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Cascade Locks teacher will retire after 38 years, but keep connections she loves

Laurie Wheeler works with Joaquin Gardea on his U.S. states project.

Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea.
Laurie Wheeler works with Joaquin Gardea on his U.S. states project.

Laurie Wheeler finds teaching “a natural fit.”

But initially, she had a different path in mind: anthropology and history.

“Coming from a family of teachers, I had other ideas,” she said — her grandparents and parents all taught. “But they would have taken more education and the payoff would have been iffy. When I came to a crossroads and needed to decide, I looked at my summer jobs and what I spent my time doing.”

What she was doing was a lot of coaching and assisting: She taught swimming and coached a summer swim team; she worked as a counselor at a Christian summer camp and volunteered at nursing homes and a local VA hospital.

“Teaching seemed like a pretty natural fit,” she said.

Wheeler spent her early years in Stevenson, Wash., and was born at Hood River Memorial Hospital, the closest in the area. Though she moved after the second grade, she has some memories of growing up there: Planting a garden and watching the deer eat the vegetables, and visiting her father, the school principal, when she forgot lunch money.

She finished elementary school in Eugene, where the family had moved while her father got his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, and then moved to Colorado, where she spent her middle, high school and college years. She graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1976.

She came back to the area soon after, teaching sixth-grade at Mid Valley Elementary and then fifth-grade at Parkdale Elementary.

But in 1978, she put in for a transfer to Cascade Locks School. “I was getting married to a man that worked and had housing at Bonneville Dam,” she said. “Driving from there to Parkdale seemed like a bad idea, especially in the winter. So I put in for a transfer to Cascade Locks and they had an opening. I am probably the only person ever to transfer in … most teach a year or two and transfer out and up county.

“But I loved the K-12 aspect of the school and the strong community ties,” she said. “Cascade Locks is a unique community in its location and personality. It doesn’t fit with the rest of agricultural Hood River County.”

At Cascade Locks School, Wheeler has always taught fourth or fifth grade, or some combination of the two. These days, she teaches fourth and fifth grades in the morning and third, fourth and fifth grades in the afternoons. Her mornings consist of math, reading and writing, and afternoons of social studies or science, music or PE, computers or art, or library.

“The school here is small but parents are supportive and the PTO is really growing,” she said. “We have had some wonderful administrators here and many wonderful staff. It has been a challenge to ‘remake’ the school image as it changed from a K-12 to a K-8 and now a K-5. We are proud of our students that go up to Hood River Middle School and Hood River Valley High School.”

Wheeler took a break from teaching in 1986 “to have time with my young family,” she said. Even still, she worked as a substitute teacher for the Hood River County School District, returning to Cascade Locks School full-time in 1994.

The best part of working with elementary-aged children is that they “still love school, pleasing adults and learning new stuff,” she said. “They are creative, unafraid of technology and have lots of energy.”

Her favorite memories are “innocent statements by students that make you realize you have missed teaching something basic,” she said. “For example, a group of fourth-graders, when visited by their third-grade teacher who was returning from teaching a year overseas: She was describing her flight home and all the U.S. airports she had landed in on her way to Portland. One student asked her if she could see the colors from up there. The teacher asked what she meant and she said, ‘You know, the pink, purple and yellow states.’

“Or the student who, in packing her pretend suitcase for a trip to Alaska, puts in shorts and tank tops because it’s ‘down’ by Hawaii (on the map insert),” she said.

And she’s seen her share of critters disrupt the school day in a variety of ways: “Birds in the gym, dogs on the playground and in the library, the guinea pig that died of heat stroke by the window, the snake that escaped but was found under the stool to the drinking fountain,” she said. “One student snuck his ferret to school in his backpack.”

Wheeler will retire at the conclusion of the school year after 38 years on the job. And while a lot has changed in education, some things have stayed the same.

“The buses run and the students come eager to start each day and see their friends,” she said. “We still teach the three Rs, but it looks much different.”

Wheeler and her husband, John, who is originally from Hood River, moved to Stevenson when the Bonneville Dam project was finished — “the expansion of the navigation locks and the building of the second power house” — because that’s where they were able to find housing.

But the move was a good one. They raised six children in Stevenson, some of whom still live in the area. “It was a great place to raise healthy, happy kids in a fairly low-key environment,” she said. They enjoyed, both then and now, the hiking, fishing, hunting and camping opportunities of their Gorge home.

“It is beautiful,” she said of the Gorge. “From some of my classrooms in Cascade Locks, the view is breathtaking.”

While she doesn’t have immediate plans for retirement, she does have a few ideas about how she’d like to spend her time.

“I like to read, sew, write and do grandchildren stuff, visit with friends and neighbors,” she said. “I have lots of church activities and I have my eye on some volunteering when I retire … like maybe helping out with a program out of Hood River called SECRETS — a fabulous program through the Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute for fifth-graders.

“I understand that time fills up fast and days are busy when you retire, and you have to learn to say no,” she added. “Or so I hear from others and my husband, who has been perfecting retirement for about five years now.”

But right now, Wheeler is focused on her students and giving them the best possible education.

“It is a challenge to ensure our students have the same opportunities as their counterparts in Hood River,” she said. “I thank the district for their support of the school, and through the school, the community.”

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