Readers pick - 2023's "Best of the River"


January 4, 2024 | View PDF

Woman of the Year

Females had a significant impact on improving the quality of life in the area last year, judging by the close to a dozen names submitted for Woman of the Year. Most often nominated was Gerry Aster of Vida. Several people were impressed with her “grant writing successes to re-build the Vida Community Center.” Others called her an “all-around volunteer” who often works behind the scenes with “magic for meals at events including the Walterville Presbyterian Church,” or making sure activities are well organized, plus filling in to “greet folks, clean up or count donations.” She can also be seen “every Saturday assisting the Bottle Boys with their ‘Dime at a Time’ campaign to help with the restoration of some of our institutions lost in that fire.”

In second place was Vida Postmaster Michelle Palaniuk. One citation noted that “Michelle is brilliant…kind, caring, stead-fast, and is a huge part of the glue that holds our sweet fragile community of Vida together…both before, especially during, and after the fires.” Another called her “a most kind and thoughtful person, always thinking of and doing for others. She never forgets a birthday or a holiday and is always on the bright side of every situation, encouraging others.”

Others people called out for their contributions were:

The McKenzie River Community Charter School’s Corey Christensen for “always having time for students and is always supportive and fair.”

Jonnie Helfrich, “continues to advocate for tourism in the McKenzie Valley through the boards of the McKenzie River Chamber of Commerce and Travel Lane County.”

Marty Mealey, for “putting her heart into the Leaburg Library.”

Rachele Mark, Owner of McKenzie River Coffee Co. “a barista is as sweet as can be.”

Joy Slack with Major Family Funeral Home, “has been serving families for 20 years with her heart and soul. Making every family part of her family.”

Val Rapp, “a tireless advocate and worker for McKenzie Wellness in support of the clinic,” “has only the best interests of the clinic and the community at heart.”

Robin Roberts was nominated for “giving herself to this community for years with little to no recognition. She goes above and beyond with her work with the food pantry, clinic, and more. She is just a good person.”

Librarian Priscilla Oxley, who passed away suddenly several months ago was remembered for her “vision, wisdom, and dedication,” in addition to being “well known and respected in our community.” Priscilla, another note said, “was always positive and supportive of others, never wanting any praise for herself. Her example was of a life of service, which made a difference for the McKenzie River community.”

Also nominated was Taya Brock, owner of Takoda’s Restaurant in Rainbow.

Man of the Year

There was a five-way tie in the Man of the Year category, leaving the decision to who provided the best reasoning for the top ranking. The winning candidate, Closen Christian, unfortunately, passed away last year. He’d spent time in a Finn Rock logging camp as a boy and grew up around Walterville and Blue River. After retiring from his business, Future Logging, he with his wife Marge settled in Vida. It wasn’t a complete retirement. He was a Meals on Wheels volunteer, assisting with food deliveries for those in need, and developed the Holiday Farm RV Park at Rainbow - as well as the Inn at the Bridge - while also supporting the McKenzie River Guides Association. And, it was noted, “he loved his McKenzie River friends and neighbors dearly.”

Other submissions were:

McKenzie Schools superintendent Lane Tompkins for serving on numerous community committees that are supporting recovery efforts. “He worked long hours to get his CDL to help out the district in a time of need,” a note said, adding that, “he gives his whole self to the community that he loves.”

Neil Barrett was nominated for Man of the Year because he volunteers his time and expertise in the attempt to restart athletics at McKenzie High School. “He is patient and kind,” they wrote, adding that, “he is a team player!”

After he retired from EWEB around 18 years ago Rick Wilson has annually volunteered to pick up the trash from Milepost 8 to 16 along Hwy. 126. “He also drives up the McKenzie often to see if anywhere else has a lot of trash,” it was reported, including “spending the week before Christmas cleaning up small Styrofoam balls that blew out along the highway for over 100 yards, getting cuts down his arms while getting them out of a blackberry patch.”

Craig Gustafson was recommended for volunteering as the project manager for the re-building of the Vida Community Center (which is very close to completion).

Tony Casad was cited for his “dedication to improving the Blue River Water District and Blue River Park at a high professional level, improving livability for all involved.” Also noted was his “focus beyond Blue River to attract all residents from the McKenzie River communities and tourists.”

Business of the Year

Despite being new to the area this year, the McKenzie Coffee Co. has been warmly welcomed by its customers in a spot nestled in the corner of the parking lot at the Leaburg Store. “The owner is cheerful and adept at concocting delicious coffee drinks. Sometimes her young son helps her and adds some additional cheer. McKenzie Coffee is an example of how a small entrepreneurial business can thrive in our 60-mile-long valley.” Someone else added they felt it offers, “a very impressive beverage and goodie menu, and a friendly greeting.”

People suggested two other establishments for Business of the Year:

The Leaburg Store was rated as “an excellent, upgraded business for the McKenzie River Valley,” that is, “friendly and well stocked. Others said, “they care about locals and helping causes.” One person noted that “the store is well stocked with what the neighborhood needs compared to larger in town shopping, plus several local goods such as hats, shirts, and more to celebrate the McKenzie. The staff are a great crew. Plus, it provides tremendous support for the Bottle Boys.”

Takoda’s Restaurant gained votes for “helping out the community when they can - like donating meals to firefighters and search and rescue parties. They support our local students and teach them skills beyond the classroom.”


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