CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD
By Mardi Ford
She is the Chairman of the Board the election board, that is.
Esther Hofmann has worked elections in Union County for the past 50 years. She isn't sure how many that is, exactly, but knows it's "a fair share."
Esther can count clerks she has worked with four: C.L. Graham, Dolores Hicks, Shirley Bolen and Nellie Bogue Hibbert.
"I probably shouldn't have favorites," Esther says with an infectious twinkle, "but Nellie is my favorite. She's such a gracious lady. She makes everyone feel like they're part of the team."
The admiration is mutual. Union County's current clerk thinks Esther Hofmann is quite remarkable.
"She's a great asset and a wonderful lady. She can tell you everything you want to know about what's going on in there," Hibbert said, as she led the way into a large conference room on the evening of Nov. 2. Here, 19 women are seated at small tables processing the entire county's election returns.
At the helm, Esther Hofmann runs a tight ship, albeit with an easy hand. Most of the women on the election board, she says, have been doing this for a long time, too. Everyone has a job and they all know how to do it. Esther does her part training, coaching, organizing, encouraging and helping wherever she can.
Yet, within the serious dedication to detail is mingled a friendly joke here a quick story there. It's the age-old ritual of female fellowship cohabiting with the accomplishment of a broader task. Many of them have worked together for many years. They enjoy each other's company immensely, yet welcome newcomers to the election board. Usually, newcomers become oldtimers, staying year after year.
"We're really more like a family," Esther says happily. "When the election is all over, we'll have a big potluck. A lot of the husbands come, too."
Which makes one wonder whether many men have worked on the election board.
Well, we've had a few," Esther replies cautiously, then adds, "To tell you the truth, though, they're usually slower."
Fun-loving Esther chuckles, reinforcing her own credo, "You can't take things too seriously."
Around 1954, Esther started her service on the election board as a "floater" working in whatever precinct needed her until she finally got her own spot. Packed carefully within those years working out in the precincts are special memories of people and places.
"There was this one old farmer who had lost his eyesight and was kinda crippled. I remember the first time he came in it was 1980 or maybe '82." The sparkle in Esther's eyes moves into her smile.
"He looked around and asked, Who's the chairman here?' Somebody pointed me out and he says, Oh! The little one. Can you help me?' And I said, Well, of course, sir, that's what I'm here for.' Now, this was back in the days when we still had the booths and you went in behind the curtain to mark your ballot. So we both get in there and all of a sudden he puts his arm around me."
Esther's sparkle bursts into a contagious laugh. Shaking her head, she recalls with mock seriousness, "Of course, he told me he needed to keep his balance while he marked the ballot. So we got it all marked and I said, We can leave now.' And he said, Oh, do we have to?'" Esther laughs out loud again.
"Well, every election after that, he'd come in looking for me. Where's my little sweetie?' he'd ask. You know I miss that ol' rascal."
And there was another man, she said, who used to bring candy for all the women working at the precinct. They looked forward to seeing him come.
"He'd come up to the table, get down on his knees and then pass out the candy," she remembers fondly.
Esther doesn't remember any particularly acrimonious people, saying on the whole there have been few. The worst physical conditions, however, she does remember. It was the year they counted ballots in the furnace room at Greenwood school. It seems somebody forgot to hold a room for the precinct board and the only space left to set up was the furnace room in the basement.
"It was doggone hot and pretty dirty," she still recalls. "The principal apologized over and over, but what are you going to do? So, we set up as best we could and worked in that grimy ol' room until the wee hours."
Esther has worked plenty of
elections before the onslaught of computers and Oregon's vote-by-mail, both of which she heartily approves. Now she and her crew enjoy working from the large, comfortable room at the clerk's office. Climate controlled, she adds, for a cool environment.
"Some of the gals really bundle up. Make sure you bring a jacket. Esther keeps it cold in there.' they tease me a little. But I'm just always warm. I've got good circulation and I keep active," she says.
But even with improved accommodations, computers and mail-in ballots, Esther says election work is still challenging and detailed.
"Painstaking. You don't just count ballots. There are a lot of procedures. But it's not like it used to be when we did everything by hand on election night. We worked into the wee hours of the morning counting ballots many, many nights. If something didn't add up, we started all over," Esther remembers.
All done, she says, for cause and country.
"Patriotism is a big part of it," she admits. One of the Greatest Generation, one reason for staying on the election board is a desire to serve her country in this way.
Esther's husband, John, and four of her five older brothers served in World War II, the youngest at Guadalcanal.
Nine months after John and Esther Hofmann were married, 29-year-old John got drafted by the Army Air Forces. His tour of duty included aeronautics school and they spent four years in Washington, D.C. City girl Esther, who was raised in Portland, loved it there. But when John was finally discharged, he decided to move the family back West to his boyhood home of La Grande. The culture shock of moving to the rural
La Grande of the 1940s was overwhelming for Esther.
"I was used to theater museums and I loved to dance. I wasn't happy here at all," she admits. But Esther was also pregnant with the couple's first baby and she threw herself into motherhood, not really fitting into the country club crowd or the ranching and farming crowd, either.
Today, she loves her life, her small-town independence and wouldn't leave La Grande for anything.
"I love it here. But, in the beginning, it took me about five years to make my own friends and feel at home," she admits. She learned serving her community was a good way to meet people and cure the blues of boredom. After the couple's two children, Jerry and Sherry, started school she volunteered there, but high-energy Esther had more to give. It was a friend who told her the election board needed volunteers and recommended Esther to then clerk C.L. Graham.
"I got on right away," she says. And she stayed on looking forward to each election.
"There all exciting," she says when asked which has been the most memorable.
Besides being election board
chairman, Esther volunteers to "help the old folks at the Senior Center." She laughs at her joke because she is older than some of those she serves. She works on multiple committees and attends the dances every month.
For 12 years, she and a group of friends formed a tap dance troupe and performed all over La Grande.
"We had the cutest costumes. It was a lot of fun and good exercise," she says.
When Esther's husband died, though she had never driven she decided since they had a perfectly good car in the driveway, she'd go get her license.
Esther easily passed the tests, but then found the insurance for a first-time driver of her age was "sky high." With two good legs, she chose not to drive after all.
"I've always walked and I still walk all over the place," she says simply. Sometimes she'll catch a ride, but more often walks to the grocery store, downtown, or up to the county offices from her home on Washington Avenue. She has no problem walking out to the Senior Center, either.
And maybe it's the walking, or maybe it's the attitude or maybe it's some of both. But with looks that are a good 10 to 15 years younger than the reality, Esther is young at heart, as well. She eats well and sleeps well.
Bubbly, funny, quick and engaging, the light-hearted, good-natured Esther Hofmann is blessed with good physical and mental health.
"I think keeping active and being positive do more for keeping a person young than anything else," she advises.
It is advice worth heeding, from the chairman of the board.