Lifetime Achievement: Elmer Valkenaar has played many roles

January 2019 Posted in Community, People

Elmer ‘St. Elmo’ Valkenaar is the recipient of the Judy Schmidt Lifetime Achievement award.
Jim Kinghorn

By Steve Ritchie

Every town could use a dedicated civic leader and tireless volunteer like the late Judy Schmidt. Or like Elmer Valkenaar.

Known as “Elmo” or “St. Elmo” to the community, Valkenaar will receive the Judy Schmidt Lifetime Achievement Award for 2018 at the Silverton Chamber of Commerce First Citizen Banquet Feb. 16.

St. Elmo, who turned 89 on Jan. 25, resembles Schmidt in many important regards. He has been involved in many activities, organizations and volunteer roles in Silverton over decades. He is known and liked by just about everyone in town. And he has a special place in his heart for children and young people. The two were also good friends.

“They had a special friendship, and he was always willing to help her out with any miscellaneous project or fundraiser,” said Kay Seiler, who worked with Schmidt and was her successor as Legacy Silverton Hospital Volunteer Coordinator. “He really adored Judy so (the award) is a perfect fit.”

St. Elmo confirms this description, saying, “I knew Judy quite well. Everybody loved her. This (award) makes me feel kind of special.”

A long-time hospital volunteer, St. Elmo worked as a Care Van driver, staffed the gift shop and espresso stand, often with his wife Lolita, conducted school tours, and served as Silverton Hospital Auxiliary President from 2007-09. Seiler said he was also an honorary member of the hospital’s “bedpan brigade” in the annual Homer Davenport parade.

“He’s a great guy and lots of fun,” Seiler said. “Just always willing to help. He was involved in the ping pong ball fundraiser – he put on a bathing suit and waded into the creek to get the balls. To sell the chances he would always wear his hat with the ping pong balls on it that he made. You couldn’t say no to him.”

St. Elmo’s popularity at Silverton High School reached mythic proportions over the years. He was a substitute teacher for all classes, coached track and basketball, started the soccer program, and was the public address announcer for many sporting events. The entire student body threw St. Elmo a huge surprise party at school to mark his 80th birthday.

Briana Bledsoe, 2009 SHS graduate, said, “I don’t think there was a single high school student that did not love him. He’s just a wonderful person.” Bledsoe describes herself as “one of his biggest fans. I’ve known him almost my whole life. He is now my daughter’s best friend and my daughter is two.”

On one occasion, Bledsoe said, the concert choir class at the high school knew they were going to have a substitute teacher and decided to skip out. When St. Elmo showed up as the sub, however, he put a quick stop to that plan with his characteristic salty language, telling the 70 students to “Sit your *** down and start singing! This is choir isn’t it?”

“That’s why he was everyone’s favorite,” Bledsoe said. “He was a teacher who would talk to you like you were an adult and show you that level of respect.”

The moniker of St. Elmo came from his teaching days at Mount Angel Abbey’s Seminary High School in the early 1970s, according to his son, Eric.

“He was the only non-Catholic who worked there at that time. Dad was a math teacher plus a coach of soccer, basketball and track. Since all the priests up there were named after saints, the name St. Elmo came from one of the priests who used to joke around with him.

“He’s always been really funny,” Eric Valkenaar said. “Really smart, really unassuming and really funny. I remember him dressing in a woman’s one piece bathing suit at the dunk tank one time. He’s just really unabashed and didn’t care what people might think. He enjoyed making people laugh.”

Valkenaar grew up in Morton Grove, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in electrical engineering, and then served in the Air Force for about 10 years, he said, working in radar repair. After leaving the military, he went to work for General Dynamics in Southern California. 1970 he brought his family to Silverton and never left.

Now living in the health center at Mount Angel Towers, St. Elmo is still charming and his blue eyes are as bright as ever. He said he is humbled by this “amazing” honor.

One of his last volunteer roles was working at the public greeter desk at the entrance of Silverton Hospital. Seiler said one day St. Elmo put a handmade sign on the desk. It read “Hugs are free.”

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