Clyde Thomas remembers the wildflowers — the pink bleeding hearts, the white trilliums, and the vibrant purple wild iris. He remembers the sweet fragrance of false Solomon’s seal, violets, and mock orange.
They and many other native plants grew in Hess Creek Canyon on the George Fox campus where he played during his boyhood visits to his grandfather Oliver Weesner, a math professor at the college. A native of eastern Washington, Thomas enjoyed the lush foliage he found alongside the small creek. When he enrolled at George Fox as a biology major in 1974, his old playground became a 15-acre botany laboratory. Over his four years he identified 153 varieties of native plants in the canyon. But he noticed changes. The wildflowers were disappearing, either buried by construction debris dumped down the canyon slopes or choked out by ivy and Himalayan blackberries. His senior project documented the changes.
Thomas joined the college’s grounds crew after graduation and began dreaming of turning the wooded ravine into a showcase of native plants. He went on the offensive against the invasive nonnative plants, using both his muscles and small doses of pesticide to knock them back. After clearing a patch of ivy near the footbridge, Thomas was delighted the next spring to see 60 to 70 trilliums sprouting. The restoration was under way.
When he heard that a farmer near Salem was clear-cutting 10 acres of forest, he spent a Saturday rescuing 80 native plants, which he planted in the canyon on his own time. During the past three decades, he’s ranged as far as Eugene to bring back hundreds of plants for the canyon.
Clyde Thomas has labored for decades to make Hess Creek Canyon a showplace of native plants and trees. Now the university’s master plan calls for the ravine to become a campus centerpiece.
In 1990, he was offered a promotion to director of plant services, giving him supervision of all maintenance, grounds, and construction on campus. “I said, ‘That’s not really what I’m interested in. My heart’s in the grounds and in the canyon.’” In the end, he took the position, swayed in part by the argument that he would be able to make the canyon-work a higher priority.
The campus has blossomed during his tenure. When an outside group of university administrators recently gave an accreditation report on George Fox, they raved about the “well-groomed, well-landscaped, and attractive campus.”
Thomas spends little time in his office. He’s more likely to be found slinging mud at the bottom of a ditch or sowing grass seed around new construction sites. Twenty-year-old students wear out before Thomas. “We have not yet found anyone who can outwork Clyde,” says Debby O’Kelley, assistant to the director in plant services. “I’ve seen emails from him sent at 3 in the morning,” she says. “That’s about the only time he’s at his desk.”
Thomas and coworkers have planted more than a thousand trees and hundreds of native plants in the canyon, working mostly weekends and evenings. He’s raised more than $10,000 for canyon projects and led several blackberry-clearing work crews. He’s far from finished. Thomas envisions a place where visitors can experience the flora of a miniature Willamette River Valley, walking along the creek from the valley ponderosa pines, incense cedars, and maples of the Willamette’s headwaters to the Douglas firs, grand firs, and dogwood of the river’s lower regions. His dream meshes with the university’s new master plan, which emphasizes Hess Creek Canyon as a central campus feature through footbridges, trails, and new facilities overlooking the wooded area.