Wednesday, November 2, 2005
Nearly every Tuesday for 20 years, Geneil Hammermeister brought her husband Jim a bacon cheeseburger, fries and a soda for dinner.
And every Tuesday evening, Jim "Hammer" brought his meal into the tool room of Hood River Valley High School's woodshop to eat it and talk with his wife of 38 years.
There, amongst the electric sanders and nail guns, the 58-year-old woodworking instructor took a couple-minute reprieve from the course he taught through Community Education for 25 years. His three-hour, weekly course spanned four presidential administrations, two Iraqi invasions. On the old television propped up on the west side of the shop, his students rallied the Portland Trailblazers in its battle against the Chicago Bulls in the 1992 NBA Finals series.
In 2004, students in his class watched the Boston Red Sox come back from three games down in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
In that time, he helped build dozens of bookcases, coffee tables, end tables and benches. And he solved hundreds, maybe thousands of impromptu riddles that tend to result when a student combines a sharp saw with a piece of wood.
“Hey, Hammer. How do you salvage a doorframe that was cut too short? How do you conceal a drill hole that shouldn't be there?”
Geneil brought her husband a bacon cheeseburger for the last time June 9. He retired from Community Education after 25 years of teaching it. Of the hundreds of classes Community Education has offered throughout the years, "Woodworking" with Jim Hammermeister was by far the most consistent, most attended class.
"There's nobody that's taught longer," said Mike Schend, director of Community Education. "No one even holds a candle to that (25 years of teaching). People just don't teach the same subject for that long."
As a Hood River Valley High School teacher, Hammer taught students who grew up, had children. And those students' children became his students.
"That made it special," he says. "Parent conferences became whatever-happened-tos."
San Francisco Roots —
He was 27 when he moved to the Columbia Gorge. By that early age, he had already served four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War and graduated from San Francisco State University with a double major in history and industrial arts, with an emphasis on alternative education.
From his San Francisco house window, the college student watched the SLA and Patti Hearst kidnapping unravel, the anti-war movement close down his college campus and the Zebra following get ugly.
While they were there in San Francisco, Hammer and Geneil went to shows, among them The Grateful Dead. And that was one of the major perks of the city they would miss, when they decided to escape it after Hammer graduated.
"And we never looked back," he says. "A lot of us were looking for something out of the city and into the woods."
He headed north and landed a job in one of the U.S.'s last company towns at the time: Klickitat. And there, for two years, he was the "the industrial arts department and one-third of the social studies department."
"That double-major helped me out along the way," he says.
Adapting to a town run by one company and populated by a few hundred people was difficult for the self-described Deadhead.
"It was culture shock," he says. "Going from a megalopolis to a small company town."
But Hammer fell in love with the forests, canyons and mountains surrounding him. Within two years of moving to the Gorge, he applied for and earned a position with the Hood River Valley School District to start up an alternative school, which he called the Opportunity School.
That was the beginning of Hammer's 28 years of teaching for the Hood River Valley School District. He retired from the district last year.
A personal project —
It was also the beginning of what has become a life-long project: his house.
Right now, it's a 1,700-square foot house on five acres just south of Parkdale. He has an unobstructed view of Mount Hood to the south, a green, wooded lawn to the west and a rolling forested hill to the north. He has a woodshop there. Though he complains it's too cramped. Which is why he's building a new 24 by 32-foot shop on the north side of his property.
Hand-crafted puzzles and gadgets that he built sit on the piano inside his house. And across from that is a wall filled with old hang gliding photographs — most of which he shot himself, some of which he is in.
"Those are from 30 years ago," he says.
Twenty-five years ago, this passive solar energy-fueled house was a plot of dirt at the end of a gravel road. He built it piece by piece, slowed only by a short supply of time and money.
He's still building it.
"He was just as committed to this class as he was to his own house," community education director Schend said.
Educator in the soul —
In a box of photographs — some 20 years old, others a few months old — Hammer is smiling amongst a variety of shiny, crafted projects. Bookcases, boats, dining room tables and shoe racks. He helped build all of them.
Very few — if any — of these gleaming pieces of furniture are in his house, however.
"People say to me. 'You're a woodshop teacher. You must build a lot of things.' And I say, 'Yeah. I build all kinds of things. But when they get finished somebody takes them home.' Helping a student build something," he continues, "like a bookcase or a coffee table is a great sense of accomplishment. Every time."
He remembers the student from Stevenson who wanted to restore a Criss-Craft 32-foot boat. The boat was too big to fit inside the cramped project storage room. So he and his student built it piece by piece.
"Having taught that class, I learned," he says. "In community education, somebody would say 'How do you make this?' And I'd have to go and figure it out."
His work is everywhere. He was the mastermind behind several of CAST's sets, including the 1993 production of the courtroom drama, "The night of January 16."
"He helped build at least a dozen of the sets for high school musicals and plays," said Hood River Valley High School theatre and arts teacher Mark Steighner. "His work was always really solid and he had many creative ideas."
His 25 years of cuts, joints and suggestions are now glued and screwed into the heritage of residents throughout the Columbia River Gorge.
what now? —
Now that he's retired, he's going to work on the project he started 25 years ago: his house.
"I'm going to build a shop so I can finish my house," he smiles.
But he has one more goal. It's an ambitious one.
He wants to convince school administrators to keep teaching kids how to fix things, how to build things, how to solve things. That computers, while ubiquitous, can't do everything.
He delivered this message April 13 at a school board meeting.
"If I have another role it's going to be for hands-on education," he said. "Students need to learn how to use tools safely and properly. Hands on is more than just word working and auto. It's also home etc. The life skills. The tools in the kitchen, in the home and in life. They can't be replaced by computers."