how full a life can be. That, ‘This is what a life well lived looks like,’ ’’ said Oberteuffer’s wife, Jacque, of the Summerville area.
Carnine’s book is based on extensive interviews she did with Oberteuffer in the last year of his life. Carnine will never forget her first meeting with Oberteuffer in Island City. Carnine said she found herself easily drawn into the home of Bill and Jacque. Carnine said she didn’t yet know that it was common for friends to feel effortlessly included in Bill and Jacque’s “sense of extended family.’’ One that Bill and his first wife, Margaret, who died in 2000, also had.
Carnine was given access to “highly organized and inexhaustible files and photo albums and most notably, a seat next to Bill’s reclining chair with full liberty to ask questions.’’
Carnine believes Oberteuffer’s desire to tell his story came from his lifelong passion for mountain climbing, one she shares. She explained that when one reaches the summit of a mountain you remove your pack and take in the view. The experience is humbling and awe inspiring.
“Having climbed to the top of his 80-plus years, Bill wanted to gaze out over that life and reflect,’’ Carnine said.
Carnine met with Oberteuffer after he had moved into Island City following 17 years of operating the Smilin’ O Ranch in the Wallowas 11 miles from Elgin. Oberteuffer, who taught for 32 years in the Portland School District, started the ranch in the 1970s. He founded it with Margaret, to whom he was married 58 years.
At the Smilin’ O Ranch the Oberteuffers took in teenagers for their summer “School of Country Living.’’ The Oberteuffers had the youths build fences, stock a fish pond, cultivate a garden, clear timber, create grazing land for cattle and much more. The ranch school was so popular the Oberteuffers drew 175 teenagers the first seven years they operated it.
Those who assisted Bill and Margaret at the Smilin’ O included Dave Cash, who had taught with Bill in the Portland School District.
Cash had been long impressed with how seriously Oberteuffer took his responsibility as an educator. A story Cash shared with Carnine in her new book illustrates this.
Cash said Oberteuffer was once reviewing a biology test with students in a high school class in Portland when a student said, “I don’t need explanations I just want the answers.’’
A disturbed Oberteuffer halted the test review and stopped talking for the rest of the period. The next day he arranged the desks in a circle. The students came in and sat down and Oberteuffer remained quiet.
The students asked their teacher if they were going to over the test with them. Oberteuffer answered, “No. We aren’t going to learn biology until we are ready to learn.”
So for the next two or three weeks Oberteuffer and his students talked about what it was like to be students and a teacher. Oberteuffer didn’t start teaching until he thought his students were ready to learn, Cash said.
“Gazing Down From the Mountain’’ also includes insights on Oberteuffer by people such as La Grande City Councilor Steve Clements. The councilor said that whether choosing the path over a glacier, analyzing a fossil bed, splicing a rope or performing an old-time square dance, Oberteuffer was always teaching by demonstrating.
“Bill taught by doing, by going first and asking you to follow,’’ Clements said.
Oberteuffer the teacher was also a leader, one who did not have to be in front to direct.
“He could lead by following as well, asking questions and sharing his opinions when the time came, unearthing a group’s potential, by ensuring that the slowest climber made it to the summit,’’ Clements said.
As a leader and teacher Oberteuffer was never afraid to speak up, something readers of The Observer’s editorial page became keenly aware during the three decades he lived in Union County. Oberteuffer wrote countless letters to the editor, commenting on everything from what he saw as overgrazing of Bureau of Land Management forest lands, to the U.S Patriot Act and to the federal government paying dairymen to cut milk production.
So well known was Oberteuffer for the outspoken views he shared with readers that he was featured in an Observer article about his letter writing.
“Few letters to the Observer editor draw the number of comments as those signed by Oberteuffer,’’ wrote the late Tina Petersen in a Jan. 24, 2005 Observer article, which is quoted by Carnine.
Oberteuffer admitted to Petersen that he was not trying to win a popularity contest with his letters.
“I’m too direct for some people,’’ Oberteuffer said.
The man of many interests and talents said this was OK with him, but that he wished he could find people willing to publicly debate with him, “... but usually that does not happen.’’
He did get phone calls and private comments, all of which he welcomed, even the negative ones.
“That’s part of what he enjoys and stimulates his days,’’ Petersen said.
Carnine said one of the things that inspired Oberteuffer to write letters to the editor was the text of a Nationwide Insurance advertisement that appeared in the September 1959 edition of Saturday Review. The ad castigates those who never speak up on issues, stating that active day-to day participation in society and government is everyone’s responsibility.
“The silent troublemaker fails to understand this,’’ the ad read. “In his worship of law and order, he never dares question an oppressive law, never distinguishes order from stagnation. He is the apostle of social decay, not democracy.’’
Bill Oberteuffer and his second wife Jacque Lee, on Pumpkin Ridge, April 22, 2001. - Photos from ‘Gazing Down From The Mountain’
Carnine also addresses Oberteuffer’s roots in her book, describing things such as his relationship with his younger sister Georgie while growing up in Portland. Bill was 10 years older than Georgie and as a result their sibling relationship was different.
Carnine writes that Bill was a second father who was fundamentally a teacher. He introduced her to mountain climbing, square dancing and other things that became lifelong pursuits for her. Georgie also said her brother “was born with a built-in compass’’ — one that later served him well during his worldwide backpacking and mountain climbing ventures.
Georgie later married Bob Packwood, who went on to represent Oregon in the U.S. Senate for 26 years. Carnine said Oberteuffer and his brother-in-law had an amiable relationship at first, but that later he took him to task in letters to the editor and those sent to his office for many things such as his campaign spending. Carnine said that Oberteuffer’s blunt honesty with Packwood and all politicians “was striking.’’
Georgie and her husband separated in 1991 and later divorced.
When discussing Oberteuffer’s upbringing Carnine also covers the role the Boy Scouts played in his development. Bill’s father, George, founded Camp Meriwether, a Boy Scout summer camp on the Oregon coast, in the late 1920s. Bill Oberteuffer said Camp Meriwether “helped an awful lot to make me who I am today.’’
At Camp Meriwether Bill Oberteuffer had the opportunity to share and exhibit his skill as a horseman, something people said he inherited from his father.
Oberteuffer described horsemanship as the art of caring for and communicating with an animal.
For Bill, “good horsemanship is thinking about the horse first and getting maximum work out of it without resorting to harsh measures,’’ Carnine wrote.
He trained many foals, handling their legs and getting them used to human touch without weight on their back. By the time the horses were two years old and ready to be ridden they seldom resisted because they were already used to saddles and following directions, Oberteuffer told Carnine.
Carnine, born in 1981, grew up in Cottage Grove. She has a degree in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley and presently lives in Berkeley. She said she learned an enormous amount in the course of writing the biography, which is a testament to Obertueffer’s teaching skills.
“I only hope that what I was able to share sends others on a percolating, compelling, adventuring and thought-provoking journey to grasp on to life and live it fiercely,’’ she said.
“Gazing Down From the Mountain’’ was published by Jack Grauer of Vancouver, Wash. It is available in La Grande at the Bobolink. For additional information call 541-805-9508.