LLI Spotlight: Beverlee Koutny, Coordinator, Chemeketa Center for Learning in Retirement, Woodburn, Ore.

By Peter Spiers

Woodburn is a small town of approximately 25,000 in the Willamette Valley between Portland and Salem, Oregon, and is the home of a branch of Salem-based Chemeketa Community College. In the late 1990s a 55+ residential community—Woodburn Estates—was built in the town, and the college’s president was determined to draw these older residents into its learning community. Since many of the Estates residents were new to the area they expressed interest in learning more about the history of the Willamette Valley, and in the summer of 1999 the community college began offering day trips to local historical sites. As people participating in these trips forged bonds of friendship, they decided that classes would also be enjoyable and enriching, and Beverlee Koutny, a teacher by training, a native of the area, and a passionate local historian, became involved. With about 30 paid members each semester, the Chemeketa Center for Learning in Retirement is a small but vibrant organization, offering a handful of classes each semester and continuing with the summer field trips where the organization began 17 years ago. Members pay $35 a year, and summer trips are open to everyone.

What do you consider your major responsibilities at CCLR?

I’m a volunteer but we also have a board of directors and officers who do most of the work! I support them but also continue to teach classes in local history and work on keeping lines of communication open with the community college. But my main goal is bringing older people together through our program. I’m a big believer in the value of socializing.

How is your relationship with the Community College?

The college is committed to serving everyone in the community and is glad to see seniors coming in. They give us classroom space, AV equipment, and office space, even though I’m only a volunteer. They also make buses and drivers available for our field trips in the summer.

What are some favorite courses you offer?

Local history is always popular, but we’ve also offered very popular courses that focus on local concerns like one called “Where Does Your Garbage Go?” that included visits to the waste water treatment plant and the recycling center. We haven’t repeated a lot of courses, but the birdwatching courses we’ve done with the help from people at the Chemeketa campus in Salem have run several times. We’ve also offered course in science, writing, and some pretty quirky topics as well. We have a member originally from The Netherlands who had hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail. She led a ten-session course about the Trail and her experience and did a beautiful job breaking the trail and the topic down into ten smaller pieces. This semester we have a course called “Thinking Like a Millennial” and another that I’m teaching about the local immigrant experience called “Immigrants to Oregon.” In my course I’m bringing in a representative from a different immigrant community for each session, including people with roots in historical immigrant groups like the Russians, Norwegians, Mennonites, and Germans, as well as current immigrants from our large Mexican population.

Is there another LLI you admire and have learned something from?

I communicate with people from the LLIs at Portland Community College and Willamette University in Salem, and helped community members in Astoria get an LLI started on the coast several years ago.

What developments do you see in the future for or the lifelong learning movement more broadly?

The Community College is expanding rapidly and is outgrowing its building. I’m very involved in getting a Senior Center started in our community and that might give us some options if we run our of classroom space.

What did you do before you came to CCLR?

I’m a teacher and began my career in a small country school. Eventually I went to work for the government and taught in American schools overseas, first in Panama where my students were the children of expats and U.S. military, and then in Germany in the military schools. I got to Germany at the end of August in 1989 and the Berlin Wall came down that fall. It was an exciting time to be there! I retired from that career in 1991, came home to Oregon and went down to the Community College and volunteered to teach English. I ended up coordinating the volunteer program and along the way helped hundreds of people to become U.S. citizens, not just teaching them but also driving them to Portland for their citizenship interviews. People still stop me on the street and call out “Hi, teach!”

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already?

When I was teaching in Germany I went all over Europe, but never to Ireland. Not long ago I took a DNA test and found out I am 28% Irish. I still hope to go!

Tell me about your personal interests and a book you’ve read recently that you would recommend to others.

I’ve been fascinated by genealogy for a long time, beginning in the days before everything wa on the internet like it is now. I used to go once a year to Salt Lake City to do research in huge archives the Mormons maintain, and after a 20-year search was able to find information there about a great-grandfather by looking through probate records for Marion County, Oregon. I’ve also found out a lot about Jory ancestors who came from England to this area, one of whom gave his name to a type of soil we have here in the foothills above the Willamette River.

Naturally the book I would recommend is about immigrants to Oregon—Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: The Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon. The book tells the story of this community, beginning with Chinese laborers who came to America to work on the railroads. After the railroads were built many of them came to Portland, planted market gardens and went door-to-door selling produce. The author, a professor at Seattle University named Marie Wong, came here recently to talk about the book and it was right up my alley!