Lawson Inada, Betty LaDuke, ‘Señora Chela’ Tapp Kocks awarded President’s Medals
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Not one, not two, but three individuals were awarded Southern Oregon University’s highest honor — The President’s Medal — on Jan. 9 at the Ashland campus.
Former Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Inada, artist Betty LaDuke, and founder of the sister university partnership between SOU and University of Guanajauto “Señora Chela” Tapp Kocks were recognized for their wide ranging achievements. At least 250 people attended the public ceremony in Stevenson Union’s Rogue River Room, decked out in Raider red, black and white for the occasion.
“Lawson and Betty and Chela … just take a moment and look at this room,” said SOU President Rick Bailey, standing at the podium. “Look at all the people who are here because they are showing their love for you.
“You’ll learn quickly why these are the recipients of the (President’s Medal) award this year,” Bailey added.
Sheila Clough, vice chair of the SOU Board of Trustees, also shared a welcome message in lieu of Chair Daniel Santos, who was out of the area.
“The President’s Medal recognizes individuals who made a significant and lasting impact on Southern Oregon University through their service and actions,” Clough said.
“This award is reserved for the individuals who demonstrate exemplary leadership and service to the university and the global community,” she added.
All three recipients came to SOU during the 1960s, Clough said, a time defined as much by extreme enrollment growth (enrollment doubled from 1,500 to more than 3,000 between 1962 and 1967) as it was a time of extreme change — students expressed their disdain for then-current events by holding anti-war protests on campus.
“All of these President’s Medal recipients played an important role in the changes of our university over the ‘60s and beyond,” Clough said. “Each of them have had remarkable careers in the arts, foreign languages and English.”
Lawson Inada, who taught in the English Department for more than 30 years, was the first to be honored. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed Inada as Poet Laureate in 2006, four years after he was made an emeritus faculty member of SOU.
Alma Rosa Alvarez spoke about Inada and about his life and his work that ranges near and far, in addition to current Poet Laureate of Oregon, Anis Mojgani.
Alvarez said Inada is considered one of the fathers of Asian-American Literature.
“Before Lawson, Asian-American writers existed, of course,” Alvarez said, “but they self-published or were published in Asian-American journals or newspapers. Much of Lawson’s work has been creating a space for Asian-American writers ….”
Inada is a third-generation Japanese-American whose childhood was interrupted by World War II, Alvarez said. Between ages 4 and 7, Inada was taken with his family to Japanese internment camps in California and Arkansas.
Inada shared how he was hired by SOU President Elmo Stevenson, for whom the Stevenson Union on campus is named, arriving in 1966.
Inada recalled Stevenson’s advice that, to be successful at the university, one needed to become involved in the community. It helped him realize, “If a calling comes, then be ready to serve. I’ve kept that in mind.”
Inada was a collaborator and enjoyed talking with professors from other departments, not just staying in his own area.
He described talking with an individual who taught speech at SOU about coordinating a spring festival at one point early in his time there. Little did he know at the time whom he was talking to.
“That gentleman was Angus Bowmer,” he said, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival founding artistic director and namesake of one of its three theaters.
Inada acknowledged it was not only by his own merits that he arrived at the podium for this award, and was quick to mention those who have gone before.
“Even though I’m grateful for the honor, of course, and the feeling of being celebrated, I have to … close my eyes and you realize that in back of you here (gesturing behind him), there’s your folks and there’s your grandparents … and I appreciate all the hard work that they did to allow me to come into this position,” Inada said, standing at the podium. “And so I’ve always felt like they did all the hard work in the fields as field laborers, so I felt it was like a privilege to be a teacher and I never felt like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to work.’ It would always feel good. What a privilege it is to work in this place.”
Internationally renowned artist Betty LaDuke arrived at SOU in 1964, the first of the trio to come to the campus. She was the second female art teacher at SOU and, for 18 years, the only woman in the Art Department.
LaDuke was the 1993 recipient of the Oregon Governor’s Arts Award, named an emeritus faculty member in 1996, and retired from the university only to launch a second-act artistic career that continues today. Her work is displayed at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, The Dallas Museum of Art in Texas, Portland Art Museum, The Brauer Museum of Art in Indiana, the University Museum of New Mexico State University, Chattanooga African American Museum, The Rhode Island School of Design, and the Schneider Museum at SOU.
LaDuke was born in The Bronx, New York, and knew she wanted to be an artist at the age of 9. At 16, she was accepted to The High School of Music and Art in New York.
Miles Inada, professor of Emerging Media & Digital Arts, shared a tribute to LaDuke, not only as a colleague but as a mentor and role model from a young age.
“Quite literally, I’ve known Betty my entire life,” Miles said. “What a coincidence I became an artist and an art professor, here as well.”
But it wasn’t so much a coincidence as attendees listen to Inada share about LaDuke’s impact on him from a young age.
“I think Betty’s work hits you right away,” he said. “You don’t have to know something in advance, so as a kid, that was my experience of it.”
“I also want to point out that Betty is not just an artist. She’s also a writer, she’s a researcher … she’s a photographer, she’s done all this work almost like a journalist or a reporter or a historian.”
“I think I literally learned to be an artist from Betty,” he added.
Inada, the son of Lawson Inada, spent time at LaDuke’s house while growing up in Ashland, a space he described in detail. What he remembers about it was how small the kitchen was in comparison to her art studio.
“It was like going to a mystical land, kind of,” Inada said. “You pull up, and there are like this growing collection of animal skulls, found objects, paintings, rocks, trees … you’re already in the studio just by pulling up to the house.”
He recalls that years later LaDuke talked about the smallness of her kitchen.
“I didn’t want to get trapped in the kitchen,” Inada said, referencing what LaDuke shared with him. “I didn’t want to get too domesticated and I loved that when I heard that.”
“It’s about choosing what you’re doing and being deliberate and listening and caring,” he added.
Inada went on to take an art history class at SOU from her, and then to be a colleague of hers as well.
“It’s just influenced everything I’ve ever done since,” he added. “You can’t separate that stuff out.”
Retired curator of Northwest Art at the Portland Art Museum Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson also shared about LaDuke and her influence on art across the globe.
“The Portland Art Museum, I think, has almost every print that Betty has made and they’re gorgeous,” Laing-Malcolmson said.
Laing-Malcolmson said, while she was familiar with LaDuke’s works, at first she wasn’t so familiar with her as an artist because it was harder for women to have their artwork shown.
“The center for exhibiting was Portland,” she said. “It was hard if you were an artist outside of Portland to get shown in the gallery.”
The art world in general was a hard place to be for women.
When Laing-Malcolmson started Art School in 1970, she was 17 years old.
“It was a different place for women,” Laing-Malcolmson said. “We were really expected to end up married and we were expected to maybe not succeed at our artwork so much.
“We had to be strong,” she added.
“I love the fact that Betty has always been so independent and she’s moved through the whole world in a way that many of us … you know I don’t think that I would have gone to Africa 18 times on my own — Would you, ladies?” Laing-Malcolmson said. “Betty has.”
LaDuke has traveled to Africa, India, Asia, Central and South America, and Australia, as well as Europe, and only at age 85 started traveling in a tour group.
“People can do that and go into different cultures if they’re open and optimistic and appreciate others and care for them, and so that’s why I think Betty has been able to cross cultures all across the world and inform her work in a way that’s magical.”
Laing-Malcomson shared that LaDuke has most recently been working on art called “Turtle Wisdom,” which is about creatures that live to be 100 years old and see much of the world.
“She’s incorporated various topics, everything from COVID, immigration to our fragile economy,” Laing-Malcomson said. “The exciting part is somebody who lives to make their artwork and whose work will live on, be really more appreciated and more appreciated as time goes by.”
“My mother could never understand how this all happened,” LaDuke said, after walking whimsically up to the stage.
The elder LaDuke was a worker in a pocketbook factory and always wanted to know how much her daughter was making from all of her artwork.
“I had a hard time telling her, ‘Mom, I wasn’t always selling things, I was giving away a lot of art work,” she said, drawing laughter from those in attendance.
It was her father who told her, “You wanna leave the Bronx, you have to do it for yourself.”
LaDuke recognized her first husband, the father of Winona LaDuke, for teaching her about honoring the land and of the concept of “reciprocity.”
“I came up here with a child, alone,” LaDuke said.
LaDuke met Marion Ady, whom she said she admired for leaving such an incredible legacy at SOU.
But LaDuke said she knew she didn’t want to wait to pursue her passion until after her retirement from teaching, but she wanted to live a life where she incorporated it as a lifestyle.
“I’m so glad I can fill buildings with artwork,” she said.
LaDuke also recognized her late husband of 48 years, Peter Westergaard, who worked for Oregon State University Extension.
“We decided early on, the kitchen was going to be small, and my studio was big,” she said.
She credits him with supporting her art and her traveling by herself on sabbaticals around the world.
LaDuke emphasized she didn’t make it to where she is alone. She also credits both Lawson Inada and ‘Senora Chela’ with helping her succeed.
“I learned early on that you don’t stop,” she said. “You keep going no matter what.”
‘Señora Chela’ Tapp Kocks
Chela Tapp Kocks, known fondly by many as ‘Señora Chela,’ was a faculty member at SOU from 1966 to 1997.
She is the founder of the sister-city relationship between the cities of Guanajuato and Ashland, as well as the Amistad Exchange between SOU and University of Guanajuato. More than 750 students have participated in the university exchange since it began in 1969.
In 1967, “Senora Chela” hosted the first Los Posadas at SOU, where students would go house to house singing religious Christmas songs, a Spanish tradition that can be found in Mexico and Guatemala.
“We invited all the Mexicans from the Rogue Valley and they would all come along with the other students,” Señora Chela said. “I always tried to blend the academic with the cultural part.”
Participants dressed up as the characters in the Bible, Mary and Joseph, as well as angels and shepherds and traveled around the neighborhood starting in mid-December.
Anne Connor said she became aware of Señora Chela’s legacy the moment she arrived in Ashland. Connor has been a professor of Spanish for more than 20 years and serves as director of the Summer Language Institute.
“While applying to rent an apartment, a woman handling my application asked, ‘Are you a Spanish professor at SOU?’” the individual asked Conner.
The individual went on to say how Señora Chela changed their life.
“I remember thinking, ‘changed your life?’” Conner said. “That’s a dramatic compliment.”
She soon learned the extent of that compliment upon meeting Chela.
When Señora Chela arrived on the stage, she shared that she would first be addressing those who were watching a livestream to Guanajuato.
The event also drew distinguished alumni, including Juan Carlos Romero Hicks as well as his wife, Frances “Faffie” Romero Siekman, from Guanajuato.
Romero Hicks, who at one time was a potential candidate for president of Mexico, served as chancellor of University of Guanajuato, governor of the state of Guanajuato, as well as terms as a senator and congressman. He earned two degrees at SOU in the Amistad program, coming to SOU in 1979.
“I had heard of this legend called Señora Chela,” he said.
Romero Hicks said over the years, Señora Chela has worked with 14 university administrators, 20 mayors of Guanajuato and has impacted many, many lives.
The Amistad program left an impact on Romero Hicks, both educationally and personally.
Romero Hicks, a father of 10 children, said his first daughter was born in Ashland. He said his daughter has returned to Ashland for more than 30 years.
“Why are we here? Because of Chela,” he said.
What makes the Amistad Exchange special is that it’s a “people-to-people” program, with a high value on personal relationships, according to Romero Hicks. Many of those relationships have been fostered over the years by Señora Chela.
“People ask, what is Chela like?” he said. “Well, she’s not shy,” drawing laughter.
“She’ll never take no for an answer,” he added, noting whimsically that she doesn’t intimidate him.
“She’s the heart, the mind, the soul of our program,” he added. “She has made things happen that seemed impossible.”
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at email@example.com.