Al Bauer, Washington’s education senator
Cattle rancher, lawmaker, teacher, education advocate and donor upped access for students across Washington
By Lily Raff McCaulou
In 1948, regretting his decision to work in a cannery for 80 cents an hour and feeling jealous of friends who had gone to college, Al Bauer showed up at Clark College with his transcript in hand. He didn’t think he’d be accepted since one year earlier Bauer had dropped out of high school.
“I thought I wanted to be a farmer so I didn’t need an education,” he said. “So I did no homework (in high school) and ended my junior year with about a D average.”
He later took a correspondence course to earn the equivalent of a GED, but wasn’t sure if it would get him into Clark. To Bauer’s surprise, the credential wasn’t necessary. The registrar congratulated his effort, helped him enroll and even gave him a pep talk.
“That was a turning point in my whole life,” said Bauer ’55, who is now 91. “I attribute whatever I’ve done to my family and to Clark for encouraging me to keep going.”
Whatever Bauer has done is—by any measure—a lot. He served in the United States Navy, then earned a master’s in education and taught for 20 years. In 1970, he ran for office and served in Washington’s House of Representatives for nine years, then in the state Senate for 20 years.
He helped launch Washington’s successful Running Start program, which allows high school students to earn college credit. He paved the way for Washington State University to open a campus in Vancouver.
“I think it’s true to say that without Al’s advocacy, there would be no WSU Vancouver,” said U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, who considers Bauer to be his lifelong mentor, in politics and in life. “There are a lot of people who significantly helped make that happen but pull him out of the equation and the campus would not exist.”
Gov. Gary Locke dubbed him “the education senator.” Bauer Hall, at Clark, is named after him. He has donated more than $20,000 to the college over the last 23 years, so more students can come to Clark and find their own promising pathway.
Bauer was born on a Montana homestead in 1928. At age 8, he moved to Southwest Washington after his father, a German immigrant, purchased a dairy farm. Bauer grew up close to his parents and four siblings. He loved the farming life so much that by high school he didn’t see much point in education. He figured he’d learn what he needed to know in the field.
“I dropped out of high school because I was bored to death,” Bauer said. Some of his high school classmates could barely write a paragraph, he added. With so few of his peers taking class seriously, he said it was easy to believe that school didn’t matter. After his junior year, he spent the summer working in a cannery then stayed on as his friends returned to school. The following year, he got laid off.
In a correspondence course, Bauer applied himself and earned As. At Clark, he felt encouraged to work even harder. One of his professors—Herman Foster, after whom Foster Hall is named—recognized Bauer as a bright kid with sizable gaps in his understanding.
“He had a lot of patience; he was just a good old teacher,” Bauer said.
Foster recommended tutoring to help Bauer get caught up. So he stayed late, immersing himself in his studies and finding satisfaction as he mastered subjects.
“I learned more in the five courses I took in those three months than I did in all of high school,” he said.
Bauer spent a second quarter at Clark, taking classes and running track. He finished second in state in the 2-mile race—an accomplishment that later earned him a spot in the Northwest Athletic Conference Hall of Fame. In 2000, he was lauded as an Outstanding Alumni, the highest recognition Clark alumni can receive for making substantial contributions to their communities.
Then Bauer enlisted in the Navy. As a petty officer, he trained lower ranking recruits in The Bluejacket’s Manual, a guide to nautical navigation.
“I felt so good about how they reacted to that, I thought, ‘I’ll be a teacher,’” he said.
After six years of military service, Bauer returned to Clark College to pick up where he left off. He graduated from Clark in 1955. He transferred to Portland State University to complete a bachelor’s degree and Oregon State College for a master’s in education.
Bauer taught in the La Center School District, at Columbia River High School, Shumway Junior High School and Jason Lee Middle School. His teaching spanned from the 1950s to the 1980s. Bauer quickly became active in the teachers’ union. He first helped lobby to require school districts to provide a 30-minute lunch break for teachers. Soon, Bauer was elected president of the Vancouver Education Association.
Then, in 1970, he challenged Bob O’Dell, a Republican incumbent, and won a seat in the state House. For years, Bauer continued to teach high school in the fall and then left for Olympia during the spring term. In his second term, Democrats took control of the House and Bauer became chairman of the education committee. As a practicing teacher, he saw firsthand the many problems in need of legislative solutions.
Bauer earned a reputation as a creative and pragmatic supporter of education. Despite his background as a union representative, he wasn’t afraid to stand up to teachers’ unions.
He noticed, for example, that one-third of his high school class couldn’t write well enough to compose a proper essay. That prompted him to sponsor a bill to lower class sizes in early elementary school, when students need individual attention to learn fundamentals. The bill meant larger classes for high school teachers like him. He felt confident the move was the right thing to do, and it would mean students arrived at high school better prepared.
“The easiest thing to do is to advocate on behalf of your base. But it takes guts and integrity to look someone in the eye and say, ‘I know we usually agree but we’re going the other way on this,’” Heck said. “I don’t know that I ever served with or know of anybody that has more integrity than Al.”
Heck said Bauer was an especially effective legislator.
“Every year he’d have one thing that he wasn’t going home without,” Heck said. “And he’d drive those stubborn German heels into the ground so far… he never came up short.”
As a lawmaker, Bauer thought about what would have kept him from dropping out of school and what pulled him back into the education system. The result of that reflection was a bill he sponsored as a state senator in 1993 to launch the statewide Running Start program.
Lisa Gibert, chief executive officer of Clark College Foundation, said Running Start is a successful and popular program because it can be tailored to individual students. Clark has more Running Start participants than any other community college in the state of Washington.
“Running Start is such a creative program…” she said. “It’s not for everyone, and sometimes it’s a hybrid of both… the high school setting and the college setting.” A student may take some high school classes and some college classes during the same quarter.
Bauer retired in 2001 and often rides his recumbent tricycle around Vancouver. He still gives back by donating to Clark College Foundation primarily for scholarships. At one Clark event, Bauer sat next to a 44-year-old woman of color who went back to college after her children had grown. Bauer was inspired by her, realizing the entire community benefits when nontraditional students have the support they need to pursue higher education. In 2005, he started the Patricia E. and Senator Al Bauer Transfer Scholarship Endowment, named after his late wife. Bauer attends an annual Clark College Foundation reception to meet his scholarship recipients. He published a memoir in 2007 (“Fairview to Salmon Creek: A Community Spirit”), the proceeds of which he donates to Clark. He also gives books to his friends and tucks a donation envelope between the pages to encourage them to support Clark scholarships. More than 40 gifts have been made in his honor from these friends.
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck was a teenager working for a local strawberry farmer when he first met Bauer. His older brother was one of Bauer’s students, so the boy recognized the man when he walked up and asked if Heck had any extra strawberry flats.
“I thought it was kind of weird that he ran out of flats,” Heck said. “I was like 13 and I’m thinking, ‘hey, who’s planning that operation over there?’”
Clark County was small enough, in those days, that Bauer knew who Heck was, too.
“He was polite and kind and he treated me like I was a lot older than 13, and I’m pretty sure he made some reference to my brother,” said Heck.
Later, Heck also had Bauer as a teacher and worked for him in Olympia. Heck said Bauer became his “lifelong mentor,” encouraging him to enter politics and to this day inspiring Heck to live up to the example set by Bauer. The two men speak on the phone about once a week.
“Now that my own father has passed, he’s the closest thing to a father figure that I have,” Heck said.
Bauer’s late wife, Pat, and fellow state Sen. Joe Tanner, sought—without Bauer’s knowledge—to have a Clark building named for him. He said he was shocked when he learned his name was emblazoned on Bauer Hall. For a while, the building housed the new WSU branch until the university moved to a permanent campus in Vancouver.
“It’s more than I deserve,” he said.
In a similar act of modesty, Bauer noted that he gives to Clark College Foundation for selfish reasons, too. He attends fundraising events at the college, he said, and looks around in admiration at the storied community leaders who support Clark College.
“I want,” he said with a laugh, “to be one of them.”
Lily Raff McCaulou is a journalist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and Rolling Stone. She lives in Bend, Ore. Visit her online at www.lilyrm.com.