Sunday, January 12, 2014


Vernon Grade School, Portland, OR

When I was kid in Portland, OR, I had the idea that nothing ever happened there.  They call the city “The Gray Lady.”  Those were the days when ladies wore gloves and spoke softly.  Hard for me to fit in.  I didn’t even keep my shoes on.  I’ve always had a taste for the outrageous, the edge, the risk.  That was the way I did ministry.

Now I discover Mark Miller, a man in the class the year behind mine, who went through the same teachers, the same neighborhood, the same events that I did.  He became a UCC minister of some prominence and influence,  and he writes murder mysteries!  Also, he tells me about his classmate and fellow church member, Jeannette Butts,  Jeff class of ’56, who went to Fiji and married Vilsoni Herenik.  They made a movie, “The Land Has Eyes” is a clip.  Not only did I not know about any of this, but also I can’t remember either Mark or Jeannette and he can’t remember me either.  Jeff was a BIG high school -- 2,000 plus and then 4/5ths white.  But Vernon was much smaller, a neighborhood school where the ties were close enough that the graduating class of 1953 still meets for lunch in Portland once a month.

In those days, school kids were expected to pray.  Arrow is my brother, Paul.
Teacher is Mrs. Qualman.

Mark’s ministry is Christian, which is a point of religious departure rooted in the human family (which is as universal and problematic as our species), and I’ve just finished reading his online blog, which braids together his family and ministry, along with FISHING which he shares with the Christian disciples as an excellent field of endeavor.  He also writes and publishes murder mysteries at AuthorHouse through Google Books.  I just read his compiled blog over the past few years.  Luckily, he is neither a homophobe, a racist, nor an “Right to Life” guy.  This is the first ebook I’ve read.  Since I have none of the clever little handheld gizmos, it was on my desktop MAC.

Miss Carter with my mother.

What Mark and I most have in common is our public school teachers, which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately.  You know the stereotype:  the teacher on Frazz  or maybe the one on Non Sequitur  Stout, exasperated, truth-tellers, safety Croakers on their eyeglasses, no life except in the classroom.  Then I opened up what I thought was notes from acting class with Alvina Krause and found my grammar notebook from Agnes Carter’s eighth grade class.  She was FAMOUS for her grammar teaching.  I’ve looked for that notebook since I quit teaching years ago.  She made us memorize certain parts of speech, just as I required from my Blackfeet students, and all of us -- including Mark -- can rip out helping verbs or prepositions in a blue streak. 

Nowadays I google everyone and everything (watch out!) so I put in Agnes Carter and got Mark Miller talking about her contribution to his life!  Also, Carlie May Gilstrap, born about 1906 in Oregon.  VERY intriguing result from Google that tags the Gilstraps as Scots and Unitarian!  No wonder I felt enough of an affinity with her to get up before dawn every morning, listening to the fate of Hungary as they tried to break out of the USSR.  Maybe Mark did, too.  Carlie Gilstrap did not do history as a dead subject.  But I don't find much about her.

Mark notes an incident I didn’t think anyone else remembered and that has haunted him as it has me: a primary school classmate who was clearly deranged and finally institutionalized for torturing cats. We knew about it but no one would discuss it except to say that he was wicked and sent away. 

Mark’s compiled blog and his murder mysteries are ebooks.  His website is   I’ve just read “Voice of My Heart,” the compiled blog.  $3 !  What a bargain!  Now I’m looking forward to his female murder-solving minister who used to be an LA cop.  He’s been particularly lucky to have a helping friendship with Sue Grafton, who writes the alphabet murder series.

Zion Congregational Church on NE Fremont

While I write on this Sunday morning, Mark is preaching his second sermon as an interim minister in Washington State where the fishing is good.  His valiant wife, Diane, is undoubtedly there.   This is the church Mark grew up in and it served him well, giving him an excellent launching pad for studying the “Big B” theologians of Germany, including Bonhoeffer who opposed Hitler, tried to assassinate him and was martyred at the end of a rope.   I think these photos are Mark's family.    Henry was his father, a garbage collector in the days when garbage men were muscular and respected -- like the mailman or meter reader.  They made the neighborhood work. 

Mark's parents: Henry and Katherine Miller

On this blog I’ve occasionally talked about Vernon/Jeff neighborhoods being essentially a small town of European immigrants, later displaced by blacks from the rural South, until they in turn were displaced by new young professionals, penniless artists, and Hispanic bodega operators.  The original town was called “Albina,” and really was "white" in the beginning.  The street with the trolley was “Alberta,” named for Queen Victoria’s daughter.

From Mark's website:  “He and his wife, Diane, live in Snoqualmie, Washington. Mark has served forty-eight years in ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ. He was educated at Stanford University, Yale University Divinity School and Eden Theological Seminary and served churches in Illinois, Ohio, Colorado and Oregon and was Conference Minister in United Church of Christ Conferences in Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington.” 
Mark’s a conventional but exceptional guy -- he did all the right things in admirable style.  In the beginning the difference between us was probably nothing more than the diff between a Celt and a Teuton, but that small divergence played out into quite different lives.  He is a believing and serving Christian.  I can be charitably described as a heretic.  Under the surface, our values are much the same: we both want to be on time or a little early; we both enjoy high liturgy -- occasionally.  But neither of us did anything so dramatic as going to Fiji to make movies!   
Mark, October 12, 1985, aged 45

What is it that sends some people scattering out across the planet and keeps others quietly at home to raise their children in the same modest homes where they grew up?  What do our ancestors in “Albina” have to say to the youngsters now facing a diminished income -- if they are lucky enough to be employed at all -- and no chance at a fancy education like the major universities attended by Mark and me?  What would they say to people hooked on drugs?  (At one point in the Nineties the closest blocks around my mother’s house were the location of NINE murders and overdoses.  “Shots fired” every night.  Rapes too common to report.)  Not so different from moonshine, opium and morphine.

Vernon neighborhood now.

Vernon School is being considered for closure.  In the past it was a wooden building that burned down and was rebuilt as brick.  When Mark Miller and I were there, the student body was bulging from the post-WWII baby boom so the playground held two “portable” classrooms.  Across the street was Alberta Park.  It wasn’t until adulthood when I drove past at night that I realized that the land is a ridge high enough and north enough to see lights across the Columbia River in Vancouver.  No doubt at one time the Indians looked through the Doug firs at the bonfires of Fort Vancouver and wondered what the future would be like.  We can never quite see it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful and tender column. Thank you for this remembrance.