About 40 years ago, Rick Gauger remembers getting a bouquet of flowers from her husband, Dave, that really changed her life.
The family had just moved to Raymond from Nebraska. They’d purchased a weekly newspaper on Willapa Harbor and Rick wasn’t adjusting well to the move. She was a bit homesick and wasn’t thrilled with the area.
But she was trying to make the best of it. After a night performing in a local musical, her husband came in with the flowers.
“Dave gave me a bouquet of flowers and, on it, it said ‘Bloom where you’re planted,’” she recalls. “And it just shocked me instead of grumbling about living here. I needed to absorb and make it better.”
If the Gaugers were flower seeds, then a whole bed of roses have erupted since they first set foot in Pacific County.
Dave and Rick raised four children in Raymond, plus a couple of foster children, and have served as sponsors to re-connect immigrant families with dozens of their children, who had stayed back home.
Dave was the publisher and owner of the Willapa Harbor Herald and a few other newspapers in the area he either bought or started. When he retired, he continued to serve the community, working to tear down unwanted buildings and build new ones as a director of the Willapa Community Development Association, a group he helped found.
Rick has been part of the Willapa Harbor Chorale for the past 40 years, becoming its director in 1983. Even after successfully battling throat cancer and losing her soprano voice, she has persevered and stayed on as the accomplished director of the group.
“We’ve had lots of opportunities to move, but we just never did,” Rick says. “I think at one time, Dave was ready to go, but I wasn’t. I had a support group of friends here for my cancer that I just didn’t want to leave. I just didn’t feel like I could leave my closest friends. … Probably now I’m more ready to leave than him, although we can’t afford to move to Seattle where three of our four kids live. But you live here for so long that bonds are formed. Dave’s been telling me for 40 years this place is going to grow but it never did. You just need to take your corner of the world and make the best out of it.”
Rick and Dave grew up in small farming community in rural Nebraska. They went to high school together, although they weren’t ever really sweethearts until the last few months at high school.
“We connected at senior prom,” Rick recalls. “I dumped my date. Did you have a date?”
“Yeah, I did,” he replies, sitting on a couch in their living room in Raymond, patting her on the leg with a warm smile.
“Well, I’ve forgotten all about her,” she laughs. “We got married two years later.”
“Not until the end of our senior year in high school did she ever pay any attention to me,” Dave explains.
“Dave was a rebel and I was a nice girl,” she explained.
Although, she recalled a time when on the two-mile long main street she was able to cram 17 people into her dad’s car at one time. She says she started driving at age 14 and she still loves driving today.
“Some of what we did wasn’t safe and, boy, when my kids started driving, I always needed to know where they were going,” she said.
Rick isn’t her real name, she points out. It’s a nickname based on her maiden name Rickertsen that just stuck. Her real name is Mary, but the only one who calls her that is her husband when he’s mad or her children when introducing her to other people.
“I think the kids just don’t want to have to explain that Rick is a nickname,” she says with a smile. “But it’s the name I’ve always had. Even my parents called me that. It’s what people know me as.”
Both Rick and Dave went to Hastings Liberal Arts College, a small college in Hastings, Neb.
“I was singing in college and took voice lessons to sing in a very fine touring choir,” Rick explains. “But we got married and faced real facts. I quit and got a job so Dave could finish school.”
Dave was studying journalism, a field he had always loved. In fact, in high school, he worked at a radio station announcing and even had a five-day-a-week children’s show. The station had 25,000 watts, which he says covered a lot of nearby states.
She got a job at the Hastings Music Department working for the director as a secretary.
“I always thought about finishing school, but I just never got around to it,” she recalls. “Really, since we put four kids through school with their tuition, I think I just didn’t want to pay any more tuition.”
Facing war times in Vietnam, Dave enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He had experience flying crop dusters for his family’s farm and was signed up to become a pilot in the Navy. The Gaugers said they ended up moving quite a few times during the five years Dave was being trained as a pilot and deployed overseas.
Back at home, Dave got a job with the Omaha World Herald as a copy editor. The Gaugers already had two young boys, Jeff and Mark, but wanted another child.
“We wanted more children and we weren’t having any luck with that,” Rick said. “We still lived in Nebraska and we kept being told that since we have kids, we can’t adopt. Well, Dave had been in Vietnam and we contacted a military friend over there who contacted an orphanage.”
“Our daughter was among the first group of children to come to this country for adoption, arriving three days shy of her second birthday from Saigon in South Vietnam,” Dave says, noting the adoption happened in the late 1960s. “During the war, nobody was thinking of adoptions.”
The girl is Liesl, named for the eldest Von Trapp daughter in the Sound of Music movie.
Not long after, the family decided to adopt again, choosing to use the Holt International adoption agency to adopt Jennifer from South Korea.
The experience with the adoptions spurred the Gaugers into helping others adopt children internationally. It also led them both to interact more with the Asian community in Raymond and South Bend. They’ve sponsored many families as immigrant parents and refugees try to reconnect with their families still overseas. They’re currently helping a Cambodian couple in Aberdeen re-connect with their teenagers still in Cambodia.
“Over the past 15 years, we’ve helped dozens of refugees,” Dave said. “Lately, it’s been harder.”
“When you help people’s kids, it opens doors and it’s been a really great feeling,” Rick explains.
Dave and Rick also served as foster parents to two Laotian teens. Justin, their foster son, is now serving in Afghanistan. Touk, their foster daughter, is a senior analyst and part-owner in a company that manages $2 billion in investments.
With the boys in 5th and 6th grade and daughters in preschool and kindergarten, the family moved to Raymond in 1972, where Dave saw an opportunity to purchase the local weekly newspaper. Soon, he purchased the weekly in South Bend and merged the two papers into the Willapa Harbor Herald.
“I was very involved in the newspaper,” Rick says. “For years, I did anything that nobody else wanted to do, which included selling ads. I hated selling ads. … But, you see, I was working for free. With three kids needing tuition money soon, I took another job at a local bank for about five years. And all of our kids graduated.”
In due time, Dave would start a weekly newspaper in Ocean Shores, a predecessor to North Coast News today. He’d start the weekly Elma Chronicle, a predecessor to East County News today; as well as a weekly in Olympia that no longer prints. He also started 97.7 FM in an effort to cross-brand his newspapers with a radio station, although that station was later sold to Jodesha Broadcasting’s Bill Wolfenbarger and later turned into the FM broadcast for KOMO radio.
The Gaugers sold everything by the mid-1980s.
“At one point, we had three large grocery stores in North Pacific County and three or four places to buy appliances but we were watching our advertising base just vanish upon us.
“I grew up on a farm in Nebraska and I told my dad I would never marry a farmer,” she says with a laugh. “And here I end up marrying a weekly publisher, who works more hours than a lot of farmers. It’s what Dave wanted to do and I bought into. We were going to help change the world. Boy, were we young.”
They may not have changed the world, but with the creation of the Willapa Community Development Association, a noticeable difference was felt in their town.
“We’ve kept a pretty low profile but we have done some pretty neat things,” Dave explains. “We’ve been able to take a lot of donations and grants to make a real difference.”
About six years ago, the group took grant money and loans and put $1.3 million into the second story of the old Eagles building to make a group of quality apartments for people with limited income.
When the Raymond Clinic was going under, the Willapa Community Development Association stepped in and bought the 17,000- square-foot building out of bankruptcy.
“And we spent a lot of money refurbishing it and got Valley View Health Center out of Chehalis to come over and put in a clinic to serve the uninsured and underinsured,” Dave said. “And last year, they bought the building from us.”
Turning their attention to blighted spots in the community, the group acquired the old Raymond Shell station from the Turner family for just a dollar.
“Because of our nonprofit status, we ended up investing $320,000 cleaning up the mess, the leftover oil,” Dave said. “And earlier this year we sold it to the lady who used to own the corner cafe and they are going to put some kind of eatery there.”
The group has had its eye on the old Shell station in South Bend, but there’s not been the money to do effective cleanup.
“Twice, we’ve had offers to give us $200,000 to clean it up, but we know from our Raymond experience that you don’t know the real cost until you start digging,” he explained. “We spent $28,000 on a site evaluation and you’d think that’d be more definitive, but it wasn’t. The more they dug, the more they had to dig.”
They acquired the old Seafirst building for nothing and spent $70,000 to improve it in order to make it more attractive to a new tenant. Then, they sold the building.
And when South Bend needed funding to fix the city dock, the group provided a $30,000 matching grant so the work could be done. “The city didn’t have the funds to do it, so we stepped up,” Dave said.
The Willapa Harbor Chorale has had a continuous run of two concerts a year for at least the last 43 years. And Rick has been part of the group for 40 years.
The group has been with her during fun times and sad times. And just a few years after being named director, Rick was battling throat cancer. Winning that battle cost Rick her singing voice.
“Before her throat cancer, she had a gorgeous, college-trained soprano voice,” Dave recalls.
“He gives me way too much credit,” Rick adds. “I liked singing but you lose something and you have to figure out how to not let it defeat you. I could still talk and I like to talk. I’ve just tried to put it out of my mind that I couldn’t sing anymore.”
A Daily World article published 25 years ago talks about the time when her choir members snatched her from her hospital room — following throat surgery — and snuck her into a holiday concert so she wouldn’t miss it. She joked at the time that she sounded like E.T. from the Spielberg movie.
The remarkable thing is that although Rick lost most of her singing voice years ago, the years have been kind to her throat and she is able to sing sometimes.
“I just can’t sing where I used to sing and when I sing parts, I have to sing alto and tenor and I can’t hit all of those notes and it’s scratchy,” she says.
“The cancer didn’t slow her down any,” said retired choir member Margaret Frost. “In fact, there have been times when others have had cancer and she took them under her wing and became their support … I’m not surprised she’s still teaching today. She’s the kind of person that just keeps going.”
Dick Mergens joined the choir back in 1972, at the same time as Rick. He and his wife, Ann, had been their neighbors for a time.
“She had a beautiful voice before, but she directs and has ever since that time,” Dick Mergens said. “I don’t know what we’d do without her. She’s very good and very patient to the choir members, who may have a little experience or none at all. It’s a tough job. She’s been a good friend of ours throughout all of these years.”
Laurie May has been part of the Willapa Harbor Chorale for about 20 years.
“She ranks right up there with the best — and I’ve been in a lot of choirs over the years,” May said. “She is easygoing and fun, but she expects us to buckle down and make sure we know the songs. … She has an ear for music. She understands it but the thing that’s nice is that she has an attitude that all voices are welcome.”
Rick says that she had an MRI scan not that long ago “and through my mind I sang Christmas carols. And it made the time go by. Six minutes is all I needed in my head to sing all the verses to ‘Joy to the World.”’ Music is much more part of my life, probably more so since I had cancer.”
She says she’s not sure what her voice would sound like.
But May, one of her choir members, has an idea.
“We have become her voice and she really appreciates us acting as that voice and we take that responsibility seriously,” May said.
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3927, or by email: email@example.com.