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The Ride of a Life

Lake Oswego's Mary Beth Coffey enjoys 23 years as Oaks Park Senior Manager
by: Vern Uyetake, Oaks Park Senior Manager Mary Beth Coffey goes for a quick ride on the carnival’s small roller coaster.

It isn't hard to believe that former Lake Oswego Planning Commissioner Mary Beth Coffey used to be a ballerina. Or that she got her start at Oaks Park doing PR. She confidently postures herself for the camera and smiles. Honest, quippy soundbites slip off her tongue as she describes from memory the history and character of Oaks Park.

Coffey, who is now the senior manager of the park, started on her 33rd birthday - Oct. 9, 1985.

Before that she lived in New York City, where she pursued her career as a ballerina and worked for the Ad Council.

When she moved to Portland, she started by working for the Portland Chamber of Commerce, a job that wasn't quite the right fit. At that time, Oaks Park was in disrepair and was in need of some fresh ideas. The park, which opened in 1905 along with the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, had been run by the Bollinger family since the 1920s. Just as Coffey was getting fed up with her job at the chamber, Robert Bollinger made arrangements to have the park turned into a nonprofit. Former Oaks Park board member Bill Naito, who had worked with Coffey at the chamber, suggested she try working at the park for a few days a week.

'When I got here in 1985, it was rundown. The Bollingers saw it with their heart not their eyes,' she said. Things were still done the old-fashioned carny way. Security was run by the elderly Mr. Sweet, who had a uniform and rode around the park on a bike that had a traditional bell. The ride ops were all tough men. 'They had all of the old people working here still, so it had more of a carnival feel,' said Coffey, who still lives in Lake Oswego.

She started doing a lot of PR. 'My real job was to bring people back to the park,' she said. 'We had high school nights, church groups … I started putting picnics together.'

They developed a single logo, narrowed their ad placement, started event sponsorship, and co-oping ads with other businesses.

For a time, the park had an interim manager, Ron Burback (who now owns United Amusements, a traveling amusement ride company), so Coffey shifted over to the food stands (She claims she's only an amateur at corn dogs.)

Then she went out to the midway as a manager from 1986-1987 - a place women just didn't work, yet. She recalls crude comments from other ride ops: 'Ask the blonde with the big (bottom) if she wants to come up here.'

The park took another step forward in 1987, when a 20-year-plan was developed. Then in 1988, 'Joe Norling came on as CEO and president and said we're going to play by the rules now,' she said.

From then on, there were drug tests for employees and legitimate inspections of the rides; and, like the rest of the world, the park employees began to understand and work to change gender discrimination.

'Then I was just here long enough and had done enough,' said Coffey, who has been the senior manager for 15 years now. Her job description now includes hiring and firing, media relations, sponsorship ideas, litigation and customer complaints. 'But we still all try to take a turn at each job, so we remember what it's like,' she said. 'I'm a promotions manager until someone needs a corn dog made in the kitchen.'

* * *

Through all of her duties, Coffey has come to realize how important Oaks Park has been in people's lives throughout the years and how it will remain so. Though the park was run down when Coffey started and had lost touch with some metro-area residents, the park had many ready advocates in 1985.

The park has long played host to annual picnics for minority ethnic groups and industry unions. The Croatians were still meeting in 1985 when Coffey arrived, sticking with the park as the times changed. 'When life got more casual in the 50s and 60s, the park started changing. In the 70s, the park was depressed,' said Coffey.

But as the park worked to regain momentum, it was those original picnic groups that supported it. Maybe around 1990, 'we needed to re-brass the poles of the carousel, so I had an intern write a letter to the picnic groups to ask for donations,' said Coffey, thinking that she just gave the intern a two-month project. 'She was done in two days.'

'People really think of this park as their park,' she said.

* * *

She's also learned a lot about event planning over the years, and she recalls one - now laughable - event in the early 1990s. The idea: A dance for all the sailors from the Rose Festival's Fleet Week. The backdrop would be a starlit dance floor under the park's old oak trees. A nice summer breeze would come up from the river. It would have been very romantic. That is if Coffey and her team had remembered to invite women. Almost 900 sailors showed up and just sort of stood around until someone told them that they could leave if they wanted.

Since then Coffey has helped many other ideas come to fruition. Everything from Armed Forces Day to partnership programs with libraries encouraging kids to read.

* * *

Coffey has spent much of her career at Oaks Park trying to create an image of safe, wholesome, affordable family fun. The trick, she said, is in keeping the old charm of the 1920s park, while keeping it up-to-date and exciting. And people do like both. The favored ride for most people is still the bumper cars, she said.

Again Coffey must digress to a story: One day students from a blind school visited the park, and Coffey found them standing outside the bumper cars. 'I just knew they wanted to ride them,' she said. So, she called the maintenance guys and asked them if they thought there was anything they thought they could do. They sat on the back of the cars, allowing the kids to drive, and told them to go right or left. 'It was one of those serendipitous moments,' she said.

True to her original job description to keep people coming to the park, Coffey was there to help promote The Looping Thunder Roller Coaster when it opened in 1996. 'I went on it once so I didn't have to lie to the press,' she said. 'I'm not a big ride person, but I'll hold your coat and you can tell me how it went.'

And while answering questions for the press, Coffey is also taking customer complaints and reassuring moms. A sure sign that attitudes have changed over time: 'I had one mom call me about this ride,' Coffey gestured toward a kid ride featuring modules with mounted guns.

'How can you have guns in the park?' the mom said.

'They shoot moonbeams,' said Coffey.

'Oh, OK,' said the mom.

'That's called PR,' said Coffey (The ride is in fact called The Skyfighters).

* * *

It's pretty clear that Coffey's PR beginning is still much a part of her management style. All of the employees are important because all of them leave people with an impression of the park, she said. 'You can have a great PR product on paper, but if ride ops aren't walking the talk, no one cares,' she said.

Even custodial jobs should be highly valued. 'The number one complaint you get in the park is the bathrooms,' she said. 'The little things matter. A garbage job is an important role.'

It is part of the management philosophy of Oaks Park that all of the employees are partners or teammates. 'We know everyone by name; we know their families,' said Coffey. Often times employees come here from jobs that have left them disenfranchised, so the management works to make them feel like they are an important part of the team. Now that it's summer time, it isn't unusual to see children of employees at work with mom or dad.

'We're here on weekends and at night. We're like family,' said Coffey. 'It's the most unique place to work. There just wouldn't be a better job than this.'

Like it has for many in Portland, Oaks Park has really become a part of who Coffey is. 'I promised a close friend that I would spread their ashes at Oaks Park,' she said. 'But I don't think I'm quite that bad.'

Carnival Lingo

'I can call me a carny; you can't,' said Mary Beth Coffey, senior manager of Oaks Park explained. The term is seen as derogatory to people within the business, but is a commonly used nickname among peers.

Here are a few more industry words that are probably less familiar:

Puker - ride known to make riders sick

Dark ride - a dark, indoor fun house

Grab joint - food stand

Jip joint - by law, a game of skill (not chance)

Splinter heads - people who run jip joints

Donaker - restroom

Carousel - a children's ride featuring a variety of animals to ride

Merry-go-round - a children's ride featuring all horses to ride