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Remembering the life of childhood cattle rancher, forest firefighter and 'original volunteer' Bob Sommermeyer

ELKTON — At the root of every piece of the built environment at Elkton Community Education Center is the work of Bob Sommermeyer.

Sommermeyer died Nov. 14. He was 83.

He’d lived a remarkable life.

Sommermeyer ran a cattle ranch — on his own — at the age of 11.

He worked for the Forest Service in California for 36 years, fighting wildfires and operating heavy equipment.

And he became an avid RVer in retirement, through which he met ECEC founder Carol Beckley.

Through Beckley and her late partner Jim Gates, he discovered Elkton and fell in love with it. For close to two decades he spent his summers in Elkton, living in his RV at the ECEC and volunteering.

He cleared land for the facilities buildings and trails, and for the replica of Fort Umpqua on site.

His informal title was the “original volunteer.”

If anything broke, he could fix it.

“I liked to call Bob a heavy equipment whisperer,” ECEC Executive Director Marjory Hamann said. “He could make the big rigs do things that other people just would not be able to do.”

He grew up in Southern California. In the 1940s, Sommermeyer’s father sent him away to a cattle ranch he owned. Sommermeyer was 11 years old but he went to that ranch alone and raised the cattle by himself.

That experience fostered an independent streak that lasted his entire life, said his daughter Donna Wilham, of Indiana.

It also fostered a love of the outdoors that would contribute to his decision to spend his career with the U.S. Forest Service in California.

He began his career as a hotshot in the Cleveland National Forest. While that job entailed putting fires out with shovel and ax, he later began working on heavy machinery. He operated bulldozers to clear the way so firefighters could get emergency equipment to the back areas of a fire.

He later worked in the Modoc National Forest, where he fixed heavy machinery, and then at the Inyo National Forest, working on campgrounds and roads.

His daughter Donna Wilham said she was very close to him.

“He was not just my dad. He was my best friend,” she said.

She said he could take apart and put together anything.

“It was amazing. In fact, when I was a kid he and I built an entire solar panel system together. It was so much fun,” she said.

After his wife Linda died, he retired and took up the RVing lifestyle.

Dan Wilham, Donna’s husband, said Sommermeyer loved being outdoors, hunting and fishing. He also rode a motorcycle nearly every day, even in his 80s, Dan Wilham said.

He was kind, tough and “salt of the earth,” he said.

“He was a true cowboy,” agreed Donna Wilham.

Beckley said she met Sommermeyer when she joined a group of RVing snowbirds that traveled together.

“He could do anything mechanical. Most of the women really liked him, because he could come and fix whatever was wrong in their motorhomes and put up solar panels,” she said.

He was a quiet guy, she said, and he had a few conversational rules: never talk about religion, politics or couples that were having trouble.

The land for the ECEC was purchased in 1999, and the RV group needed a place to stay. So they started spending time there.

“Bob just started volunteering to do everything, and he just kept being here,” Beckley said.

He was there, a valuable part of ECEC when it was “just kind of a beginning dream,” she said. And even as he started to slow down over the last couple years, he and Beckley were out working on the park a couple hours a day.

“He really liked Elkton. He said it was the place he’d lived longest in his life and he just became part of the community and loved it here,” she said.

ECEC Facilities Manager David Baird said Sommermeyer was “involved in everything A to Z, through the early building process of our facility.”

He lived at ECEC during the summer and for the last couple years of his life, year-round. He was very much depended on, Baird said.

“We’ll miss him for sure. He won’t be replaced. That couldn’t happen,” he said.

He was also a great mentor and loved telling stories about his life to the kids who worked in the facility’s summer youth program, Baird said.

“He was one of those people that you wanted him to be your grandfather,” he said.

Hamann recalled his dry sense of humor.

“Bob was a very steady person who didn’t talk a lot, but when he did he always had a twinkle in his eye,” she said.

Hamann said Sommermeyer will be deeply missed and his level of skill and commitment will be irreplaceable.

“So it’s up to the rest of us to figure out what skill and commitment we can bring so that we can carry his legacy forward,” Hamann said. “It’s an impossible task but we’ll do our best.”

Christmas tree lights return to Sutherlin

SUTHERLIN — About 300 people gathered in Sutherlin’s Central Park last weekend to celebrate the glowing return of its Christmas trees, as cups of hot chocolate and festive songs were exchanged.

“It’s a time people can come out and still keep their social distance outside, and have the opportunity to gather with friends, family and the community,” said Michelle Sumner, the city’s mayor.

Morgan Leatherman, executive director of the city’s chamber of commerce, said he was surprised by how vibrant the trees were.

“I think it’s a really unique thing that sets Sutherlin apart,” Leatherman said. “Because while the traditional Christmas tree lighting is great, the variety we can get with these trees and the really beautiful things they can do with them make them stand out.”

Once it’s dark enough, the three Christmas trees — metal structures adorned with sweeping green lights — illuminate the park with a plentiful supply of ribbon-wrapped presents underneath.

However, some may have noticed last year’s addition — a 50-foot-tall electronic Christmas tree with altering light shows — was missing from the display.

The tree, which was designed and built by Adam Sarnoski of Sutherlin’s Cooper Creek Creative, sustained damage to its upper half after winds traveling 20-25 miles per hour slammed into it last December.

While Sarnoski hoped to have the tree back this year, more time is needed to create a concrete base with a pole to support the tree. Once completed, this concrete pad’s use will not be limited to the tree, but for other events that may take place at the park, he said.

“It’ll be back next year and better than ever,” Sarnoski said.

Attorney for alleged con artist Tyrone Powell says he's not fit for trial

The attorney for Tyrone Powell, who authorities say is a con artist who stole 30 acres from an Elkton woman, has filed a motion requesting a hearing to determine if Powell is mentally fit to stand trial.

Powell’s court-appointed Roseburg attorney, Gina Marie Stewart, filed the motion Wednesday in Douglas County Circuit Court.

“The defendant is non-communicative with us and the court. We are seeking an evaluation,” Stewart wrote in her motion. She also said that Powell is unable to understand the nature of the proceedings against him, assist and cooperate with his attorneys or participate in his own defense.

Stewart said she needs about 15 minutes in court to present oral arguments and evidence to show that Powell is unfit to stand trial. A hearing had already been set for Dec. 15 before Judge William Marshall.

There have already been two hearings this month in the case. At both hearings — held on Dec. 1 and Dec. 7 — Powell appeared via video from the Douglas County Jail, where he is lodged. Both times Powell laid in a bed in the jail, with a blanket over him and his back to the camera. He did not respond to Marshall’s questions in either hearing.

Powell, 41, was arrested on Feb. 26 and charged with five felonies, including aggravated theft, identity theft and perjury, in connection with the purported theft of 30 acres in Elkton from a woman named Janet Grosz. He also faced a misdemeanor charge of initiating a false report.

On March 31, Powell was released from jail without having to pay bail after signing a one-page conditional release agreement in which he agreed to “seek immediate medical treatment.” Under the agreement, Powell also agreed to appear in court when directed.

He had made several court appearances since then, each time appearing in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank to help him breathe. The rare times he spoke it was in a child-like whisper, his words difficult to hear or understand.

An initial trial date was set for July, but that was postponed to give Stewart more time to prepare, including bringing a witness down from Alaska.

A second trial date was set for Dec. 7. But on Nov. 15, Powell did not show up for a pre-trial hearing and Marshall issued a warrant for his arrest. Powell was arrested in Portland on Nov. 23 and transported to the Douglas County Jail, with bail set at $500,000.

Two more charges — felony and misdemeanor failure to appear — were added for missing the hearing.

People who know Powell, as well as law enforcement officers who have investigated him, say he is a skilled manipulator who often fakes illness to win people over and get out of trouble.

Authorities say Powell used his guile and faked having cancer to steal 30 acres of land in Elkton from Grosz, 67.

Grosz said when she met Powell in 2019, he went by the name John Paul Hope. He told her about his plans to create a place where disabled veterans could live in dignity. Grosz agreed to give him 3 acres of her 55-acre ranch in Elkton for his plan to build housing for those veterans.

But authorities now say that nothing Powell said was truthful. The veterans housing project he proposed was fiction and instead of using 3 acres of Grosz’s ranch he forged documents and took possession of 30 acres, authorities said.

Powell has been swindling individuals and corporations for years, those authorities said, often through phony nonprofit organizations he claimed to run. He operated at least a half-dozen fraudulent nonprofit organizations under such names as “The Missing Piece Foundation,” “True Story World,” and “Love,” authorities said.

Those fake nonprofits accepted donations from individuals and corporations, but Powell either kept, discarded or sold them, police said.