A lot of little big steps
Two years ago in March, Michael Eichman, an experienced skier, suddenly went weak and lost his balance while skiing in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, in Northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Longtime executive director of Yamhill County Head Start in McMinnville, he had been walking 25 miles a week, in addition to hiking and bicycling. He was in good physical condition.
Eichman consulted two neurosurgeons and underwent a battery of tests. Preliminary findings were inconclusive. The condition remained uncertain until finally the process of elimination led to a definitive diagnosis.
He was eventually diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. There is no known cure for the progressive, neurodegenerative disorder, which affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
In the positive, get-things-done manner that has marked his life, Eichman looked into every possible way to deal with his condition. If he couldn’t achieve any improvement, he at least wanted to slow the course of degeneration.
Doing all he could to stave off the advance of the inherently terminal disease, he continued to work as long as possible in the job he loved. But he finally decided last summer, after 17 years, that it was time to step aside.
Eichman can look back on a career filled with accomplishment. He took great pride in having helped thousands of children truly get a “head start” ln life.
But to reach that point, he had to bring himself up by the bootstraps first.
“My folks had a farm on the plains in eastern Colorado,” he said. “I lived there for the first five years of my life. Then, in 1958, we moved into Colorado Springs, where I grew up.”
In 1971, the year Eichman graduated from high school, his parents decided to take up farming again. He worked in silver foundry for a year before enrolling in junior college.
“I studied music,” he said. “All my life I’ve loved music. I learned to play the accordion as a kid. I played in a local band called the Polka Chips.
“My first wife’s folks lived in Kalispell, Montana. They found an old mandolin in the attic of their house and gave it to me. So I took up the mandolin.
“By trial and error, plucking along, learning by doing, I learned to play it. Today I have a collection of more than 30 old musical instruments.”
Carrying his education forward, Eichman came to Monmouth in 1974 to attend the Oregon College of Education, now Western Oregon University.
The enthused 21-year-old majored in elementary education and got involved with the Oregon Association for Retired Citizens.
That relationship led to mentoring at a summer camp for handicapped children. Camp Civitat, on the Little North Fork of the Santiam west of Salem, is as peaceful and naturally beautiful a place to work with young people who have special needs as could be found anywhere.
Soon after, he and his wife started a group home in Kalispell. He became an advocate for Head Start there first, then in The Dalles.
From there, Eichman returned to the Willamette Valley, taking a position in the Salem office of the Child and Family Resource Program, an affiliate of Head Start.
In that position, he focused on finding group homes for mentally disabled individuals under the CFRP mission — “to coordinate social service agencies, aimed at serving eligible families with children from the prenatal period to age 8.”
Having divorced, Eichman became the first licensed single male foster parent in Oregon.
He also returned to OCE to complete the final requirements for his college degree. Almost immediately after graduation, he joined the faculty at Wascher Elementary in Lafayette.
All these experiences obviously proved invaluable when, in 1995, he applied to become executive director of Yamhill County Head Start. Out of 300 applicants, he got the job.
At the time, the organization was in a state of disarray. It was in dire need of new organization and leadership.
Coordination of a locally run entity operating with federal money posed the greatest challenge going in. Staff did not maintain satisfactory record keeping to account for cash outflow.
Once a system was put in place, it became evident that money was missing. Not only that, the facilities themselves had been neglected. It was a can of worms Eichman had to untangle.
In the end, with assistance from attorney Walt Gowell and financial advisor Ron Pittman, a 10-year plan was put in place to make Head Start of Yamhill County a showcase example of the program’s potential.
A former parking lot on the corner of Hemsley and 2nd streets was transformed into the site of a seamless addition to the building next door. The new part was constructed with energy-saving materials, so the entire building cost no more to operate than the old did at half the size.
An adult who has never been inside before can easily get the feeling he has landed in Lilliput. All the chairs, tables, counters and other accoutrement are scaled down for the tiny tots who regularly inhabit this domain.
Over the course of his tenure, Eichman utilized the mini-environment to maximum potential in teaching disadvantaged children to cope with the wider world.
He also used his polite but persistent powers of persuasion at all levels — including federal, state and private grants as well as company and individual donations — to build facilities in Dayton, Sheridan and Newberg.
Like their older sibling in McMinnville, they too provide the child-sized interior spaces that give Head Start kids the sense that this place is theirs.
The Dayton facility features a babyland. In Newberg, a garden park setting with scaled-down amenities enhances the building.
These are just a few examples of why Head Start of Yamhill County is considered to be a model for the country.
Suey Linzmeier, who has been executive director since Eichman’s retirement in August, 2013, said, “Michael had an amazing vision for what Head Start could be. He got it there and we are all continuing to carry out that vision.”
“He’s really not retired, you know.” she added. “He still consults on our facilities.”
As for Eichman, during the process of interviewing him for this story, I called his cell phone. When he answered, after telling him who it was, I asked, “Where are you?”
“I’m touring the grounds of Sunnylands, the Walter Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage,” he replied. “It’s amazing.” And so is this man, I thought to myself.
On April 14, 2013, a ribbon-cutting ceremony took place to officially re-open the totally updated and remodeled McMinnville Head Start Center. Its new name is the Michael Eichman Center.
And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — eyeing a miniature desk that looked a lot like the one I sat in during first grade, only with prettier wood and no carvings.
Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 503-687-1227.