Opening old wounds in Elgin

By Janet Scoubes and Evelyn Spikes August 21, 2009 04:09 pm

Editor’s note: Janet Scoubes and Evelyn Spikes, both of Elgin, jointly wrote this column.


This morning between five and five-thirty, I wrapped up in a blanket and went outside to listen to all the morning sounds: osprey, doves, robins, wrens and the traffic coming down Fishtrap into Elgin. In the peacefulness of this space, I was on my second cup of coffee when I started revising this piece — one I began writing earlier — about the recent murders near Elgin


The co-writer of this comment doesn’t get up at that time, because I’m retired. But the tragedy surrounding the murders rarely leaves my mind. One of the victims was a former student and a classmate of my youngest son.

Why address a comment to readers of The Observer regarding a sensational story in the Oregonian? Because the writer is a La Grande resident, and his dime-novel approach to the story opened old wounds and inflicted new ones in Elgin.

Elgin starts school Aug. 24, and I will have students — kids — in my high school English classes. My syllabi are written, and I have found some wonderful new readings for this year. I’m excited about returning to school. I just know, however, that I will have to face this murder tragedy and convince kids that we live in an OK place.

It’s difficult to be from Elgin when you live in Union County. I’m a transplant of 38 years. I didn’t grow up here, so the prevailing notion that people in Elgin are somehow more stupid than the rest of the county was a learning curve.

I donned an emotional armor, as I was blasted nearly everywhere — openly and subtly. When I became a teacher, I taught about bullies. I also wanted to communicate to my kids that it is OK to be who they are, it is OK to live here and they are OK because they live here.

Quite often, we are bullied because we live in Elgin. When a child is hammered enough by inappropriate remarks and slurs, and by relentless jokes about girls who are promiscuous and boys who love sheep, it takes its toll. No amount of trying to convince them otherwise changes their self-perception. I am tired of it. I raised my children here, I have five granddaughters here, and as a teacher, I am helping raise other children here. Ugly words and attitudes hurt — and they last.

When I was teaching school here, there were some wonderful students who admitted to me that they didn’t tell La Grande people they were from Elgin because they knew the reaction they would get. For two generations, an EOU professor derided the town of Elgin in his classes. More than one Elgin student took that course in an alternative manner to avoid that experience. In the past year, I’ve had people tell me that friends of theirs asked “why in the hell” they wanted to move to Elgin.

My husband, a native of Elgin, will never just accept the Elgin jokes, as many Elginites have decided to do. And whether they come from business people, county employees or anyone else, he confronts them immediately.

When Dick Cockle’s story appeared in all its camouflaged glory, the first reactions came from Elgin natives who live elsewhere. They called relatives in Elgin, and they called and wrote both the Oregonian and Dick Cockle to protest. They, too, remembered the “Elgin jokes” while growing up here.

Drugs: yes we have them, as does every other town in this and other counties. We have aggressive anti-drug programs in our schools and an administration and board that mandated drug testing for all participants in extracurricular activities. A project to address meth use in this area is under way now, initiated by the sister of Jeremiah Johnston, joined by students and community members.

Elgin might have more than its share of low-income or subsidized housing. As such, we often have a transient population. However, we also have active groups of civic-minded people who volunteer their time and expertise to the school board, city council, Lions, chamber of commerce, Women’s Service Club, opera house restoration, various churches, community center, senior meals, PTO, booster club, Elgin Stampeders, Read to Succeed, Elgin EDGE, fire department, Little League and Scouts, to name some. All are comprised of volunteers who desire to improve this community by taking care of those who live here.

Was our community stunned by the murders? Absolutely. We will grieve for those affected for a very long time. However, my biggest fear in living here involves the cougars that might be in town chasing deer when I walk in the very early morning. No guns under our pillows!

A good news article has a good purpose. Sensationalism is not a good purpose.

Janet Scoubes is the English teacher at Elgin High School. Spikes is retired from teaching English at EHS. The two sisters both have lived in Elgin for more than 30 years, are married to Elgin natives and raised their children in Elgin.