Woven in memory of a well-lived life

Scott Swanson

When Sweet Home High School students enter the school library this fall, they will be greeted by a remembrance of a teacher well known to many of their older relatives: Myrtle Gates.

Gates taught vocal music and English at the high school from 1951 to 1976, when she retired.

According to her daughter, Margaret Donivan, Gates decided “to make the ending more pleasant” when she retired in May of 1976 by creating squares for a quilt.

“That year, during the last week of school, after books had been turned in, she cut muslin squares, bought 12 packages of ‘fabric’ crayons, and gave them out to her English students to draw something of their own choosing on cloth,” Donivan wrote in a letter to the high school earlier this year accompanying the quilt, which she donated to the school. “They each signed their name to their block. I have a hunch you may have grandchildren of some of these students in school now.”

Assistant Principal Chris Hiassen, who retired at the end of this past school year, is one of those.

“She was kind of scary,” Hiassen recalled, eyeing the quilt, mounted on the wall in the library. “She was old-school, but she was a sweetheart.”

Apparently, her students at the time agreed.

“So kind, so true, so sweet,” one wrote on his square.

Hiassen scanned the quilt, noting that she knew the names because those students were a couple of years ahead of her at SHHS.

“Yeah, I just, I love it. There are names on the quilt that I recognize and many still live in town.”

Most of the students’ names are quite visible: Arlene Abenreth, Allen Meacham, Brad Siemen, Teresa Finnell, David Gale … and a few dozen more.

“That’s Deanna Gibbs,” Hiassen said, pointing to one square. “She’s Deanna Knurow-ski now. She lives in Lebanon.”

She said students had not yet seen the quilt, which was hung on her last day, June 23, by district maintenance staff.

“That was me going, ‘come on!'” she joked.

Gates, who moved to Virginia in 2001 to be near her daughter, actually did not make the quilt, Donivan said.

“I found the squares and made them up into a quilt, which I gave her on her 100th birthday in 2010. Needless to say, she was thrilled and could still remember the students, even telling me where they sat in the classroom.”

Gates died in Virginia on Aug. 15, 2017, at age 106, a month short of her 107th birthday.

Born in Oklahoma, she moved west after the death of her husband at the urging of her parents, who had moved to Toledo.

Donivan told The New Era in 2010 that her mother interviewed for jobs in both Lebanon and Sweet Home after arriving in Oregon. A young man, Lynn Sjoland, also interviewed for those positions and decided to take Lebanon, so Gates was offered Sweet Home.

Donivan said her mother “brought many exciting musical programs to high school students,” leading such Gilbert and Sullivan productions as “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance,” as well as starting the traditional original Singing Christmas Tree in 1952.

Her student groups entertained at the social clubs in town, and her choruses always received superior ratings at state contests, Donivan said. She also expanded the music program in all the ele-mentary schools, with all the children playing recorders from books that she wrote herself.

She directed many of the Chips ‘n’ Splinters performances in the summer.

“She loved teaching and loved all her students so much,” Donivan wrote in a letter to Hiassen to arrange the transfer of the quilt.

“She missed Sweet Home and never quite enjoyed Virginia. She subscribed to The New Era and was very interested in what was happening at school, especially the music activities.

“I am so pleased (the quilt) will have a permanent home at the school.”