Family psychologists tell us that the holidays have the potential to inspire year-end review, reflection, even reconciliation. To see if that might be true, I asked several current and former North Portlanders if they had ever had a deeply moving holiday experience. Several said yes.
Lifelong North Portland resident Mike Verbout described his most meaningful Christmas encounter came 50 miles down the road in Salem. Verbout has long played trombone for a Salvation Army brass ensemble, donning a resplendent scarlet and black uniform for concerts.
One Christmas, the band performed before 500 convicts at the Oregon State Penitentiary maximum security ward where armed guards ringed the packed assembly room. “A tough crowd,” Verbout remembered. “We had played prisons before and invited the inmates to sing along, yet few did, out of fear of being seen as soft by other inmates.”
And so it seemed this day as the prisoners greeted them with stony faces “until,” Verbout recalled, “something unbelievable happened.” The bandsman had just gotten a few notes into Silent Night when a lone inmate started to sing. Soon a few more voices joined in, and within minutes, the sound of prisoners singing filled the cavernous room.
“A lot of tears began flowing from the musicians, guards, and inmates,” said Verbout, “an experience I’ve never forgotten.”
Fleeing a house fire
Last winter Lee and Melissa Crowson were homeless after losing all their belongings to a house fire. This summer they found shelter at the Peninsula Safe Rest Village along the railroad cut between N. Willamette Blvd. and N. Lombard St. The Crowsons wrote of their situation in a letter to the North Peninsula Review. “We aren’t necessarily looking forward to tons of gifts wrapped under the tree—instead we have the blessing of something that we never thought was possible, a warm, safe place with a roof over our heads.”
Just a few blocks east of Safe Rest Village is St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church at 7600 N. Hereford Ave., where Rev. Jennifer Creswell recounted her favorite holiday tale.
After a 2008 Christmas week snowstorm had blanketed the parking lot of a church where Creswell then worked, she faced a crisis—whether to cancel Christmas services. But then a stranger’s act of kindness changed everything. “Someone mysteriously cleared, plowed and salted the church parking lot!” Creswell said. “But who did it? We didn’t have a contract with a plow operator and I didn’t know anyone who could have done it.”
“I later learned that the husband of a woman who attended our daily AA meeting at the church had removed the snow so his wife wouldn’t miss her meeting—even on Christmas Day,” Creswell said.
Despondent on Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve 1978 found Roosevelt High School junior Dan Ryan lonely and despondent. His parents had separated and their final divorce date approached. That evening as his work shift ended at St. Johns Thriftway, he learned that his social worker mother would be working through the night and he would be alone. So he tried contacting classmates Annie Maguigan and Linda Coats for companionship and received a last-minute invitation to join their families for Midnight Mass at Holy Cross Church. “The carols, the merriment, the love that night helped me forget about the pain and loss that comes with a divorce,” said Ryan, now a Portland City Commissioner.
Las Posada down Lombard’s sidewalks
Cornelius Swart, publisher of the former St. Johns Sentinel newspaper, savors a colorful, musical memory of a North Portland night in December 2006. That year Swart, whose mother is Latin American, helped organize the “St. Johns Posada,” a traditional Mexican religious festival celebrated between December 16th and 24th commemorating the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of safe refuge. The procession is led by a child dressed as an angel followed by more children with lit candles. Adults and musicians follow the procession which visits select homes and asks for lodging for Mary and Joseph. The procession is always refused lodging.
A few kids from George Middle School choir dressed as Joseph, Mary, and the angels. They led a procession of one hundred children and parents through downtown St. Johns.
“We sang in English and Spanish. At each shop, we’d ask for shelter (posada), and each would say, “No, no posada,” Swart said. The procession ended in the Plaza where a Mariachi Band, pinatas, and free tamales greeted them. The Three Wise Men also appeared, played by Javier Patino (Olé Olé), Pattie Dietz (Pattie’s Home Plate), and Jimmy Chan (Dad’s Supper Club). They handed out candy to the children.
OSU football coach’s fatherly advice
The most nationally recognized sports figure ever to emerge out of Oregon is North Portland’s Terry Baker. Terry grew up in the Arbor Lodge neighborhood in a single-parent household so poor that the naturally right-handed Terry had to use a left-handed baseball mitt because that was all that his mother could afford.
Yet Terry persevered and excelled at Ockley Green Grade School and Jefferson High School. He eventually won a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State University where he starred in both basketball and football. In 1962 he become the first Oregonian ever to win one of the most prestigious honors in all of sport, the Heisman Trophy. That December he sat next to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy at the Heisman banquet in New York City to receive his award.
Baker then returned to Corvallis with plans to fly to Kansas City to spend Christmas Day with a friend’s family. But before that could happen, he got a cryptic phone message from his OSU football coach Tommy Prothro.
So Baker went to the coach’s office where Prothro invited his quarterback to make himself comfortable, and then gently asked, “I hear you’re going to Kansas City for Christmas?” Baker answered, “Yes.” Prothro then asked, “Is your mother going to Kansas City?” Baker responded, “No.” The OSU coach then paused, before slowly saying, “Terry—your mother lives alone. Your older brothers live far away. On Christmas Day, you’re all your mama’s got.”
The fatherly Prothro needed to say no more. Baker canceled his ticket to Kansas City and enjoyed Christmas Day with his mother at their home near N. Campbell Avenue and N. Killingsworth Street.
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