Life on the Dry Side: The real 'pilot' in Pilot Rock

Pilot Rock Elementary School staff circa 1971-72 (Virginia Carnes is in the top row): Front row, Barbara Rugg, Jeanette Hall, Jennifer Spray, Betty Mathews, Becky Hoeft and Don Bensel. Second row, Paralee Weinke, Jean Roberts, Elaine Abbot, Dora LaVelle, Gay Schnebly, Helen Sutherland, Anita Grove and Jan Friedly. Third row, Margaret Pilch, Jean Doherty, John Trigg, Virginia Spreckelmeyer Carnes, Mary Taylor, Jim Mehas, Mary Folkner and Jeannette Case. Contributed photo

Pilot Rock Mayor Virginia Carnes first moved to Eastern Oregon in 1960.

"If someone had told me at the time that I would live here for the rest of my life, I would have told them they were out of their minds."

Forty-eight years later, she can't imagine living anywhere else.

"I'm loving it," she said, "and every time I go to Seattle to visit my family, I can't wait to get out of the rat race and the congestion and get back home."

Born in Herman, Mo., she moved to Seattle in 1951 where she lived until her family moved to La Grande.

She enrolled at Eastern Oregon University in 1962 and graduated in 1966. Walt Hoff, who was superintendent at the time, hired her to teach at the elementary school.

"I met him at his office," she said, "and he told me he would drive me over to my new school. On the way, he paused in front of the abandoned school, which is located at the intersection of Highway 395 and East Birch. There were a lot of windows broken out at the time and he told me that if the budget passes next spring, we'll get new windows for your classroom."

Carnes said her heart sank a bit as she looked at the decaying building, but admitted she also was enthusiastic about getting her career started so, "What the heck, that's my building and that's my classroom," she said.

Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he continued on to Pilot Rock Elementary School and proceeded to introduce her to her real classroom.

She spent the next 34 years teaching Pilot Rock's children and begging for donations for all sorts of causes before retiring in 2000. The latter experience led her to the city council, to her stint as director of SMART, and, ultimately, to her current position as mayor.

"I even do a little substitute teaching now and then. Not long after I started subbing," she said. "I turned up in a high school classroom and there was one of my elementary school challenges. He looked up, somewhat startled, and said, "Good grief, my worst nightmare is back."

She loved teaching, she said, and never once met a throwaway kid. They were all very special.

She still keeps connected with her former students in a variety of ways, including through her legendary cake baking. She does wedding cakes and other similar specialties for friends and family. She not only bakes the cakes, she delivers them as well. One of her latest creations had seven tiers and an assortment of fountains.

Carnes often bakes wedding cakes for her former students. Not long ago, she baked a cake for a bride with limited means. When the bride saw the cake, she burst into tears.

"I could never have afforded a cake like that," she said, as she hugged her former teacher.

A month or so ago, we editorialized about the amazing saga of Pilot Rock and how it somehow manages to bounce back from adversity and take another step forward as it transforms itself from a logging community and a mill town to something else.

The burned-out section of the old Masonite plant is still there and Kinzua Resources certainly is still very much a presence, but hundreds of timber and production-related jobs are gone.

And while the destination still is not totally defined, through the leadership and energy of Mayor Carnes and others, the community certainly has demonstrated a will to succeed at a time when other rural communities are letting fate take its course.

Now, she's integrally involved in a visioning program that involves City Manager Paul Koch.

"There's lots of energy being generated around our efforts," said Carnes.

She said she and Koch both believe they are well on the way to getting a sense of community back. And both agree the way to rebuild America is one community at a time.

"It's going to happen in towns like Pilot Rock where people genuinely care about each other," she said.

Speaking of small communities, one of her favorite activities is serving on the Umatilla County Tourism Committee, which highlights and promotes 12 small communities in this area.

With five step-daughters and 11 grandchildren, Carnes nevers runs out of things to do with her family or her community. She's involved with almost every group in Pilot Rock and even serves on the Arts Council of Pendleton.

When she retired, she bought an embroidery machine to fill her idle hours. Eight years later, she's hoping to learn how to use it before it becomes obsolete. George Murdock is editor & publisher of the East Oregonian. He can be reached at 278-2671 or gmurdock@eastoregonian.com.

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