CLEAR CUT: THE STORY OF PHILOMATH, OREGON Image

Rising college tuition costs are a growing problem in America, as many would-be freshmen find the price for attending a four-year institution prohibitively expensive, forcing themselves and their parents to rely increasingly on loans and other means to obtain a degree.

The town of Philomath, Oregon has a unique way of dealing with this problem. In 1959, local businessman Ray Clemens and his wife set up the Clemens Foundation, which used profits from the area’s timber industry to provide graduates from Philomath High School with college scholarships to Oregon State University, no strings attached.

Well, they had a unique way of dealing with it. Clemens’ nephew, Steve Lowther, now the head of the Foundation, decided in the late 1980s that he was uncomfortable with the “politically correct” direction the school was taking (proposals to change the high school’s mascot from the Native American-inspired “Warriors” and teaching environmentalism in class, for example). Specifically, he was fed up with the outsider mentality of the new superintendent and a population swelling with an influx of urban professionals. People who didn’t share Philomath’s traditional values, as it turned out. With Ray Clemens gone (he died in 1985), Lowther became determined to take the Foundation in a different direction.

“Clear Cut” looks at Lowther’s efforts to attach provisions to the scholarships, a move supported by some, opposed by others. Directory Peter Richardson tries to provide a fair and balanced (to coin a phrase) look at both sides – interviewing school officials, town residents and students – with varying results. And while it’s true that dwindling lumber profits make the Foundation harder to manage, it doesn’t help that Lowther is about as big a prick as you’d ever want to lay eyes on, loudly decrying the tree hugger influence in the schools, mocking kids with strange haircuts, and making constant references to Hitler and Nazi Germany when referring to the school board and the superintendent.

The irony of Lowther accusing the school of using their authority to further and agenda while at the same time using the Clemens Foundation to push his seems lost on the guy, but – as the students point out – it’s his money. It’s too bad he didn’t inherit his forebears’ sense of charity and equality along with their dough.

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