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99-year-old graduate

EOU awards degree to 99-year-old who attended in 1930

Story by Leslie Pugmire Hole | For The Observer
June 13, 2011

Leo Plass received his associates degree June 11, 81 years after he first became a college student. Today he keeps busy in his woodworking shop.

REDMOND, Ore.  — It seems a little funny now, or maybe just odd, that Leo Plass would have entered college for an indoor job like teaching. Plass, who celebrates his 100th birthday in August, traveled the West trying out more than a dozen different careers in his lifetime but most had one constant — they were outdoors.“In the end I don’t think I would have enjoyed teaching that much,” he said. “I like being outside too much.”

The fifth child in a Northeast Oregon family of mill owners and ranchers, Plass entered La Grande’s Eastern Oregon Normal School in 1930, its second year, thinking to follow an older sister into teaching.

While there Plass worked numerous jobs to pay for school, including working at Foster Sim’s Texaco station in exchange for room and board. He joined the football and basketball squad (“never cared for baseball much”) and took his college friends into the mountains for fishing expeditions on weekends.

“I grew up taking pack horses into the mountains, hunting and fishing,” Plass said.

His family’s 480-acre ranch was largely self-sustaining, raising cattle, hogs, sheep, wheat and other grains. It had a five-acre vegetable garden that felt like 20 acres when the children had to work in it, Plass said with a laugh.

“We’d work all summer to fill our cellar for winter then in the spring it seemed like we’d pack a third of that out again to plow under in the garden.”

When the family closed its sawmill Plass, whose given name is Granville, joined his father and brothers Melville and Orville to dismantle the building.

“It was winter and Mother packed us lunches that froze solid,” he recalled. “We spent weeks removing the lumber and hauling it to the ranch. We used that wood for everything: tool sheds, barns, chicken houses, dog houses, cat houses … nothing was wasted.”

Plass was a member of both the basketball and football squad during his time at Eastern.

In his last year at Eastern Plass secured a job teaching at a 20-student school near Elgin. But the Depression had taken its toll on the La Grande bank where he kept his savings, gleaned from his summer and school-year jobs.

“I lost nearly $400 when it closed and didn’t have money for tuition,” Plass said. “But I was offered $150 a month from a logging outfit — I was only going to make $80 teaching —  so I quit school a semester before graduation.”

He was only a few credits short of a degree.

The next 12 years took Plass all over the West — Utah, Colorado, numerous places in Idaho and Oregon. He picked tomatoes, drove truck, ran a logging skidder, repossessed cars, ran a credit agency and owned a gas station and parking lot.

About 1946 he and his wife Wanda — they married in 1938 during his time in Eugene — moved to Redmond, tired of the Willamette Valley rain.

Originally Plass did more logging, this time in the Sisters area. He bought 55 acres (“never planned to farm it but it was the only thing available then”) just west of Redmond’s borders where he built a simple concrete block home for the couple, who never had children.

They did have horses, however, as many as six at a time, and it was the horses, and Plass’ burgeoning career as a contractor, that kept them busy.

For the next 40-some years Plass built and remodeled homes, starting out modestly by buying a home in need of repair, moving into it with his wife, then making the upgrades himself and reselling, before moving onto the next project.

“I think I remodeled half the homes in Redmond before I was done,” he said. “No one else wanted that kind of work.” He eventually built new homes, even complete subdivisions, but always kept the small remodeling jobs on the side.

For more than 20 years Plass traveled to Arizona every winter, doing maintenance and managing a trailer park while working for a contractor, then returning to Central Oregon every spring — where more remodeling jobs waited.

Finally about 10 years ago Plass called it quits on the contracting work, but he can hardly be called retired. He works every day in his impossibly tidy shop, building whimsical bird houses and other woodworking projects — for sale, not for fun.

When he can be persuaded to sit still he works on his photo projects: photos he took of his travels, landscape photos he admires and clips from calendars and magazines, historical photos he comes across in area publications. He frames them (in frames he built, of course) or files them in orderly albums, all notated and titled.

“He has a remarkable memory and such a rich life history,” said Greg Plass, Leo’s nephew. It was Greg who found out his uncle had never gotten his diploma and contacted Eastern.

“I thought maybe they’d look at his employment history and give him credit for his experiences so he could get his degree.”

So last week Leo Plass traveled to Eastern Oregon University to pick up his associates degree at Community Stadium with the Class of 2011. He was happy about the trip, and the whole diploma-graduation cap-ceremony thing, but he was also looking forward to returning home, where projects are waiting in the shop and he’s keeping busy fielding appearance requests for his birthday.