Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another May 18 Anniversary

For many of us in this community, May 18, which famously marks the day of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, is the anniversary of another astonishing, if lesser, event.

Five years ago, in what is fast becoming a footnote to local lore, a large group of us successfully challenged one Pamella Settlegoode’s presidency of the Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL).

Settlegoode, with the legal advice of her then-husband, attorney Bill Goode, had mustered a compliant SWHRL board to sue the city over a boundary dispute with our Hillsdale neighborhood.

For reasons that will become clear, we had been unable to negotiate a resolution with Settlegoode.

So we chose to challenge her leadership at SWHRL’s annual meeting on May 18, 2005. Because many of us in Hillsdale lived in an overlapping area with SWHRL, we hastily joined the league, voted in large numbers at its annual meeting and defeated Settlegoode and most of her supporters.

Our own candidate, Jim Thayer, was installed as president and has served admirably for the past five years. (Thank you, Jim.)

Astonishingly, the very day after the vote, Settlegoode and Goode organized a lawsuit against the new board. The suit had an immediate “chilling effect” on those of us on the new board. Some, worried about legal costs, resigned. Fortunately, the Miller, Nash law firm and one of its attorneys, Bruce Rubin, came to our rescue, defending us pro bono. (Thank you, Bruce.)

One month later, the Settlegoode-initiated case was summarily thrown out under a state statute that prohibits suits seeking to punish the public for simply participating in the civic process.

As they say, justice prevailed.

In the months that followed, the new SWHRL board, working with neighboring boards, sorted out the boundaries by getting rid of the contentious overlaps. SWHRL now lives happily with Hillsdale, Bridlemile and Homestead as fully separate neighbors.

Settlegoode was a whirlwind of contention even in support of righteous causes. And often her causes were indeed righteous, as I had occasion to tell her. The problem — and I had occasion to tell her this too — was that she had serious problems with resolving issues amicably. She was objectionable in her objections. She chose confrontation and litigation over comity and cooperation.

(Significantly, suing had previously worked for and may have emboldened her. She managed to win a long legal battle with the Portland School District and walk away with a $1 million settlement.)

I lost track of Pamella after her final day in court five years ago. In the intervening years, I’d heard that she had divorced and moved to Florida, her native state. Then recently, her name came up in a conversation with an acquaintance.

“Settlegoode...Settlegoode...that name sounds familiar,” he ruminated. “I have a sister in St. Petersburg who mentioned someone running for the school board there with a name like that....”

I did a Google search, and sure enough, Pamella had run last fall, not for the school board, but for the City Council.

She’d sunk her teeth into local issues that only someone living in St. Petersburg could understand or care about. In November, St. Petersburg voters, with no knowledge of our experience in Southwest Portland, soundly defeated her at the polls.

My on-line search turned up nothing about post-election lawsuits. I take this as a small sign of progress.

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More Reflections on Spirit Lake

Paul King adds to yesterday's post about Spirit Lake, which for him was both beautiful and eerie.

I just read your essay on where you stood 30 years ago on
the eve of the eruption of Mt. Helens. I recall visits to Spirit
Lake circa 1960-66 when I, too was a reporter at the Longview
Daily News.

You have described the tranquility and beauty of the lake at
the foot of the mountain. Let me relate a few of my own
experiences. I first visited that area in the early 1950s when
we lived in Tacoma and our oldest daughter was an infant.

Although my wife and I were overwhelmed by the natural
beauty, I strolled about the campground on the lake shore
and spied the holes in ground which appeared to have no
bottom. I asked a group of campers about them. They told
me they were the casts of a forest destroyed by a massive
eruption of the mountain centuries earlier and where the
wood had rotted away with the passage of time.

I had no way of knowing then that we would move with our
three daughters in a few short years to Longview, buy our
first home and make many friendships that endure to this
day. And my newspaper work was fulfilling and enjoyable.

I was sent once to interview Harry Truman, owner and operator
of the tourist lodge on the south lake shore. Harry was a flawed
character who reeked of booze, frequently invoked the deities and
was addicted to inventive scatological outbursts. Today he, the lodge
he built, and a legion cats who dwelt in it with him lie beneath
200+ feet of volcanic ash.

But I digress. Although my family and I enjoyed the alpine beauty, I
was never able to visit the site without a sense of eeriness and
impending doom. Two of our girls attended the youth camp on
the north shore. But whenever I walked through the campground,
the hair would rise on the back of my neck when I inspected those
ancient tree casts. And I always managed to find some reason why
some other peak, say Mt. Rainier, would be a more suitable site
for our mountain camping excursions.

We have visited the volcano several times since. We are impressed
at the rapidity of recovery of the flora and fauna and look forward
to new OPB TV coverage of what 30 years can do to restore vegetation
and wildlife. I hope the infirmities of age will permit us to make
one more visit to what is left of that magnificent mountain, doubtless
resting for its next uncontrollable and catastrophic spasm.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Difference of a Day

Thirty years ago on this day, May 17, I naively stood on the sun-washed, quivering flanks of Mount St. Helens. I can see it now: the mountain’s ash-sullied dome, the luminous Spirit Lake, and the family cabins clustered not far from the shore and the lapping, glittering water.

Sixteen hours later, the avalanching summit of the exploding volcano would bury it all.

My being there on that Saturday in the spring of 1980 was no act of bravery. In retrospect, the few dozen of us there were foolish and reckless.

We should not have been there.

I should not have been sent there.

Blame it on my editors, journalistic curiosity and the pursuit of a “good story.”

I was a reporter on assignment for the Daily News in nearby Longview, Washington. I was doing a job that I happened to love.

Three people I interviewed that day were dead the next. Their bodies, the cabins, the parking lot, and the old lake’s bed are now just so much substratum beneath hundreds of feet of volcanic sediment.

No one will ever again stand where I stood that day. The sheriff's deputies, cabin owners (packing up their belongings), reporters and the doomed holdouts were the last to see it in that moment of geologic time.

Spirit Lake is still on the map, of course. If you visit the volcano monument’s overlooks, you will witness a stew of a lake called “Spirit Lake.” It is nothing like the old one, now a remembered jewel set in the Cascades.

Today’s Spirit Lake’s bottom is above the surface of the shimmering lake I admired that pristine spring day 30 years ago.

Each year on this day, I think of how May 17, 1980, came so close to being my last day of life.

I try to attribute a higher purpose to my good fortune but know there was none. The purpose has been mine and that of those who have inspired and supported me.

Still, these years do seem like a gift. Who gave them to me? I do not know any more than I know who gave me life itself. But I do feel it, this ineffable mystery.

And so this day gives me pause, and in that pause I give thanks.

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