La Grande man keeps local history alive with creativity

By Dick Mason, The Observer September 30, 2013 10:09 am

Eugene Smith holds a copy of a 2013 edition of a 1942 La Grande High School yearbook he created and published. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
Eugene Smith holds a copy of a 2013 edition of a 1942 La Grande High School yearbook he created and published. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)

A high school class without a yearbook is like a band without a song or a man without a country. It’s missing a thread binding it for eternity. 

Eugene Smith of La Grande understands this which is why he recently reinforced the thread binding the La Grande High School Class of 1942 in a most unusual and meaningful fashion.

Smith created a gift for all 30 of the surviving members of the class — an updated version of their 1942 yearbook the “Mimir.”

The new yearbook, presented to class members at their 71st year reunion in August, devotes a page to each of the surviving members. Each page includes the graduate’s senior year photo, the activities they were involved in and their current address.

The 43-page yearbook also contains an in memoriam chapter listing the 112 class members known to have died. Smith also included the class motto “The elevator to success is not working. Use the stairs.”

Velda Klein of La Grande, a member of the Class of 1942, said the members of her class speak highly of the unique yearbook.

“They were real thrilled with it. Everyone was tickled to death to get it,” Klein said.

Smith did not graduate with the LHS class of 1942 but reached out to it because his wife, Marcia Miller Smith, is a member. Eugene Smith, part of the Port Jefferson High School (Brookhaven, N.Y.) Class of 1944, has accompanied his wife to a number of her class reunions.

“I’ve never been to one of my own reunions. I feel more a part of this class than I do my own,” Smith said.

Smith decided to create his yearbook because he wanted those attending the reunion in August to leave with an item to enrich their experience. 

“It seems that often something is missing at reunions. There is nothing to take away from it to make people remember it,” Smith said. “There is a feeling that we go away empty handed, it is not gratifying. This adds to the significance of (the reunion).” 

Smith created the yearbook with the desktop publishing software, Oak Street Press, he operates in his home. Smith has used it over the past decade to make contributions to the historical archive of the Grande Ronde Valley. Works he has churned out include oral histories of longtime Union County residents. The oral histories were made as part of the Smith-led Union County History Project.

Smith taught English at the University of Washington for 28 years before moving to La Grande in 2000 with his wife. Eugene Smith’s Northeast Oregon roots date back much further, though. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio more than 60 years ago, he came to La Grande where he earned a teaching certificate from then-Eastern Oregon College in 1951. He later taught fifth grade in Milton-Freewater for two years. 

Since returning to La Grande, Smith has done more than produce works about Union County history. He has also written and published two books about Seattle history. The latest, a book about the history of a retirement home in Seattle he and his wife lived in, was published by Smith earlier this year.

Eugene Smith may pursue other book projects on regional history in the future because he finds the subject endlessly fascinating and feels a responsibility to help preserve it.

“If nobody writes it down it gets lost and covered up, forgotten,” he said. “It will not be retained in people’s minds unless it is written down.”