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Happening People

January 28, 2016

The daughter of an Alaskan Native airline pilot, who flew back and forth to Alaska, and a Norwegian mother from Minnesota, Sigvanna Topkok endured family fights at home and racist comments at school, as she grew up in several towns across Oregon, from Baker City to the coast. She spent childhood summers in her grandparents’ home village of Ambler, Alaska, where tribal traditions were suppressed in previous generations. “My grandmother was adopted out of the tribe,” she notes. “My dad passed away in a car crash when I was 11.

January 14, 2016

The son of an active-duty Marine, Jon Labrousse grew up in several West Coast cities, then went to high school in Hawaii. “Most of the kids were Asians and Pacific Islanders,” he says. “It was a huge growth experience.” He enrolled at Oregon State University to study engineering, but after a required reading class with John Campbell he began writing poetry and changed his major to English. He spent two years teaching in Japan and South Korea before settling in Eugene in 1996 with his wife, Tasha Katsuda. “We met at OSU,” he says.

December 24, 2015

Back in the 1980s, University of Florida student Jim Evangelista and his roommates had a sign that read “Welcome to Reality Kitchen.” Later, when he started painting murals, Evangelista adopted the name for his Gainesville storefront studio, and Reality Kitchen evolved into a 24/7 coffee house and community center. “We had music every night,” he says. After three years, he got back to murals and began building scenery for film and TV. He got married, had a son, Diego, and, in 1992, took a cross-country trip in a converted school bus.

December 10, 2015

“The prison experience was a blessing for me,” says Garvar Brummett, who left his San Fernando Valley home at age 17 to escape an abusive stepdad and an alcoholic mother. He fell into a cycle of addiction, alcoholism, homelessness, bank robbery and incarceration that lasted 20 years. He served five years in prison, part of it in Illinois, the rest at the Sheridan federal prison in Oregon. “I read a lot of self-help books and religious texts,” he says. “I started going to AA meetings.

November 25, 2015

February 2008: After graduating from the University of Michigan in economics, Jennifer Frenzer-Knowlton spent three years on Wall Street. “I saw the avarice of capitalism,” she says, so she returned to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, for a law degree. “I felt that a woman needed teeth in her credentials.” She also got married, and when her physician husband took a job on the Makah Reservation in Neah Bay, Washington, she was hired by the tribe. “I worked on economic development,” she says.

November 5, 2015

“I grew up playing in the woods and creeks,” says Laurie Trieger, who lived in Philadelphia with her mom, but attended the Miquon School out in the country, where her mother worked in administration. “It was very ’70s, a radical creative education. I learned critical thinking and never had a letter grade.” After high school, Trieger waited tables and also volunteered at the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center for Women, then was hired there full-time. In 1982, she met Larry Coxe in Philly. Two years later, they sold everything and departed.

October 22, 2015

“I can go to places where trees are still standing because I was there to make it happen,” Shannon Wilson says. “I’ve been involved in stopping 20 to 30 timber sales, mostly in western Oregon.” When he was 8, Wilson’s parents moved from Santa Rosa, California, where his three older brothers were getting into parties and fights, to rural southern Oregon, four miles from Selma in the Siskiyou Mountains. He learned to identify birds and trees. At 14, he joined an environmental group fighting a proposed nickel strip mine on nearby Eight Dollar Mountain.

October 8, 2015

Raised on a farm outside Cincinnati, Ohio, Rose Elder rode public school buses to Guardian Angel Catholic Grammar School, 3 miles away, and to high school at St. Joseph’s Academy in the city. Later the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, for her father’s health. “He died when I was 20,” says Elder, who had six months of college in Phoenix before she began working for California Water and Telephone. “We called it California Drip and Tinkle.

September 24, 2015

“My inspiration is my parents,” says Ruth Weinberg, who grew up in London, the daughter of German-Jewish refugees who felt welcome in England. “They created a nonprofit to provide affordable housing for international grad students and their families.” After graduating from the Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy, Weinberg got her first job at an old Victorian psychiatric hospital. When it shut down, she spent a year on an organic farm in New Zealand and two years with a group home for adults with developmental disabilities in Alaska. 

September 10, 2015

“I always knew, implicitly, that I was a musician,” says Scotty Perey, who took classical piano lessons from age 5 through high school in Billings, Montana. He sang in the school choir and taught himself guitar. He studied engineering for a year in Boulder before leaving that career path to study music at Montana State in Bozeman. He moved to Eugene in 1988 and finished a bachelor’s in music composition in 1994. He started giving music lessons at home in 1990, the same year he joined a new band, The Sugar Beets. “We met at the UO,” he says.

August 27, 2015

A native of Berkeley, California, Anne Donahue studied sports psychology at the University of Oregon and competed in rowing and ultimate Frisbee. “Our ultimate team, Dark Star, finished third at the national championships,” she says. After graduation, she went into business, printing T-shirts in her garage, until it caught fire. She took care of a woman with multiple sclerosis and did housecleaning and landscaping.

August 13, 2015

After two years at Lansing Community College, close to her family home in suburban Holt, Michigan, Jamie Walsh and a couple of friends moved to Los Angeles to establish California residency and decide where to go to school. “I didn’t like L.A. at all,” says Walsh, who headed north to study art history at Humboldt State in Arcata. “It’s small, and nature is everywhere,” she says of that much-smaller California town.

July 30, 2015

Though she was born in Los Angeles, Jill Torres has lived in Eugene since age 3 when her parents separated and she moved north with her mom. She went from Meadowlark Elementary to Crest Drive when her mother remarried, then to Jefferson Middle School. “It was a wonderful environment,” she says, “with a lot of social justice activists.” Meanwhile, her mother got a degree in education and began teaching fifth grade at Oak Hill School. “I had the opportunity of free high school at Oak Hill,” Torres says.

July 9, 2015

The daughter of artistically inclined parents, a woodworker and a flower farmer, Leda Hermecz grew up in tiny Silverhill, Alabama, located between Robertsdale, an agricultural town, and Fairhope, an artists’ colony on the shore of Mobile Bay. She left Robertsdale High School after two years in favor of home schooling.

June 25, 2015

“My mother was a special educator,” says Gretchen Dubie, a Catholic school student through college in Burlington, Vermont. “I was fascinated by her students’ honesty and humor.” In 1994, one day after graduating from all-girls Trinity College with degrees in special education and psychology, Dubie and two friends hit the road for Alaska and summer work in a cannery. Returning in September with a new boyfriend, Chris Gadsby, she stopped in Eugene to visit an old friend.

June 11, 2015

“I was born on the bayou,” says Dennis Hebert of Houma, Louisiana. “When a hurricane came, we’d board everything up and feel the house shake.” Hebert left the University of Southwest Louisiana in Lafayette to get married, but instead got drafted. He received a Dear John letter and a Purple Heart in Vietnam. He finished a marketing degree on the GI Bill, moved to Phoenix and started doing carpentry. He traveled the West for three years in his 1961 International van, the Turtle, picking up jobs along the way. Returning to Phoenix in 1981, he met a lady, Larena.

May 28, 2015

“My original plan was to be a high school choir director,” says Mo Robeson, who studied music and art at her hometown school, San Diego State University. “That’s where I met Denny Robeson.” They got married, he joined the Coast Guard and she finished up her degree at the University of West Florida in Pensacola while he went to flight school. She sang with the Honolulu Chorale and Symphony when he was stationed in Hawaii as a search and rescue pilot. They spent five years in Aberdeen, Washington, where he worked in air traffic control and she taught at Grays Harbor College.

May 14, 2015

“I learned to read at age 4,” says Isabelle Rogers, who entered first grade at Oak Hill School a year later. She skipped kindergarten and eighth grade on her way to high school graduation from Oak Hill this year at age 16. Rogers started writing stories when she was 7. She won a Glitterary Award from the Young Writer’s Association the next year for her story “If It Rained Down Soda.” “I liked to write,” she says. “My parents encouraged me. I still bounce ideas off my parents.” 

May 7, 2015

Born on the farm near Cairo, Georgia, where his great-granddad was a sharecropper, Hershell Norwood migrated north with his family as a young child and started school in Orange, New Jersey. After one year of high school, he got a scholarship to Hampton School, a boarding school in New Hampshire. He excelled at football and moved on to Tufts University near Boston. “I played quarterback in high school and running back in college,” he says, “and got a degree in theater.” He began work on an MFA in acting at Brandeis in the late 1970s, then spent a decade selling ad time on NBC Boston.

April 16, 2015

“My parents started an arts co-op in Boulder in the 1970s,” says Colorado native Mitra Chester, who studied anthropology and religion at University of Colorado Boulder, then moved to Austin, Texas, and got married. She worked in clothing resale and began to design clothes. She and her husband, Aaron, did some research, chose Eugene for its cool climate and cool people and moved here in 2003. They ran two boutique resale stores, Deluxe and Kitsch, and she put on a yearly local fashion show beginning in 2007.

April 9, 2015

“My dad worked for Rhythm and Blooms,” says Alex Ruiz, who was born in Eugene, two months before his parents moved back to their hometown of Santiago Apóstol in Oaxaca, Mexico. “They wanted me to be a U.S. citizen.” Ruiz returned to Oregon at age 11, lived with his older brother Lorenso and began sixth grade at Cal Young Middle School. “I didn’t know English,” he says. “It was challenging.” He took ELL classes and learned the language, but got into trouble with friends who were experimenting with drugs.

March 19, 2015

Farm girl Mia Nelson grew up outside of Glencoe, Minnesota, where her dad managed the local Green Giant packing plant. “The world’s largest corn-packing plant,” she says. “I worked there summers.” After two years at Rice University in Houston, she transferred to Oregon State to study biochemistry. “I wanted to be a vet,” she says, “but I quit school to work for the Green Tortoise bus company.” GT had a shop in Lowell, where buses were converted for cross-country touring.

March 5, 2015

“My goal was to work at the Los Angeles Zoo,” says Karen DeBraal, who grew up in nearby Glendora. She earned a two-year vet tech degree, studied zoology at Cal Poly Pomona, then worked as a zookeeper for four years. “I was severely disillusioned,” she says. “I thought zoos should be genetic arks and participate in reintroduction.” DeBraal moved to Santa Cruz, where she worked for Greenpeace, served as media rep for Earth First! and returned to school at UCSC for a degree in environmental science.

February 19, 2015

“In sixth grade, I went to environmental camp for a week, in the woods near Placerville,” says Shelley Villalobos, who grew up on a 5-acre walnut farm near Chico, California. “I came back changed, aware that our choices matter for the planet.” Villalobos played softball all through school in Chico, for one year at local Butte College and for three years at the UO, while she completed a degree in journalism and wrote a weekly column on the environment for the Oregon Daily Emerald.