Family traditions at Clark
By Lily Raff McCaulou
Trace the Giles’ family tree back far enough and it turns out it took root at Clark College. Nancy Novak ’57 was in her first year of studying for a career in medical technology when a friend, Doreen, invited her to lunch with a few other students. They met at a pub on the eastern edge of campus, down Fourth Plain Boulevard, where old warehousing units had been converted into ramshackle classrooms nicknamed “the cardboard jungle.”
The lunch was actually a matchmaking setup arranged at the request of another friend of Doreen’s, Dale Giles ’57. Dale said he used to “sneak peek” at Nancy but didn’t know her well enough to approach her himself. Dale was a baseball player, and he was athletic, handsome and charming. After meeting him, Nancy told Doreen, “yeah, I’d be interested in going out with him.” Doreen relayed the message.
“A year later we were married,” said Nancy.
Nancy Novak became Nancy Giles and gave birth to a son the next year, followed by three more in close succession. Today, Nancy and Dale also have nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
The family shares a legacy of independence, hard work and building businesses through an old-fashioned combination of determination and grit. They also share another tradition: education at Clark College.
Three of the Giles’ four children attended Clark, and several grandchildren studied there too.
Clark as a family legacy is not unusual in Vancouver and its surrounding communities. The vast majority of Clark alumni remain in or near Vancouver, making the college an important conduit for economic vibrancy in the region. A 2017 online survey found that 99 percent of alumni aged 39 and younger live in the greater Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area.
That survey also found that the top 10 employers of Clark alumni are Clark College, PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, Vancouver School District, Evergreen School District, The Vancouver Clinic, Clark County, Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital, Washington State University at Vancouver, Veterans Administration Medical Center and the city of Vancouver. The top five professions for Clark alumni are nursing, dentistry, education, health care and law.
Clark College is a common thread running through Vancouver and its surrounding communities. It is certainly part of the story of Dale and Nancy Giles.
Dale joked recently that he spent his time at Clark studying baseball.
“It was my main interest,” he said.
The center fielder played on a Clark team, coached by the beloved Skeet O’Connell, the namesake of Clark’s athletics building. The team won back-to-back state championships in 1956 and 1957.
“I thought I was headed for the New York Yankees,” Dale said. “And then they hired Mickey Mantle instead.”
Dale and Nancy Giles left Clark College in 1957. They had not finished their degrees but were newly married and both working full time, Dale for the Federal Reserve Bank in Portland, Ore., and Nancy for Alcoa, the local aluminum smelter. In 1958, the national economy dove into a recession and Dale was laid off. For six weeks, he received unemployment benefits — the only financial assistance the couple says they ever accepted. Dale worked at a paper mill, a brewery and at White Motor Company, in Portland.
The couple’s pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church recommended Dale to an acquaintance, Leroy “Sunny” Horn, who was looking for a hardworking individual who might be interested in working in the insurance industry. Horn was a State Farm agent who convinced Dale to take some aptitude tests, which he passed handily, and then study for a certification. But the family had another baby on the way and worried that the career switch offered too much uncertainty.
Although money was tight, the family saved what they could. Every week, Dale walked a couple of miles to First Interstate Bank and deposited whatever money was leftover, usually 50 cents at a time. Eventually, they saved enough for a down payment on a small home in Vancouver.
By 1966, as Dale was doing shift work at Alcoa, he became fed up with the inconsistent scheduling. He called Horn and asked if there was still an opportunity to go to work in the insurance business. Dale spent the summer studying manuals and in the fall, he went to work in the basement of Horn’s office. State Farm didn’t give him any clients to start with, so Dale knocked on doors.
“I’d go down to the utility office and see who signed up for electricity. Then I’d call them and talk to them about their insurance. I was a wonderful salesman,” Dale said.
As Dale’s business grew, he opened his own State Farm office in Hazel Dell. He asked Nancy to manage the office. The Gileses operated the thriving business for 31 years before retiring. Today, Nancy, 79, and Dale, 80, split their time between Vancouver and Phoenix, Ariz. Between their friends and family, they could spend hours listing all the people in their lives who share a connection to Clark College.
Like father, like son
As Nancy remembers it, their oldest son, Rick, first wanted to go to Pacific Lutheran University. Nancy and Dale were willing to pay for tuition and books but they wanted Rick to cover his other costs.
“ ‘You need to have like $1,000 in the bank,’ ” Nancy recalled telling him. “ ‘Because I do not want you writing home and saying. ‘I need money for this or that.’ He never had it. So we told him, ‘Well, you better go down and sign up for Clark College.’ ”
Rick remembers it differently. He wanted to stay in Vancouver because of a job and a girlfriend. However he landed at Clark, he concedes, “My parents did not give me an option not to go to college.”
Rick followed his father’s footsteps so closely that he described it as “uncanny.” Like his father, he dedicated himself to a sport at Clark, met his future wife, Cynthia Britton, there and then left just before graduating to work full time and start a family.
Unlike his father, Rick knew right away what he wanted to study — business administration. But like Dale, he was delighted to discover a way to pursue his athletic interest at Clark. An avid skier, Rick enrolled in skiing classes in the physical education department and earned college credit for an activity that he loved.
Rick used to see Britton in Scarpelli Hall’s lobby, Clark’s business administration building, and made note of what time she had class there.
“I used to wait at the bottom of the steps for her to go by, just so I’d have a chance to say hi to her,” Rick said. They were soon engaged, then married and later had three children.
In 1978, just a few credits short of his associate degree, Rick left Clark for a job in sales. Not long afterward, he was barely scraping by, riding his bicycle to and from work each day. A local hearing aid store was looking to hire an ambitious salesman, so Rick inquired. He was immediately offered a position making $1,000 a month — twice what he had been earning. Rick worked his way up through the company and in 1994 he bought the business, which is now called Hearing by Design.
Rick, 59, said he recently reflected on his life in anticipation of his 60th birthday. He has only three regrets: not becoming an Eagle Scout, not joining the military and not finishing his associate degree from Clark.
“I was so close,” he said. Still, Rick said that as a small business owner, he uses what he learned in his business and accounting classes at Clark every day.
Rick’s daughter, Angela Wolf ’08 earned her business administration degree from Clark College, then transferred to Washington State University Vancouver where she earned a bachelor’s degree. Her husband, Warren Wolf, also earned a degree at Clark and then transferred to WSU. Unlike her parents and grandparents, however, Angela, 31, met her spouse prior to enrolling at Clark.
“I had a great experience at Clark, which didn’t surprise me,” she said. “I knew that my parents and grandparents had gone there, and it was just always a part of our life.”
Clark will continue to be a part of the Giles family’s story. There is a new generation of students on the horizon — Angela’s sons are 6 and 1. And the older Gileses may not be done with Clark, either.
Angela is interested in taking yoga classes through the college. Rick said that he and his current wife, Ann Cockram Giles, are interested in taking welding classes as a hobby.
Again, this can be traced back to earlier generations. Nancy said her mother, Ruth Novak, took accounting classes at Clark College to further her career as a bookkeeper. Also, when her four children were young, Nancy took a cake decorating class at the college.
“I thought, ‘Here I am with all these kids and I’m spending all this money to buy birthday cakes. I’m going to learn how to decorate a cake.’ So I did,” she said.
To Nancy, there’s no better illustration of the value of Clark to the community — whatever a person’s interests or goals, the college has something to offer.
“Clark is always there,” she said. “It’s there for the taking.”
Lily Raff McCaulou is a journalist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Guardian. She lives in Bend, Ore.