A rift between liberals and conservatives threatens to end a program that pays the college tuition of the town's high school graduates.
About the Film
In the rural Oregon logging town of Philomath, every high school graduate has their college tuition paid thanks to the generosity of local lumber baron Rex Clemens. But when a new schools superintendent arrives from Chicago, the administrators of the scholarship become concerned over what is perceives as the increasingly liberal direction of the schools. The conflict between the old-time loggers and the "urban immigrants" escalates dramatically, and the scholarship administrators deliver an ultimatum: either the superintendent leaves or the scholarship is withdrawn, leaving the town's children without money for college.
About the Filmmaker
Peter D. Richardson is a Portland-based documentary filmmaker. He grew up in Philomath, Oregon, and studied film production at Notre Dame University. “Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon” was his debut feature. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 and was broadcast on the Sundance Channel. The film won the Award for Best Documentary at the Sarasota Film Festival in 2006.
Richardson’s second documentary, “How to Die in Oregon”, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Portland International Film Festival, and awards and recognition at many other festivals. It premiered on HBO in May 2011.
The cultural divide in Philomath, between liberal and conservative, faith-based and secular, is a microcosm of what is happening across America today. It’s America’s culture war writ small—told through the struggle of a rural Oregon logging town. But in Philomath, there’s more at stake than an abstraction about where our American culture is headed. There’s also a scholarship and, very literally, children’s futures that are on the line.
Like most kids who grew up in Philomath, I took the Clemens Scholarship for granted. I thought of it not as a gift, but as an entitlement. The scholarship paid your tuition to either of the Oregon universities, or the same money could be applied to the school of your choice. There were no requirements; simply attend Philomath High School, graduate, and the money was yours. There was one hitch, though: you had to fill out what must have been the nation’s shortest scholarship “application.” I remember filling out the application my senior year: a single, one-sided, 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. At the bottom was a small area where you wrote what you planned to do with your life. I remember actually being perturbed that I had to spend three minutes scribbling something about my life plans into a space about four lines tall. But I did, and those precious three minutes netted me $16,000 for college. When you feel entitled to a gift, you are also beholden to it, and this was the power the Clemens Foundation had over Philomath: control born of generosity.
So when the foundation and other community members became dissatisfied with the perceived liberal agenda in the schools, they could actually do something about it, and quick. If the superintendent, whom they believed most responsible for the changes in the school, didn’t resign, they would withdraw the scholarship that had been in the community since 1959. The superintendent and school board refused their ultimatum and the Foundation pulled the scholarships, eight months before graduation—not a lot of time for a high school senior to start saving for college. A few months later, the superintendent and the principal of the high school announced they were taking jobs outside the district, and it wasn’t long before the Foundation announced the scholarships were back, with certain restrictions based on “family background.”
Since the scholarship was pulled and then reinstated in 2002, many I talk to in Philomath feel that the town is returning to its conservative roots. At the high school, the Gay Straight Alliance has been renamed the Human Alliance for Diversity and a controversial play was cancelled at the last minute when a concerned Foundation board member made a call to the new superintendent. The school board and city council are, by most accounts, more conservative, as are the district’s key administrators, including the new superintendent and high school principal.
You could say that the Clemens Foundation won the war; that they affected the cultural change they desired. But they also lost. They lost the opportunity to educate many of the town’s children, who no longer apply for the scholarship because they either disagree with the Foundation’s politics or aren’t eligible under the new criteria. In a sense the foundation has won the culture war in Philomath, but in so doing they’ve lost their only bargaining chip: the remarkable promise of a free education. So when the next culture war comes to town, they will have as much power as any other citizen in America who fights the battle of red vs. blue.