Students revisit history

Seniors celebrate childhood bid to win memorial holiday for Mother Joseph

Saturday, June 4, 2005
By Howard Buck
Columbian staff writer

excel reunion students
Jana Grube and Ashley Watson look at photos from an opened “time capsule.”

Pulled out of different schools, they met just once a week, for one school year, in a portable classroom outside Burton Elementary School.

But what those talented and gifted sixth-graders accomplished six years ago was something worth celebrating. And celebrate they did on Friday, in a poignant reunion.

Just days from their own high school graduation, more than 20 Evergreen Public Schools seniors paid tribute to Vancouver’s heroic Mother Joseph and their successful bid in 1999 to win a memorial state holiday in her name.

Lessons learned during their research, long trips to lobby state legislators in Olympia, fund-raising and the scrubbing of grimy graves at St. James Acres cemetery still resonate within several alums.

“I know it really helped me develop what was right, and who we should try to be,” said Michele Gibson, soon to depart Mountain View High. She was swayed by the moral strength of Mother Joseph, the 19th-century Catholic nun who nearly singlehandedly set up the first 15 public hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, now part of the Providence network. “It taught me what sacrifice was.”

Teachers receive standing ovation

“It really showed us all that through education and learning, you can influence others and accomplish goals,” said Stephen Hickman, from Evergreen High. That spark of empowerment was often lacking elsewhere, he said.

Not in the EXCEL classroom led by teachers Jan Davey and Irene Holbrook, to whom the seniors gave a standing ovation.

The young students had brainstormed. They overcame nerves to speak publicly. They trooped to Olympia and the Vancouver City Council, all the while building something bigger than themselves.

“It’s just kind of cool,” mused Jennifer Rogers, from Mountain View High. “As young as we were, we accomplished a lot.”

Young, they were. Friday’s gathering cracked up over an old newscast showing the excited bunch making the long bus ride to Olympia, then winning over lawmakers. More laughs came when the group pried open a time capsule Davey had stowed in her garage: scrapbook material stuffed behind a framed portrait of the class with former Gov. Gary Locke, along with the black pen he used to sign Senate Bill 5734 into law.

Photographs, newspaper stories, speech texts and a few drawings elicited a flood of memories.

Senator Al Bauer a dominant figure

One dominant figure not at the fete was former state Sen. Al Bauer. The 49th District Democrat and Senate heavyweight took the class under his wing and helped push the bill through.

“It definitely wouldn’t have happened without him,” said Kelsey Milne, a Mountain View senior. “He always gave us great advice and was a welcome face at the Capitol. Both Mother Joseph and Sen. Bauer were great role models.”

Today, the 26 former EXCEL students, all but one graduating from Heritage, Mountain View and Evergreen high schools, are role models themselves. They include a National Merit Scholar winner, a Washington Scholar and an Advanced Placement scholarship winner. All are college-bound, many due to meet again at Washington universities.

Justin Hollister and Katie Jennings, fresh off lead roles in the play “Fiddler on the Roof” at Mountain View, were the first students to make remarks on Friday.

Hollister said that every April 16, the EXCEL alums will remember bonds forged during their 1999 effort. That’s the date of the nonlegal holiday marking Mother Joseph’s birth in 1828. “It’s not quite important enough even to make the banks close, but it’s important to us,” he said.

Before the reunion, two students visited the St. James cemetery near Interstate 5 to visit the revered nun’s weathered gravestone. She was buried in 1902, joining 36 sisters.

Evergreen High seniors Mandie Ferenchak and Malcolm Staudinger placed a bouquet of pink daisies and alstromeria lilies that came from the school’s floral shop. They checked on the granite bench that also resulted from their class campaign.

“I chose the quote,” Staudinger said of the inscription across the bench front. The group had pored over Mother Joseph’s writings and weighed a half-dozen quotes. But the final selection was: “Whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”

Staudinger said he liked that quote because, “If you look at every single thing she ever did, it was about other people.”

Tom Vogt contributed to this story. Howard Buck writes about schools and education. Reach him at 360-759-8015 or e-mail