Alumni ProfileS

Get the inside scoop on what fellow alumni have achieved since graduating from OES.

Once an Aardvark, always an Aardvark! 

Vassar Byrd '79

•         Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.
I run a not for profit senior services company, Rose Villa Senior Living.  We have a 22 acre campus in SE Portland on which we offer independent homes in a low density outdoor-oriented environment which are part of a village set up which includes a wellness center with pool, performing arts center, two restaurants, many catering and event spaces, classrooms, spa, gardening center, library, art spaces, and more.  In addition we have a 24-hour residential health center for short-term or long-term care needs, a medical office, and in-home care agency on site.  We have about 250 residents who live in attached cottage homes in pocket neighborhoods.  We are in the middle of a large redevelopment project that is bringing brand new infrastructure to our campus as well as new neighborhoods and new homes.  We have served the Portland area for 55 years and are extremely community minded.

•         Why do you think this work is important?
My focus is building community.  A lot of people who look at senior living think it is about real estate or simply downsizing.  I think that leaves a lot on the table.  When you offer a supportive environment in which everyone is extremely independent and can make the choices they want about how their life is organized, you have the opportunity to create something much more meaningful with this intentional community than an HOA.  I also believe that in the world at large, elders are discounted and dismissed.  It is my belief that there is no more powerful group on earth than those people who are tough enough, smart enough, creative enough, and flexible enough to make it into their 6th, 7th, 8th, or higher decades and it is both foolish and wasteful not to harness that wisdom, knowledge, and perspective.  I am intensely inspired by the people I serve, every day.

•         How does your OES education and experiences feed the work you are doing?

I have an MS in Economics from the London School of Economics which would have been impossible for me to attain without the foundational habits I learned at OES.  I worked as an economist for 10 years before changing my career and getting an MA in gerontology (from Naropa University, in Boulder – completing the entire cultural education span from right to left, by the way….)  I have been extremely “successful” in school, but more than that, I have gotten A LOT OUT of it.  I have been able to apply my knowledge, synthesize information and experience from widely diverse fields, and create my own path.  My abilities to think logically, work hard, articulate what I am after and what I understand are directly related to my education at OES.

•         Looking back, is there anything you would like to say to current OESians as you reflect on the time you spend at OES?

You may have heard the notion that success in life is 99% about showing up.  That is remarkably true, but learning how to always be there is not a given.  Trust that OES is giving you that lesson, every day, in a million different ways that you can’t always understand.  By showing up at school every day – and I am talking about BRINGING IT – it will become part of your nature to do that in every facet of your personal and professional life, every time.  In my experience, that unlocks so much opportunity, unrelated to a specific discipline or grade or performance, that you can create ANYTHING going forward.

Any final thoughts?

I think I have probably gone on way too long already…(Rose Villa has a bunch of sports teams that have both staff and residents on them – we are the Rose Villa Vikings, which is WHY I am holding a Viking helmet in this picture….)


Christian DeBenedetti '92

Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.
For the last ten years, my primary pursuit has been freelance writing about adventure travel, and I'm currently in transition to owning my own brewery. About ten years ago I became a Correspondent for Outside Magazine and Contributing Editor to National Geographic's Adventure Magazine, covered the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, traveled extensively around the world and lived in New York City for about 8 years. I moved back to the Portland area in 2009, and I wrote my first book (The Great American Ale Trail; Running Press) in 2011. My 2nd book comes out 10/13/15: a cookbook that I cowrote about pairing artisanal beer and food, called Beer Bites. My coauthor and I will appear at Powell's Books on November 9, at 7:30PM to read from the book! I hope OESians will consider coming and perhaps picking a copy up for the beer lover in their lives. Everyone has at least one... 

Also, for the last year, I have been building Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery outside of Newberg, on the farm where I grew up, a huge and rewarding challenge. I'm leasing the 100-year old barn and restoring it piece by piece, working on my own and with brewer from Austin, as well as a variety of friends and local contractors. This has involved extensive construction, excavation, fund-raising, creative and administrative jiu-jitsu, and countless physical tasks. We have done a great deal of the work ourselves, even cutting and jackhammering concrete, carpentry, you name it. As a small business owner, I always have to ask myself: could I do that myself? The feeling that comes with doing it yourself can be enormously rewarding.

Why do you think this work is important?
Brewing beer has a deeply satisfying communal aspect—it brings people together, both in the process of brewing and, naturally the sharing. There used to be countless farmhouse breweries across the U.S., but until recently there were none. Today there are probably less than 20 in the United States, if that.  We use our own completely untreated (pristine) well water, wild yeast we propagated on the farm from an old plum tree, and certain other fruits in certain beers. We aim to use as many local and homegrown ingredients as possible, and show beer lovers that it can come from a very natural place, not just a steaming factory.  The name of the brewery, Wolves & People, comes from a tag game we played at night on this farm as kids. It's also a reference to hops, which give aroma and bitterness to beer. Their Latin name is humulus lupulus, or "wolf among weeds." In a wider sense, I hope the brewery gets people thinking about wildness in all aspects of life. The opposite of wildness is confinement, stasis, or even death. We must live somewhere in the middle, but where? A guy I bought a big old used steel sink from once said, "Nice brewery name. We'll all fit in somewhere." 

How does your OES education and experiences feed the work you are doing now?
At OES I had amazing teachers and I felt super prepared for my freshman year at Whitman. Today, I am really happy to be in touch with current and former teachers, like Jack O'Brien, who taught art and directed much of the theater activity at OES when I was a student and was very involved in the entire Upper School. Imagine my surprise when he pulled up to the barn in his vintage VW Beetle. Turns out Jack and his wife now live within a mile of the farm. Jack asked me if I needed help on the brewery buildout, pointing out that he has a full wood shop at his disposal on his farm up the hill. Well, I wasn't going to turn down that offer. Jack volunteered to lead the construction of a new mill room we needed for our grain mill. He introduced me to a salvage materials place in Sherwood, and we built the whole thing out of old barn windows, a vintage door, and salvage hemlock. It turned out better than I could have hoped. He's a saint! I loved my art classes as much as my English classes, and I think I picked up a bit of chemistry as well. Brewing beer is organic chemistry in (delicious) action.

Looking back, is there anything you would like to say to current OESians as you reflect on the time you spend at OES?
Don't go through life afraid to take big (but calculated) risks. If a person has done something you admire—literally anything under the sun—you can do it yourself. Anything—from the White House to the World Cup. Looks don't matter. Passion is what matters. Pursuing big creative projects might not make you rich, but you'll be more interesting (and  you just might get rich, too). Pursuing law, medical, or business school is not a guarantee of wealth & happiness, but it may guarantee steady wages. If you are doing something with honor and principle and some sort of intrinsic good, then you will eventually find a way to do that or share that good work with others. When I was a student at OES, I got in a bit of hot water for wearing my collection of beer-themed t-shirts, which I would buy from the brewpubs around Portland. Though I had barely tasted them, I was convinced there was something important. I was testing my teachers a bit perhaps but I was also genuinely fascinated with this new industry. Once I got to college, I began brewing my own beer (which is legal at age 18 in the US), using the section lounge in my Whitman College dormitory and a cheap kit. The beer was really bad, but I stayed with it. I collected books, brewed, and wrote  as often as possible about my newfound passion. As a senior I won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship from the family behind IBM and used it to study traditional brewing in Western Europe and West Africa. That was truly a life-changing experience, and I think the kind of free-thinking, creative mindset I learned at OES set the stage. Also, I would tell OES students to leave their cellphones at home or in their locker—all day. You don't want to have more than four years of high school, but you do want to remember it, not a stream of images beamed from a cellphone screen. That is not real life; those are just dead pixels. Instead, look each other in the eye, converse, learn, and watch the sparks.

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