SH delivers tree – and more – in Washington

Sean C. Morgan

The Capitol Christmas tree came out of Sweet Home’s local forest near House Rock Campground and traveled 3,000 miles to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol building, and a contingent of Sweet Home and Linn County residents made the trip to see the ceremony.

“Perfect,” said Councilor Dave Trask following the Dec. 6 tree-lighting ceremony. “Wasn’t that amazing?”

“I knew I would cry at some point,” said Sweet Home District Ranger Nikki Swanson. “Literally, it was the moment the lights went on.”

“Wow. What a beautiful thing, a blessing and an honor for Sweet Home,” said Sweet Home City Councilor Susan Coleman, who led the local effort to organize the Nov. 9 Sweet Home celebration around the Christmas tree. “Sweet Home can always use a shot of good news. When goodness happens, it’s good to celebrate it.”

“I’m ecstatic,” said Mayor Greg Mahler. “I’m honored to be here. It’s amazing to come here and be part of history, representing the citizens of Oregon and Sweet Home.”

“It was beautiful,” said Cassie Richey of Sweet Home, whose husband Jared, a U.S. Forest Service staffer, was a key player in the cutting and transportation of the tree. “It was kind of emotional too. It was the end, the grand finale.”

“Spectacular,” said Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker, who followed the tree cross country. “The tree is outstanding. What a gorgeous example of what we do well, which is grow trees.”

Seeing the tree through to the lighting at the end of the road gave him a lot of pride and joy, he said.

“It’s great,” said Sweet Home City Manager Ray Towry. “It’s fantastic. It’s a testament to the community’s ability to be on the big stage. We helped do it right – as Oregon at its best. It was a huge opportunity to portray Sweet Home in a positive light on a national stage.”

“They really splashed Sweet Home’s name (around),” Mahler said, especially at the Secretary of Agriculture’s reception.

“I just want to tell everybody in Sweet Home how proud I am of what they are doing in that area and the message it sends,” Sen. Ron Wyden told The New Era. “You want to see how to bring people together, spend some time in Sweet Home. I had a wonderful time there in the beginning of November with the parade and the tree.”

“Thank you for brightening everybody’s lives here in America,” Sen. Jeff Merkley told Towry, Coleman, Mahler and Trask at a meeting in his “hideaway” below the Capitol building.

“I’m really proud to represent the Fourth District, the Willamette Forest, the Sweet Home District, the City of Sweet Home,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio said during the lighting ceremony. “We’ve talked a lot about anniversaries tonight. It’s the 125th anniversary of the City of Sweet Home this year in addition to the other anniversaries we’re celebrating.”

“Personally, I always have a noble,” DeFazio told The New Era. “It’s amazing to have a tree of that size grow in 35 years. We have the best growing conditions for (fir) in the world probably.”

Swanson said that a staff member from the Architect of the Capitol office told her Sweet Home sent the best tree, the best-looking tree. The ornaments from across Oregon were the best the staff member had seen, and it made it difficult for agency officials to figure out which ornaments would go on the tree.

The lighting drew attention from others close by with their roots in Sweet Home and Oregon.

William Dowling, son of the late Dr. Harold Dowling of Sweet Home, made it to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. The Sweet Home native has spent the last 20 years in the Washington, D.C., area. He is employed by the Department of Naval Aviation in the Department of Defense.

He was surprised and excited to learn the Capitol Christmas tree was coming from his home territory.

“I was just thinking a month ago or so, they always get the tree from South Carolina or Vermont,” Dowling said.

Retired Lt. Col. Theresia Pawlowski was there to greet the tree and her brother, Fred Perl, a law enforcement officer with the Deschutes National Forest, when it arrived at Andrews Air Force Base.

“I knew he was coming,” said Pawlowski, who grew up in Corvallis. “I ran to Andrews to meet them all. I’m just really proud to be affiliated.”

Oregon has the best trees, she said, noting that when she’s shared photos from Silver Creek Falls and elsewhere in Oregon, “people don’t believe it’s real.”

Pawlowski said she has “always loved Sweet Home.”

Her family regularly spent time at Hoodoo, and they always stopped of at A&W on the way through, she said.

During the week, Trask, Coleman, Mahler and Towry were able to meet with all of the Oregon delegation or staff members to discuss issues of interest to Sweet Home, he said. “I thought it was incredible and worth the trip.”

That was probably the highlight of the trip, he said. Overall, the trip was about meeting with the delegation, which included Wyden, Merkley and Rep. Peter DeFazio.

They seemed receptive, he said. “I really thought it was positive.”

Among those representing Sweet Home and Linn County at the lighting were Commissioner Will Tucker, Lynne Tucker, Lance Gatchell, Stefanie Gatchell, Joanie Schmidgall, Nikki Swanson, Susan Coleman, Matt Coleman, Jared Richey, Cassie Richey, Dave Trask, Greg Mahler, Ray Towry, Tiffany Morgan, Chris Sorensen and Regan Eivers.

In addition to attending events related to the Capitol Christmas tree, they took part in some tourism as well, visiting the various national sights and memorials.

Trask, Mahler and Morgan toured the memorials around the National Mall, spending time at the Vietnam War Memorial. With pencil and paper available on site, they collected the names of two Sweet Home men who are memorialized on the memorial: John William Carper, who died in Vietnam on July 3, 1970, and Harley Daniel Dimick, who died in Vietnam on May 24, 1969.

Mahler also located the name of his cousin, William James Griffin, who was shot down and killed in Vietnam on March 14, 1969. The man’s infant daughter died of sudden infant death syndrome four months later, and the two are buried in Weiser, Idaho.

“May you rest, buddy,” Mahler said with his hand resting on his cousin’s name.

“I’ve been going around to all the monuments,” said Lance Gatchell, a hydrologist with the Sweet Home Ranger District who flew into Washington, D.C. the previous Friday. He and his wife, Stefanie, who also works for the Ranger District and accompanied the tree across country, visited the World War II, Lincoln, Vietnam and Jefferson memorials. They stopped at the Smithsonian museums of Natural History and African American History, which was new since his previous visit to the capitol in 2009.

“Just yesterday, we did the Holocaust Museum,” Lance Gatchell said. “It’s a huge tragedy. I’d never heard of the ghetto concept.”

When the Germans invaded Poland, the Nazis separated the Jews into enclosed districts, where they were intended to be held temporarily. The majority of the populations in the ghettos died from disease, starvation, shooting or deportation to killing centers.

Among the most jarring things he learned was what happened in Poland, where the people had a rich culture and vibrant life, Gatchell said. In a matter of months following the Nazi invasion, Jews and political dissidents were interned.

It makes him think of what’s going on in Syria today and is a warning elsewhere, he said. With modern pro-Nazi groups that exist, “if the conditions were just right, it could just take off again.”

On the lighter side of a Christmas trip, “I think it’s a great opportunity to be here and be able to see the tree,” Gatchell said, noting that the Forest Service chief held an awards ceremony for employees who helped bring the tree.

“I was skeptical about going to D.C. again, but I’m glad I did,” Gatchell said. “It’s a great opportunity to see Washington, D.C. The most fun thing so far is running into people from Sweet Home.”

Will Tucker said the highlight – besides the lighting – of the trip was rolling into Andrews Air Force Base and meeting Pawlowski.

It turned out she was related to a friend he worked with at Hewlett-Packard and had not seen since 2001.

Traveling with the tree across the country, Jared Richey was in Washington, D.C., for the first time, he said.

“It’s big. The sights are are what you learn about in school. To actually see the location, the architecture, the sculptures, is just unreal.”

The view from the old clock tower in the former Bureau of Engraving building, now the Forest Service headquarters, was phenomenal, he said. The building sits south of the Capitol Mall, about halfway between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.

“It was interesting to see the different culture,” Richey said. “Everybody in Sweet Home knows everybody. They say, ‘Hi,’ and ‘Good morning.'”

It’s different, the lifestyle is different in a city the size of Washington, D.C., where it’s busy at 5 a.m., he said. “It was a wonderful experience, but I’m ready to get back to my small town, see my kids and get back to normal.”

He was looking forward to the lighting ceremony, he said. “It’s going to be cool to see something we’d normally only see on TV, the grand finale to the whole production.”

“I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Cassie Richey. “Then the change of plans with President Bush passing away. It’s amazing to be in the capitol as all the living presidents, the opportunity to experience that, to pay our respects to President Bush and glimpse the motorcade to the Cathedral.”

He was the first president she remembers, she said. “I remember being in awe of him and Barbara Bush. They seemed so friendly, classy. I didn’t care about politicians. I was a kid.”

Now she is learning a lot more about him and developing a stronger appreciation, she said.

She said she was excited to be part of Sweet Home’s contingent to celebrate the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree.

She loved seeing all of the monuments, and outside of the lighting itself, the highlight “so far is just standing in front of the Capitol and seeing how big it is. It’s our nation’s Capitol. It’s so massive. That tree looks so tiny next to the Capitol building.”

By Saturday, the Richeys had returned to Sweet Home and gotten their own Christmas tree – “itty bitty” compared to the Capitol tree.

“It was a fabulous trip,” Mahler said. “The citizens of Sweet Home should be proud of the representation. The citizens of Sweet Home got a good plug all week. It – everything this year – helped put Sweet Home on the map.”

“I think it was a pretty incredible trip, obviously,” Trask said. “The stuff that we were able to do together was amazing, the fun we had. The tree lighting was unbelievable.”

“So much gratitude for being part of this project,” Swanson said. Seeing people from Sweet Home, her family, her staff “enjoy that excitement was so wonderful.”

“Every good and perfect gift comes from God,” Coleman said. “This was a good gift. Sending the tree, the activities and watching it be lit in D.C., all good gifts.”