Nyssa, OR, is a small farming community with a population of roughly 3200 residents situated at the crossing of the Oregon Trail and the Snake River near the border of Idaho and Oregon. As we drove into town we could see reflected in the buildings, a solid economic past that has been affected, like many rural towns, by the current downturn. Like a haunted castle, the Amalgamated Sugar factory that opened in 1938 and closed in 2005 sits empty at the Highway 20 entrance to Nyssa. Surrounded by rich farmland of onions and sugar beets, seed crops and potatoes, we came to see, in our short weekend in Nyssa, that there is a deep well of community life in that struggling town. We not only saw that life in the people we met for interviews, but we witnessed a vibrant and hopeful community at the yearly Chamber of Commerce dinner with over 250 attendees. That dinner celebrated the business community, but the members also recognized the Educator of the Year, an award that was first created for Clyde Swisher in 1989. As Jolene Reece said of her colleague, “He believed that it was important to use what you have to the betterment of the people in your community.” And sister and brother Vicky Mitchell and Brad Maxfield confirmed “that the school holds the failing community together.” It is an award-winning school system, one of the top 30 in the state of Oregon, and Swisher was a crucial contributor to that excellence.
Swisher was often asked why he stayed in Nyssa because “his world was so big,” as Reid Saito told us. After Swisher completed his Bachelor of Arts in English from The College of Idaho, he taught at Nyssa High School for 5 years before completing an M. A. in English at the University of Washington in 1962. He established close relationships with faculty at the UW English Department and a passion for English scholarship that never left him. Three of the former students we interviewed said, “He loved the University of Washington.” He continued at the UW working towards his Ph.D. in English, but later studied at Cambridge University in England, where he completed everything except the dissertation defense. His ongoing scholarship was extensive: He was accepted for a year of graduate work at Rutgers University, 1955; went to Colorado State College to do summer theatre programs, 1956-60; Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham, England, summer 1959; John Hay Fellow in Humanities at University of Chicago, 1966; and the Institute of Elizabethan Arts and Literature, University of Vermont, summer 1968. Swisher often spent his summers in England, continuing his scholarship, visiting friends, traveling about the countryside. He came back from those summers with a renewed excitement to teach his students in Nyssa about the world of scholarship outside their hometown.
Swisher gave all he had to his community through his teaching. Not only did he teach high school English, but he headed the journalism and yearbook staffs, taught drama for years, was chair of the English Department for 15 years, developed the only AP English program in the county in the early 1960s, but also for 45 years he held an adult literature class for the community. Every former student with whom we spoke said that Swisher made literature come alive. Though he had incredibly high expectations, he was able to inspire students to rise to that challenge. His own passion and depth of knowledge inspired them, Vicky Mitchell said, “to dive into the world of ideas with excitement.” Two other former students, Reid Saito and Karen Shishido said, “And when we went to college we were so prepared that the English classes at university were easier than his high school classes.” There was no question in Swisher’s mind that his students would go to college. “When Mr. Swisher spoke with us about college, it was never ‘if’ you go to college, he always said ‘when you go to college.’ It was a given with him. And all of his students went on to do really well.”
His students did well because he treated them like scholars. When he started the AP program in the early sixties, he would hold three-hour evening seminars once a week for that group. Patsy Wilson, among others we interviewed, was in those first years of AP seminars. They remember a rigorous reading schedule of no fewer than 300 pages of philosophy and literature a week. And they had to write papers and be prepared to critically discuss the reading. He brought several University professors to Nyssa High School to speak. Brad Maxwell said “that made the students feel great; it made us feel smart and worthy.” In fact, Reid was so impressed with one of the professors who came from the University of Washington in 1965, that to this day he remembers the talk was about the Theatre of the Absurd and specifically Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Several of Mr. Swisher’s former students told us about educational trips to Boise to see literary films or theatre, to do an art walk or study the history of the architecture of the area. For two years in the early 1960s, he took the high school newspaper staff to the UW for journalism workshops because their high school newspaper was a nationally recognized award-winning student publication.
Cleta deBoer said that he remained a good friend to all of his students; Carla Palmer, a friend and neighbor of twenty years, added that “he collected people like he collected books: actors, librarians, cleaning women, physical therapists and farmers, they were all equally important to him.” Several times, Carla helped Swisher go through his collection of books to donate to the Nyssa Library or to The College of Idaho. She remembers him giving 2500 books to the library one year and around 10,000 to The College of Idaho during that same period. “His most prolific habit was collecting books, which he considered to be his lifelong friends,” said Faith Adams, Nyssa librarian. “Not only was he familiar with many titles, he often knew authors personally, and was always ready with a critique, comparison, and recommendation. His input greatly influenced our collection development.” Carla explained that as “every book was a good friend, every library was a home, a sacred space.” One summer when Swisher was studying in a London library during the peak of the IRA bomb scares, a siren went off warning all inside to evacuate. Swisher ignored the warning and apparently told the librarian he wouldn’t leave because “nobody’s going to bomb a library.” He was a beautiful combination of conservative and risky, serious and witty, and it is that combination of characteristics that some of his colleagues and students said taught them how to “enlarge their own minds.”
Clyde Swisher began his teaching career in 1955 at Nyssa High and retired in 1990 after 35 years of touching countless lives, many of whom are still talking about the impact he had on them and the life of their community. Swisher served eight years on the Oregon State Textbook Commission. He was named Teacher of the Year twice by the Nyssa Education Association and twice by the Nyssa Chamber of Commerce. He served several terms on the Nyssa Public Library Board. The Idaho Statesman named him Distinguished Citizen in October 1972. He was co-marshal of the 2004 Nyssa Christmas parade. The Alumni Association of The College of Idaho named Swisher the recipient of the Alumni Service Award for 2006. A simple list of the contributions Swisher made to his community and the lives of the people in that community does not do justice to his life’s work, but to see him reflected back in the life stories of his former students and colleagues reveals a man whose life truly was lived large.
Reid Saito, Karen Shishido, and Kaylene Saito (in front)
Susan Williams, Carla Palmer, Cleta deBoer, and Nancy Sisko.
It is with heartfelt gratitude that I thank the people of Nyssa for their generosity of spirit. I would especially like to thank Reid and Kaylene Saito, Karen Shishido, Don Buker, Jolene Reece, Faith Adams, Carla Palmer, Cleta deBoer, Patsy Wilson, and Susan Barton. This trip would likely not have gotten underway without Molly Purrington’s original research into Clyde Swisher’s gift and her and Susan Williams’ passion for his story.
1 English Department administrator Susan Williams and Dick Conway and I made the road trip to Nyssa.