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Richard Thew, the venerable mayor of Cove, presides over city council meetings with a laidback air.
DEEP COVE ROOTS: Richard Thew, a man of many hats, practices hymns with his wife, Kathy, at their Cove home. - The Observer/Ethan Schowalter-Hay
He’s likely to crack a joke during the proceedings with characteristic self-deprecation. When the issues demand it, he encourages lengthy discussion, valuing deliberation over rushed decision-making.
Such ease at City Hall isn’t all that surprising when one considers Thew’s been mayor for over two decades.
Or that one’s perspective on leadership inevitably deepens with the more hats you wear. And Thew wears a lot of hats: You’re as liable to see him at the rector’s pulpit or scribbling gameplays at football sidelines as in the mayor’s seat.
Despite his deep roots in Cove, Thew originally hails from Southern California — born in Long Beach, raised in San Diego County. His father, Henry, fought in World War II, and ended up interned in a Japanese prison camp for three and a half years.
Upon his release, Henry harbored no grudges against his captors.
“He came out of that experience and he didn’t hate the Japanese,” Thew recalls. “In many ways, he admired them.”
“It always impressed me,” he adds, “and influenced me, I guess.”
His family moved to Cove in 1957, in time for Thew’s senior year of high school. After graduating, he spent five years of active duty in the Navy, between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
Back on dry land, Thew picked up a teaching degree at EOU and instructed around Eastern Oregon: two years in Condon, four more in Prairie City. In between, he served a church in Canyon City, having also attended seminary at Boston’s Episcopal Theological School.
“I just felt I had a calling to serve the Episcopal Church,” he explains.
Spiritual service eventually brought him to La Grande, where he split his time as chaplain at EOU and at the Ascension School’s camp/conference center in Cove.
“Which worked out pretty well, because the busy time for the camp/conference center is the summer, and the busy time at the college is the rest of the year,” Thew says.
After a full-time stint at the Ascension School, he dedicated nearly 30 years to the Cove School District. He coached football and track, and taught everything from social studies to arts and crafts.
It’s tough, apparently, to keep a good coach off the field.
Meanwhile, he’s kept up his ministerial duties, serving as a non-stipendiary priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in La Grande and preaching regularly to congregations in Sumpter, Baker City and Enterprise.
He notes, “A lot of the parishes in Eastern Oregon can’t afford a full-time priest.”
On top of all this, of course, Thew has served as Cove’s mayor for some 22 years (he originally ran on the suggestion of a friend). What do politics, education and theology have to do with one another? In Thew’s case, deeply-held convictions.
“My faith enters into all of them, so that’s maybe the common thread,” he acknowledges. “I’ve done these things because I felt they were areas I could do — they fit my talents and they were ways I could serve my communities.”
Thew also credits his wife, Kathy, for inspiration. “She’s the real reason I do everything.”
Kathy, meanwhile, insists, “I’m just a co-pilot!”
Years of teaching inform his political strategy.
“Certainly a lot of what I learned about human nature comes in handy,” he says. “Teenagers become adults eventually.”
His philosophy of statecraft accords well with Cove’s “weak mayor” government.
“I have very little power (as mayor), and that’s fine with me,” he explains. “I think probably when people get into trouble when serving in government is serving their own wants and needs and forgetting they’re there to serve the people.”
“I try to make sure everybody has their say,” he continues. This means prompting more taciturn councilors, “so we’re getting the wisdom of all of us,” and maintaining the kind of loose atmosphere that encourages audience input.
“I see my job as facilitating good discussions so that we’re making decisions on good information and complete information.”
He specifically credits volunteer groups like the Cove Community Association for helping make the town what it is.
As far as the economy goes, he encourages people to shop locally whenever they can, because “that money’s then multiplied several times in the community.”
Thew and Kathy, who works at Claudson’s Viking & Hot Springs Spa Center, have three children: daughters Jennifer and Rebecca and son Rick. Their career paths mirror aspects of their father’s: both Jennifer and Rick are teachers and coaches, in Waterville, Wash. and Cove, respectively; and Rebecca is an Oregon City social worker.
All were student athletes, and each helped their father coach at one point or another.
Indeed, it’s when Thew reflects on his many years of coaching that a true guiding philosophy emerges. “I enjoy doing something where you’ve got a team working toward a goal,” he admits.
And while winning is often the predominant aspiration of any team, Thew says cooperation — more often than not a learned skill — is the more consistently rewarding.
“I think you have to forgive your teammates for their warts,” he says. “They’re your teammates, and you accept them.”
It’s what his former fellow Cove football coach Skip Pereira would call “teamness.”
“I’m not sure that’s a legitimate word,” Thew says, “but it’s a meaningful one.”
And does this man of so many hats have any time hobbies? Sure: He collects Studebakers, of course.