In December, many groups and publications select their person of the year. We don’t have an official award like that here, but if we did, I’d nominate Stu Watson of Hood River.
To explain why, I need to remind us about Cincinnatus, whom I first learned about in my long-ago high school Latin class.
According to the stories, Cincinnatus was a respected Roman general who had retired to his farm to live out the rest of his days. But then Rome was attacked, and things looked bleak. The city fathers came to Cincinnatus and begged him to come back and save the city. He did come back, and he did save the city, and afterwards they offered him the title of Emperor. Well, that must have been pretty tempting, but he politely declined and went back to working on his farm. So, for the past 2,500 years, Cincinnatus has been a model of the humble, selfless civic servant who wants only to help his community.
I’m not saying Stu Watson saved us from an invading army, or that we’ve offered him the title of Emperor (or would the proper title here be Em-pear-or?), or that anyone will remember him in 2,500 years, but in my book, he’s been a model of humble, selfless civic service. And as Stu steps back from the limelight this year, we shouldn’t let him “go back to his farm” without acknowledging everything he’s done for our community.
Stu and his equally wonderful wife, Kathy, have lived here for the past 18 years, and in that time he’s pitched in all over town. He’s served on the boards of the Hood River Lions and the Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association, plus he’s been the president of the Hood River Chamber of Commerce and the coordinator of the Hood River Downtown Business Association.
For the past 10 years, Stu also wrote and published the Hood River Biz Buzz, a much-missed online website that focused on business issues in the central Columbia River Gorge, a website I personally relied on to learn about the area when I first came here. And that’s not even to mention the also-much-missed Nora’s Table restaurant he and Kathy ran downtown for eight years. Or that he and Kathy volunteer to judge the floats in our annual Fourth of July parade.
But perhaps Stu’s most lasting contribution to our area will be his work over the past 11 years as a board member of the Columbia Gorge Community College (CGCC). A passionate believer in education, Stu joined this board to help ensure that young men and women from our area have the opportunity to further themselves as much as possible.
Unfortunately, Stu quickly discovered that there was “trouble in River City,” as the saying goes. As he learned more about the college and the board of directors, Stu saw many aspects in which the college was falling far short of its potential, both substantively and organizationally. Even more unfortunately, Stu learned that his fellow board members either didn’t see the same problems he did or didn’t feel the need to tackle them. There were apparently many issues and votes during those first years when Stu found himself in the minority — sometimes a minority of one.
But to tweak another popular saying, “Nevertheless, he persisted.” With patience and perseverance, Stu eventually achieved two major changes in how the CGCC board does its business. Probably because of his 24 years of experience as a reporter in Montana, Alaska, and Oregon, Stu was committed to transparency, and he eventually succeeded in helping the board become more open to the community, faculty, and staff about its vision and actions. Stu also has a resolute commitment to ethical behavior, and he helped the CGCC board begin to strictly adhere to Oregon’s Open Meetings and Public Records laws. I don’t know if this is Stu’s doing or not, but you can now go online and read the minutes, including the individual votes, from each CGCC board meeting.
But perhaps the most visible change from Stu’s work involved the top leadership of CGCC. When Stu joined the CGCC board, the college’s president had already been there for six years. This president had accomplished some good things, but over time he became less effective and more estranged from colleagues. As this newspaper reported, key management staff began leaving, and the CGCC faculty publicly declared their lack of confidence in him. While Stu saw these problems and encouraged the board to discuss a change at the top, he couldn’t convince a majority of the board to take the needed step.
But partly because of the open-governance changes mentioned above, Stu was able to patiently recruit excellent new candidates to run for board positions, and over the past three years, voters in Hood River and Wasco counties have replaced five of the seven CGCC board members. The new board members quickly saw the same leadership problems Stu had spotted, and recently the board voted unanimously to terminate the old president’s contract. They then hired a new president, Dr. Marta Cronin, who reportedly is already bringing to her office more accountability, creativity, and action for community good.
So, as you hear about exciting changes at CGCC in the new year, please remember Stu Watson’s patient work since 2007. He goes off the CGCC board this year, so for his behind-the-scenes, selfless work there, plus his many other contributions over the years, I’m proud to suggest Stu Watson as the 2018 local Person of the Year. When you see him around town, perhaps you might give him your vote, too.
Mike Hendricks lives in Hood River.