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Jean Heath Oral History Interview, November 22, 1985

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FRED SENECAL: This is the second of two interviews with Jean Heath, president of the Barn Theatre of Corvallis and retired school teacher. A longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, Ms. Heath earned a degree in drama from Pacific University of Oregon in 1932. During World War II, she worked for the Red Cross in India and China, and upon her return, lived in Virginia until coming back to the Pacific Northwest in the late fifties. Since living in Corvallis, she has been involved in the founding of the Barn Theatre Company and the Crossroads organization for the aid of foreign students. This second interview focuses on Ms. Heath's life since coming to Corvallis. It is being conducted on November 22nd, 1985, at the home of Ms. Heath on Brooklane Drive. The interviewer is Fred Senecal of the Oregon State University Anthropology Department.

JEAN HEATH: Am I starting [laughs]?

FS: Yeah, start if you want. So, you moved to Corvallis in 1959, right? If I remember right.

JH: I think we moved in '58 from Virginia, but we lived in an upstairs apartment 00:01:00across from the cannery and my son went to Washington School.

FS: Was it still a cannery then, by the time you were there?

JH: Yeah, it was. Dirty, like it was real dirty. I remember hanging out laundry and lots of times it got dirty from the - I don't know why - it would get smoke or something from the cannery. Yeah, it's hard to remember that that shopping center was once a real loud cannery. But then we lived there that year and then in April of '59, we found the place that we have now. And I had hated Corvallis 00:02:00so much. The experience I had in Virginia was for the first time in my life I knew a lot of people really well because we had traveled around so much in my childhood that it was just like having a gang, and I just loved that. Well, then to leave that life, my safe environment, and come to what seemed, to me, a big city - it was 18,000 then [both laugh] - but full of strangers and rain and I didn't think anybody was very friendly at all, so I - I didn't - I just wanted to go back to Virginia. I just wanted to give up. But then we found this place and it - on Marys River, and it was like falling in love with a person. And after I found this place I didn't ever want to leave, and I haven't since, and that was, hmm, '59, how many years? That's 36 years ago. I mean 26! Twenty-six, 00:03:00excuse me [laughs!].

Anyway... living here was sort of - the house itself is sort of an institution. It is always - liked to be full of people. At first, when we bought it, it didn't really know whether it liked us or not, and every time we had a party the furnace would go off or the pump - at that time we had a pump for all of our water - and it was probably the hardest water in the whole United States; everything we had was done in yellow. I was still using diapers for my little girl and her diapers were yellow, tea towels were yellow, and all the fixtures in our bathroom still are yellow. It tasted terrible. Nobody liked our water [laughs]. They would bring their own jug. And you'd put a little whiskey in 00:04:00water and would just - in that water, I - well okay, you'd put a little water in the whiskey, I should say, and it just turned totally black [Fred laughs]. It was just like ink [laughs]. It wasn't very - you know, color really does make a difference to your taste buds. It's not much fun drinking black, a black eyeball.

Well, our friends managed I think [laughs]. But I felt so lucky to be here, and yet - and everybody, it's a kind of a house that just is very welcoming and it, as I said, it loves people. And eventually, it eased into it and it decided it liked us and it smiled, especially - it's a very hard house to get ready for a party, and it seems like it tries to make it hard for me until all just before people come, and then it just relaxes and smiles and welcomes people. And we've 00:05:00had a tremendous number of people in this house, just because it's the kind of house it is.

I think probably our interests were partly governed by having a place where we could have people. We became very, very interested in foreign students, and at the time we came I think there was some kind of host family program going on at the college but it was done just through the college, through the foreign student counselor, and she seemed - it was very kind of limiting anyway. We asked many times if we could be assigned a student to host, and nobody would ever assign us one. The woman who was really in charge was an Amish woman, and she used a lot of religious people. And-

FS: Do you remember what her name was?


JH: Her name was... gosh, Clara Simerville was the counselor, wonderful woman, but she ruled the office with an iron hand and she was very careful of her foreign students, and she didn't want them exposed to the wrong kind of people. And she really wanted a handle on who they saw. We - my husband, George, was a science teacher in junior high, and through - because he was, he was asked to be a host to a foreign educator. There was an international teacher development program - and I think I've mentioned this before - and 30 teachers were assigned, came to - from all over the world - came to Corvallis for one term.

And our first student was - our first man, educator, was Mr. Joshi [phonetic] 00:07:00from Nepal. He was a little teeny man. And it was just a marvelous experience, just - he was with us so much and we just felt like we had traveled by having known him. And it was really sad that a lot of the people that were assigned teachers, they were here from, oh, 14 or 15 countries, never did contact him. We found that out. The last - the first that this - I'm telling you this because it has something to do with our starting an organization - the foreign educators were going to leave in another week and I asked Mr. Joshi to come for tea the Sunday before they left and bring a few friends. Well, he called me the next day 00:08:00and [laughs], he said he was sorry that the Iranians could not come for dinner, but everybody else in the group could. So, that meant I had the whole group not for tea, but for dinner. And then later on he called and said, "The Iranians can come after all!" [Both laugh].

So, I had a wonderful friend that lived next door at the time, was a marvelous cook, and her mother was a marvelous cook, so together we prepared an immense feast for this whole group. And we found out that among the group were two men from Poland who had never been contacted in the whole three months in Corvallis. And they were very musical and my friend is a fantastic musician and saw a great deal of them the next - during the following weekend. We had a fantastic going-away bash at her house, singing Polish songs out in the rain [laughs].

And anyway, it made me realize just it - I felt really good that at least those 00:09:00men had been - known a little bit about Corvallis, but as a result of that, I was determined to start a community organization that would take on the responsibility of making sure that we had an opportunity to know the students from other countries. I don't mean - I mean have an opportunity, anyway; some channel that would be easy and community-based. And I worked on that for two years. There was a lot of resistance, but eventually, they gave us the - they gradually relinquished their-

FS: Resistance by the department at OSU?

JH: Yeah, uh-huh. And now it's we're fully responsible for our - what happens. It's - I think the number of foreign students has risen a lot since the early 00:10:00days. I think there were 800; now I think there are 1,200, and sometimes 90 different countries represented. And at first that - when I first started there was an organization, community-based, that worked with foreign student wives. It was called Friendship International. But they gradually became extinct, and so now Crossroads, we call it Crossroads International, combining both names, and we do both. But that started with Mr. Joshi [laughs].

And I think - I don't know whether we - and as a result of my interest in that, I was hired for a couple years as a community coordinator by the university to make sure things happened between - in this program with assigned educators. So, 00:11:00two different years it was my job to make sure that all the host families were active, and we had many, many, many parties here with all of them, and went on lots of trips. And the house itself, it just adores that kind of thing. And I feel that when we are using it in that way, that we deserve it [laughs], but I don't think I would change where I live for a million dollars because I just happen to love this place. But I think it, this - I think it feels kind of neglected when I don't do something once in a while with people.

So, it's helped us extend ourselves, I think, more then - and then my other main interest has been theater when... this is what I majored in and I hadn't had a 00:12:00chance at anything during my time in Virginia, in acting. When I got here, the only thing in theater was Mitchell Playhouse on campus. We - there was no community theater at all. And so, my neighbor who entertained the Polish people and the Bennett, and George and I, we found the Barn one Sunday afternoon, and so we finally had a community theater.

FS: What was your neighbor's name?

JH: Lowry. Her name was Nina Lowry and she's a powerhouse of a woman now at Portland State. She books all the cultural events at Portland State, plus a lot of stuff in Portland in general. She really knew how to make things happen. And 00:13:00she was lucky to have George, who was able to do a lot of the back work [laughs], and me, and eventually, gosh, we just got the whole community behind it in a very short time.

FS: When, around, was this?

JH: I think this was '61.

FS: Uh-huh.

JH: And we had - we found it I think in April and we opened with one show that summer. It was George Washington Slept Here. And beautiful, beautiful show, perfect. And then, from then on we had three shows every summer.

FS: Where was the first show held?

JH: In the Barn.

FS: Where? I don't...

JH: Oh, you don't know where the Barn is?

FS: No.

JH: Okay, the Barn is eight-tenths of a mile after you cross Van Buren Street 00:14:00Bridge, and-

FS: On the...

JH: It's on the right.

FS: Oh, okay.

JH: And it's just - it was just perfect. It was perfect. We just dug out all kinds - it hadn't been in use for a long time. It had been an old mill and owned by... hmm, there's the, oh dear, just a minute. How can I go blank on names? She's still alive but she - and she rented it to us for 15% of the take and was always so supportive and interested. I'll get her name a little later [laughs].

FS: Is that still down there?

JH: The Barn?

FS: Yes, it's not-

JH: It's still there.

FS: It's not being used anymore, right?

JH: No, it was bought by Dorsey, and he originally I think planned to get his 00:15:00buses out there, but since then sold his bus company and he doesn't live here anymore. But we couldn't afford - he wouldn't sell it to us, and neither would Thursda [?]. Oh [whispers] I forgot his name. [Regular volume] so, there was no - it was just a dead-end because we were having - since when Dorsey owned it - well, he still owns it, but because he was so wealthy, we had to pay $1,700 a season just for liability insurance because he - if anybody wanted to sue, they could get so much out of him.

And so, it just got too complicated. Our stuff is still out there. We still have to pay 75 bucks a month for storage, and we haven't ever really... trying to 00:16:00find another place to store stuff until we have our new home, which I guess our last show was done out there in '85 when I directed Chalk Garden. When I first came to Corvallis, the first theater I got to do was in Albany, and I tried out for Chalk Garden then and had a wonderful experience. Beautiful show, and 20 years later I was directing it for the Barn and my leading lady that had played the part that I had done originally had to drop out, so I played the same role 20 years later, and the same older woman - well, I don't mean that much -- Mildred Gonzalez, who's one of the best actresses in the area, who had played the grandmother in my original show was - I had cast - so, the two of us did it 00:17:00again. And that was the last show that - that was the last season at the Barn.

And since then, the Barn has just gone from place to place. We had tents for a while and we were in the Art Center once in a while. But we always wanted to buy or somehow get ahold of the Varsity Theatre, which is... wasn't originally a - I guess it was built in 1913 as a legitimate theater with lots of vaudeville and Shakespeare and entertainers coming through; Eddie Foy, Jr., and it was a beaut-when I used to go there to movies, I didn't know it was a legitimate theater.

But we tried to reorganize the barn in the spring of '84, and I was on the 00:18:00board. And the first thing we tried to do was see if there's any chance at all of even getting a peek at the Varsity. And the woman who owned it absolutely refused, said, "No way," not even to look at it. And so, we - I directed a show and did it at the Art Center that summer and then we did a show at the courthouse, Witness for the Prosecution. And this summer we did Hay Fever, again at the Art Center, and something magic had happened. The people who owned the Varsity had changed their minds and were willing to sell it to the city.

And the original name of the theater had been the Majestic, so now it is called Majestic and there's a huge effort to fund the whole - the idea of having an 00:19:00art-just a minute - not, it's not - what's it going to be called? Well, it's not... going to be called an art center because - creative art center, I don't know. Anyway, it's - a big fundraising is going on now and they're trying to get altogether about $900,000 and they hope to have it ready to open in 80-the spring of '87. And if that happens, the Barn hopes to be one of its major tenants. They're raising that much money because they need to have an endowment that will make it possible to give its - let us be used by people like us without charging too much because now when we do a show, we have to pay an awful 00:20:00lot of rent, wherever we go. And we hope that it will be possible to make this our real home, along with others.

So, that, I... back to the house, originally when we started the Barn there was a lot of socializing going on and we - this was a place where we'd have a lot of Barn parties, cast parties [laughs]. So, oh, it would be fun to know all the people and all the things that have happened [laughs] in this house.

FS: Are there any - is there one specific party or anything that sticks out in your mind as-

JH: I'm afraid there is [both laugh]. The next-to-last show that I directed was called Chicken Every Sunday, at the Barn. I directed it in September and it had 00:21:00a cast of 21 people and we had a party here that went on all night. And George isn't very interested in theater and he has a hard time with cast parties. You always feel like you're left out, and actors are so anxious to talk about how good they were [Fred laughs]. It doesn't really [laughs] relate to that. He asked me if he should stay away, and I said, "I sure think you should. Why don't you stay away" [laughs]. That was what caused him to come [Fred laughs], I said he could stay away.

Anyway, it was an unusually long and wild one and he hated it, and the next day he said, "Let's go to South America." And so, that, I suppose I remember that one [laughs]. But I remember a lot of the cast parties with one of my - my favorite shows was a crazy comedy, See How They Run and a kid had the lead in 00:22:00it. His name is Benny Masters and I have a lot of pictures of the cast party and him, and now he's a real bigshot.

FS: Oh, what's-

JH: I can always - he's in movies and on Broadway, and I saw him on television a number of times. Oh, he's really up there now. And a couple of movies are going to be released soon. And he hasn't done movies until recently, but he's done a lot of television stuff. And I'm so proud of him [laughs]. I knew him when.

I'm trying to think back, and in a way, the community has changed since coming here. When we first came, as I said, it was about 18,000 and life on campus was very, very conservative. Certainly, there was no mixing of the sexes in the 00:23:00dorm, in a girl's dorm or a boy's dorm, and very strict rules about curfew [laughs], coming in and out. And no smoking, I think, in the classroom, or on campus. I don't know for sure about that, but no smoking, I believe, on campus at all. And certainly no alcohol and certainly no - as a renter, we had very stiff rules that we had to - that they-

FS: The... did-

JH: I mean as a rentee. I mean as a landlord we had to promise certain things.

FS: You promised these to the school, or to the city?

JH: To the school. We had to-

FS: To the school?

JH: If we rented to students, we had to sign a form saying that we wouldn't allow alcohol and we wouldn't allow intermingling of sexes, and that just seems amazing now. I don't know, it certainly - the change was very gradual but to me, 00:24:00I think it was - it seemed kind of sudden because my son was a fairly quiet kid, no problem at all to us. He was just a wonderful ha-I thought - happy, contented young man. He stayed in his room a lot but I didn't know what was going on, and I still don't, but I know he probably was reflecting in his mind a lot of the changes that were going on, but I just thought he was my own darling little boy.

And then he graduated and he took off and went to Hawaii and picked pineapple. Gee, that scared me. I mean, it was the first time he was gone and he was the only white with a bunch of people of other races and found out what that was like. And I'm really proud of him for doing that because he was very protected 00:25:00and he had planned to go with others and they all flaked out on him; he went alone. [Tape cut]

[Tape resumes] Anyway, my son came back from Hawaii and went to Antioch school for two years in Ohio. Antioch, is that Ohio? Yeah, Yellow Springs. And it's a very, very way-out school. I think if he'd gone to Oregon State he might have finished school, but he [Fred laughs], I think he really knew what he wanted to do when he went to college [laughs]. He wanted to become a history teacher. But Antioch is as liberal as they come. They have a system where they go to school for one semester and then they work somewhere in the United States. They choose a job from - can choose a job from the list and find out, on the job, what they're interested in. And gosh, those two years gave me a lot of knowledge but 00:26:00it also I think resulted in his not wanting to pursue it any further [laughs].

And the first time he came home from college, he was barefooted and he had hair well down to the - sort of down to the bottom of his ear, and I was so embarrassed [Fred laughs]. I didn't want to be seen with him. I'd always given him a crew cut, every day - I mean e-for years [laughs], and I had this crazy man, oh. I suffered. And then the next time he came home he brought home a girl and I insisted that they live in - sleep in - separate bedrooms. And they continued to go together and he continued to bring her home. Eventually, I gave up and they slept in the same bedroom, but two beds. But I noticed they put the 00:27:00two beds together [Fred laughs].

Well, I, I got - and then they went up as [unintelligible] immigrants to Canada. But they'd come - and they had three kids and they lived in a commune in that was an experience, I can tell you, when we went up. When we went up to see them, we adjusted to them. I mean, we adjusted to lots of pot smoking and everybody, only people just doing things when they were into doing them, and crud all around, nobody picking up anything, and lots of partner swapping [Fred laughs] and just everything laid back. We adjusted to that, but when they came here to 00:28:00visit us, we adjusted to them again [laughs]. It didn't seem fair [Fred laughs].

But I don't know what my point was. What was my point? Anyway [laughs], I learned a lot - oh, and of course they were vegetarians lots of the time, and I can remember once they were here and I didn't have any rice and I went down and got some white rice and my son-

FS: Uh oh.

JH: -just gave me hell. And you know, from then on I've only used brown rice. I wouldn't think of buying any white rice. See, but I feel like I've been educated a lot by him, and to the good, but it's not been easy. I was really ready for them to live together, finally, for - I mean, I had made up my mind: good, they're not going to get married. I don't really think they're perfect for each other and I think it's fine that they don't get mar-they didn't have any children at this point. They lived together for three years and I thought they 00:29:00would for a long, long time without - and I didn't think marriage was ever going to happen, but then all of a sudden they sprung it on me and said they were going to get married in my house on the 30th of December [laughs]. And didn't have any choice [laughs] by then. Her father was a Unitarian minister and they came and...

FS: What year did they get married?

JH: Oh gosh, I wish I knew. I am terrible. This must have been... oh, dear. My grandson is 15 years old and I think - so, let's add another year, 16 years ago, so that's got to be about '60, right? No, '70, 1970?

FS: Yeah.

JH: Yes, 1970. It was I think by - yeah, during the Vietnam stuff. I was real 00:30:00grateful that he was in Canada because I - he had an injury to his foot which would have kept him from being drafted but I was still grateful that he didn't have to register for anything.

I think that was one of the hardest periods in my life as a citizen of the United States, the Vietnam period. there was a lot of acti-it was an exciting time, in a way, because it seemed as if people weren't hopeless about doing something about it and there was a lot of active activism on campus, just exciting things happening; anti-military balls right on campus and oh, so many 00:31:00marches and hundreds and hundreds of people being involved. And you didn't feel it was hopeless, somehow.

Now, I feel like there's a - just sort of the problems are so great and we've tried, people have tried on the nuclear freeze, and nothing happens. It seems that there's a real lethargy in this town. I guess - I am in a Beyond War group which is I think maybe on the right track in that it's not trying to be a political thing; it's not trying to solve any problems quickly. It's more like working on a vaccination for war, trying to get people to change their thinking, 00:32:00and teaching together, learning that war is obsolete, and then having, out of this group of people in your home after three sessions together, maybe there'll be two out of that group that will want to go on and become leaders and teach others.

So, it becomes more of a - it's like a snowball and it sort of - it's really well planned out and it's becoming not just national, but international. And if we have time, I think there are a lot - it's sort of positive that middle-class people who have never been active... activists before, are getting involved in this. But it's going to take a long time. And I went to a vigil on Tuesday night - that's where I got my cold - 7:30 candlelight vigil at the courthouse, and I 00:33:00was hoping that there would be a lot of people. There were 75, and boy, some of the marches that we went on in Vietnam, there were thousands. In this town. It was a good feeling, though, just to stand and be with people that were concentrating on the Geneva talks and sending out hope.

FS: How did the - you were talking about the Vietnam marches and so forth - how did the town and the school handle those kinds of situations?

JH: I thought they were very - I didn't think there was much anti-they were very accepting. There didn't seem to be... they certainly were allowed to march, and 00:34:00the authorities helped make it possible. I remember going from downtown to the Memorial Union; everybody had candles, and singing "We Shall Overcome" [laughs]. And it seemed like the whole quad was full of people. I still have a picture of that beautiful... And it seemed to include not just a small fraction... and students, just so many students involved, and now I think it's kind of minimal, from what I see.

I guess I didn't tell you about one aspect of living at Brooklane that's been exciting is we live on this river, and once in a while it floods, and I think 00:35:00three different times we've been on an island with - unable to get out towards the highway or around the other way. And George would have to get the boat out, and once was at Christmastime, and we called him the Brooklane Ferry [Fred laughs] and he did - he would just - we had five families that were stuck and they all needed to do shopping.

And it brought us really, really close together with our neighbors. We didn't know some of them very well, and we spent Christmas Eve - one was a minister and I think we were... just sort of labeled him as stuffy, and we got acquainted, all of us were together, it was wonderful. And then the flood disappears and we go back to our little [laughs] holes again. And then we had one wonderful storm called the Columbus Days storm, and boy, we were really scared on that one.


FS: That was - when was that?

JH: You know, I'm terrible about dates. I think it was '64, but it was - I guess most of the trees, so many of the trees in Avery Park went down, and you see, if you go to Marys Peak, you see whole areas that were just devastated. And we have so many trees around here, we were really frightened, but we were lucky. But some of them did go down, but not on the house. Wow. But that - we didn't have any power for a long time.

Sometimes when we'd have floods - well, I guess maybe that was a st-maybe this was the Columbus Day storm, wait a minute. No, no, this was another flood, and we didn't have any power but we decided to have a party and George would meet 00:37:00people by boat and bring them in [both laugh]. It was a marvelous party, just candles, but the only problem was some people wanted to leave early and he had no longer - had just gotten people there when it was time for him to take some people back, so he just spent the time rowing away [laughs]. I don't suppose we'd do that now. Maybe. It's a wonderful place to live.

I remember the two things: it was the Majestic is going to be called the Performing Art Center, Corvallis Performing Art Center, and the owner of the Barn was Thursda Russell [phonetic] who's still - I think she's 94 now - and still - and she - I went to see her the other day and she promised to give $1,000 to the Majestic because she's still so interested in theater. So, I 00:38:00intend to act on that stage someday. Right now I'm president of the Barn Theatre and our attempt to get... keep alive until we get the home, and it's a job when you don't have a home. I don't - I think I've talked enough. Did I cover my entire life [laughs]?