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Gathering to solve problems

Mike Verbout fills up his retirement with a search for solutions


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Roosevelt alum and community leader Mike Verbout, center, chats with friend Mel Osbeck, who volunteers daily at the school by sweeping leaves and sprucing up the grounds.Mike Verbout owns a book called “I Hate Meetings.”

But the lifelong North Portland resident loves his neighborhood. He sees meetings and “gatherings,” as he likes to call them, as a necessary part of bettering his community, local business climate and public school system.

“I try to facilitate things, create things, always trying to get people to collaborate and network,” says Verbout, who is reluctant to take the spotlight, since he sees himself as a convener.

Four years ago, he helped create an event called “Celebrate North Portland,” with the goal of recognizing and honoring the businesses, individuals and groups that have made a difference.

“I think it takes everybody — the team, the village,” he says.

The other two event founders are North Portland business people and neighbors Dan Halko and Joanna Lawler.

Last year’s event sold out all 350 tickets; this year’s event is set for March 15 at the University of Portland. It’s called “Magic Happens in North Portland,” and will feature entertainment by illusionist William Scott Anderson, a native Oregonian, U.S. Army veteran and 2010 finalist on “America’s Got Talent.” (See www.facebook.com/CelebrateNP for more.)

It’s just one event that Verbout has been working on lately. After retiring 12 years ago from his 33-year career as a Portland Public Schools teacher and principal, Verbout jokes that he has nothing but time on his hands, but it all gets filled up with meetings.

Much of his work revolves around the schools. The Roosevelt High School alumn is founder of the Roosevelt Alumni Association and one of the founding members of the group “Our Portland, Our Schools,” which rallied voters to approve PPS’ $482 million school bond modernization measure.

That’s why the outcome of the bond projects — namely a new, modernized Roosevelt — is so important to him.

Mellowing, working

At 69, Verbout has seen dramatic changes in North Portland, from his birth in Linnton to his schooling in St. Johns (at George K-8 School and then Roosevelt).

In the early 1970s he taught music at schools throughout the district, including Roosevelt. Before he was 40, Verbout became a principal, first at now-closed Applegate School, then Beach School for 11 years, then James John for five years before his retirement in 2002.

Before PPS’ first bond measure went to voters in 2011, Verbout served on the district’s Long Range Facility Plan Advisory Committee, which examined the needs of the schools and tried to anticipate future use.

Then as a member of Our Portland, Our Schools, he worked to convince North Portland residents that despite any lingering frustrations with the school district, it’s in the community’s best interests to bring the public schools into the 21st century.

“I think there was a lot of effort on our part to say, ‘Yes we know you don’t trust PPS, but this a community neighborhood school,’ ” he says. They tried to reach out to the 80 percent of residents without children in PPS to show them that their sacrifice would be worth it.

Besides his activism in the schools, Verbout is a volunteer with Loaves and Fishes, Peninsula Kiwanis and North Portland Optimist Club; a board member of The Salvation Army; and chairman of the mayor’s oversight committee on the Illegal Gun Ordinance, which he represents at the Mayor’s Gang Task Force.

His longest-running effort is a group he founded in the late 1990s to work on school issues.

“I wrote to all stakeholders and said, ‘Hang your six-shooters up at the door because we’re here for one thing, what’s best for kids,’ “ he says. “None of the people wanted to meet, because they were sick of meeting. But they said we’ll gather once a quarter.”

They called it The Gathering, and the name stuck. By design, they meet in places people might not normally gather, like at a funeral home, a bank lobby, Nabisco Foods and the St. Johns Bachelor’s Club.

The host provides dinner, and members give a quick report on what they need help with. The group has changed formats a couple of times, but kept its mission: to get things done. Lately it has focused on small-business development in St. Johns, and what’s preventing it from happening.

During the years Verbout has seen the impacts of gentrification, the flocks of young people who’ve moved in and started businesses and call it “NoPo.”

“When this all began to happen there was a lot of friction between the older people in the neighborhood and what they felt and believed,” Verbout says. Some thought, “Who are these young people coming in and taking over?”

Now, he says, he and the community have reaped the benefits of the diverse new demographic: Rather than the same people showing up to neighborhood meetings, there’s been new energy, new community building, new ideas for revitalization.

“I’ve seen a mellowing, working together,” he says. “I see that line of demarcation really going further and further away.”