Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with lomgtime public servant Al Densmore, who has served as Medford mayor, city councilor and state legislator.
Q: You’ve been involved in lots of community activities — as mayor, representative, on local boards and city council. What’s influenced or inspired you to serve the community in that way?
Al: It was the example I found when I came here 50 years ago. Some of the first people I met were Dunbar and Jane Carpenter. They were involved in political things, but by and large they were just involved in trying to make the Rogue Valley a better place to live. It seemed as if there was a culture of people who just stepped up and did it. I can recall early on meeting people who reflected those values — like John Snider, Otto Frohnmayer and Glenn Jackson. In short, people just didn’t step back if there was something to be done, and I think it was that example that I saw, whether you were talking about something that needed to be built or whether it was just a service that needed to be provided in the community. The example was very powerful and it was everywhere.
Q: What was the Oregon House of Representatives like almost 50 years ago?
Al: I vividly recall my first session in the Legislature. We didn’t have offices — our offices were the seats that we had on the floor of the House, so after the committee day would end, we would sit at our desks on the floor of the House. With our secretary, we’d work on correspondence, we’d return phone calls. There were no barriers between us, so the conversations that you could get into with members who were “the tribal elders of Oregon,” were amazing. I learned an incredible amount. I could turn around and learn about timber from Sam Johnson. He ran a timber operation off the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. In front of me and to the right, I could learn about dory fishing from Paul Hanneman. Behind me, to the left, Rod McKenzie was a sheep rancher on the south coast. It’s like earning a doctorate in how Oregon works by simply learning from the experience of your fellow members. For example, just listening to how Stafford Hansell took the lessons from his hog business and learned how to be a good steward of the state’s resources made a tremendous impact on me. To this day I value what I learned from them. I was blessed to serve with fellow legislators and a governor, Tom McCall, who for the most part listened to one another, respected one another and tried to find common ground to make progress for the Oregonians we represented. Simple things that we’ve gotten away from.
Q: Tell us about your current project, the new Olsrud Family Community playground at Bear Creek Park?
Al: This is a rebuild of the playground that we built as a community in 1987. There are once-in-a-lifetime projects, but rarely do you get the chance to take it down and build an improvement in one lifetime. My role in 1987 was as a volunteer logistics officer from the local National Guard unit. A year ago Rich Rosenthal, Medford’s Parks and Recreation director, called and said, “Redoing this community asset that has such an affectionate tug at the hearts of everyone in the community needs to be done right. The volunteer recruitment needs to be right, and the fundraising for the community part of it needs to be right, and we couldn’t think of anyone better than you to help with that.” So I got involved, as did JWA Public Affairs, the firm that employs me.
Q: Why is a playground important?
Al: A playground is a place where people can come together. It’s focused on children, their parents and their grandparents. It’s a convening place, a gathering place. We’ve heard just incredible stories of folks meeting at the old playground; young people who met, fell in love and got married. Now their kids are playing on the playground. And the model that we used is so great because it’s a “y’all come, y’all help plan, and we’ll all succeed together” approach. People get a chance to meet and work side-by-side with people they don’t know. It’s truly a chance to build community.
The thing that I have observed in the 50 years that I’ve lived here is that, unfortunately, our society has become so tribal in many respects, and we just don’t get a chance to meet people who are different, who have different experiences or different viewpoints. I can’t think of anything that would be a better activity for us right now.
Q: You’ve lived in Jackson County for 50 years. What changes have you seen?
Al: Medford had a population of approximately 35,000 when I moved here. It was more compact and even somewhat rural then. I came here from Portland to teach at Medford Senior High, and my first apartment was adjacent to the Bazar store, which now is Food 4 Less and owned by the Olsrud family. Over the back fence, there were cattle grazing. It was a wood products- and agriculture-based community. Today our economy still features many varieties of agriculture, but it’s more diverse: retirement living, health care, financial services, education and tourism.
Q: What would make Medford and the Rogue Valley more livable?
Al: I believe we become more livable when we can create a transportation system that is less dependent on the single passenger automobile. Medford has a population of just over 80,000 people, but on any given day of the week we are a regional center and more than 120,000 are navigating our system. Our children need to be able to walk and bike safely to school, so that means more sidewalks and safe bike routes across town. Older folks like myself face the day when we may no longer be able to drive and need better public transportation services. We also need better sidewalks and walking paths to encourage us to stay healthy and active.
Q: How did you get from Portland to Southern Oregon?
Al: Medford turned out to be where I got a teaching job. A social studies teacher at Medford Senior High decided late in the summer to resign and go to work in his family’s dairy. Vern Wolthoff, who was the department chairman, asked some of the other teachers if they knew anyone who might be a good fit. One of my long-time friends, John Pember, had already gotten a job here. John said to Vern, “You’ve really got to give Al a look.” That’s how I got here. It was a very fortunate set of circumstances, and I like to say that the reason I’m here in Medford is primarily that Vern Wolthoff took a chance on a kid from Portland on the recommendation of a friend.
Q: What do you love about Southern Oregon?
Al: I love that we’re well positioned to enjoy the environment. We’re a little over an hour from Crater Lake. We’re maybe two and a half, three hours from the coast. You can get to the mountains very quickly. We’re halfway between Portland and San Francisco. You can experience a coastal climate or a desert climate within just the space of half the day. There are many people in the country who just don’t enjoy that opportunity. Then if you add in the general kindness and helpfulness of this part of Oregon, I can’t think of where I would rather live.
Q: And the smoke?
Al: Yes, although we’ve had smoke at different times and for different reasons. When I first came to town I remember in the spring when they did orchard heating …the smudge pots. “Al, you’ve got some white shirts and you don’t want to be wearing those during that time,” someone said. With auto emissions, air inversions, wigwam burners and smudge pots, we had real air-quality issues. I can remember my friends Esther Jensen and Mayor Lou Hannum working to create a set of reasonable regulations for the valley that would allow us to improve our air quality. We’ve done a great job, people tend to forget about previous air-quality challenges.
I can remember earlier this year the city did its annual state of the city presentation to the Chamber of Commerce, and late in the presentation someone stood up in the back and said, “Why can’t we be cool like Bend?” Well, number one, Bend has some real problems and issues, as any community does, but number two, we have a lot of things that we’ve worked on over time that have made this a pretty cool community. Now my response would be, “We’re building a 14,500-square-foot playground that will be accessible to all and state of the art. Now, isn’t that cool?”
Q: What’s become clearer to you recently?
Al: I think my limitations have become clearer to me recently. Now that I’ve completed my 72nd journey around the sun, everything takes a little more effort. I’m happier and healthier continuing to help out in the community, but I think what’s becoming clearer to me is that I need to be more attentive to things that Sally, my wife, needs. I need to be a bit more reflective. I need to be a little bit more strategic in what I say yes to. I would like to perhaps do some writing and teaching. When you’re in your 20s you think, “There’s nothing I can’t get done.” Now I get up in the morning and say, “I wonder what I can get done?”
Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.
Al Densmore bio
A native Oregonian, Al Densmore is currently vice president of community development at JWA Public Affairs in Medford. He retired from a 36-year career as an insurance and financial planning consultant in 2014. In addition, he worked as a social studies teacher for School District 549C for a decade and retired as a major after 26 years of service in the Oregon Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve.
Densmore served as a state representative from Jackson County from 1971-1977, mayor of Medford from 1977-1983, a member and chairman of the Southern Oregon Education Service District Board from 1992-2007 and a member of Medford City Council from 2007-2013.
He is an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Medford, a 22-year member and past president of the Bear Creek Valley Rotary Club, and a 50-year member of the Medford Masonic Lodge. Densmore was instrumental in the legislative creation of the Bear Creek Greenway and served for many years on the Bear Creek Greenway Foundation Board.
Al and his wife, Sally, have been married for 26 years and each have two children: Brooke, Megan, Ed and Joe. They have five grandchildren.