June 07, 2001 11:00 pm
STARTING A NEW LIFE CHAPTER: La Grande High School social studies teacher Gary Keenan has many projects planned following his retirement. (The Observer/DICK MASON).
STARTING A NEW LIFE CHAPTER: La Grande High School social studies teacher Gary Keenan has many projects planned following his retirement. (The Observer/DICK MASON).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Locating a more popular hangout this year than Gary Keenans classroom would be like finding students who bring eight-track tape players to school impossible.

Keenans social studies classroom at La Grande High School was a highly popular place for students to congregate. Students would meet there to play games, do homework and work on a variety of projects.

They would be there before school, during lunch break and after school. Keenan was always there to provide support, advice and encouragement

For many students, the classroom was like a second home.

They hang around there because they are in a place they were cared about. He (Keenan) is probably the most caring person Ive seen here, said LHS teacher Meri Olmstead.

Most of the students were not in Keenans classes but they have been dropping by the classroom since Keenan started teaching at the school 15 years ago.

Next fall students will have to find a new place to congregate. Keenan is retiring.

Keenan said that he has enjoyed almost every moment of his career. This is a neat place and a great school, he said.

He helped make it such a place by piquing students interest in subjects such as archaeology, one of his passions. He exposed a lot of kids to a whole new world, Olmstead said. He has an enthusiasm that is catching and infectious.

Keenan said he has strived to find what students are interested in and move them in that direction. He recalled that he had a student in a history class who appeared uninterested. Keenan asked him where he wanted to be and the boy identified the schools welding shop.

Keenan then asked the student about the history of welding and how things were done in the past. He encouraged him to look into it. His interest stimulated, the boy wrote a noteworthy paper about welding


Suddenly history was interesting for him. The key is showing people how history relates to them, the teacher said.

Keenan has had students help him with an archaeological dig at a Chinese mining camp between Grande Ronde Lake and Tony Vey Meadows. Work was conducted during summers over a nine-year period. The camp, known as Two Dragon, was for Chinese workers who built a ditch for a mining company in the late 1860s.

Much was found during the dig that Keenan conducted with La Grande archaeologist George Mead. Keenan said today the site is the only one in North America that has been found to have verified classical Chinese architecture.

He has plans to conduct other digs in the area after he retires. He hopes to have former and present LHS students help him.

Unconventional start

Keenan entered the education field by way of a road less traveled. At age 45, he decided to return to college and earn an education degree.

I had always been interested in teaching and wanted to have the chance to teach my daughters, Keenan said.

Before returning to college Keenan had been an engineering technician, cartographer and draftsman. After earning an education degree from Eastern Oregon University he landed a teaching position at La Grande High. Later his daughters, Darby and Liesl, were among his students.

Keenan has never regretted his decision to become a teacher. There could not be a more rewarding job than teaching, he said, and the staff at LHS is second to none.

These are wonderful people and they are all here for the same reason. They want to be able to work with kids, Keenan said.

LHS health teacher Joe Sandoz is among many who are impressed with the ties Keenan has made with students. He has an undying enthusiasm and an ability to connect with kids, Sandoz said.

Sandy Franks, an LHS library assistant, noted that it is not unusual for students to write and visit Keenan years after they have graduated. Keenan cherishes the connections he makes with students.

Kids are neat people. They are worth all the work and effort you put in, Keenan said.