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Longtime Gresham volunteer, thrill-seeker, to celebrate 90th

by: Contributed photo, Arlie Harris celebrates turning 87 by going skydiving.

Arlie Harris wanted to go tobogganing on Mount Hood for her 90th birthday but the folks in charge of downhill thrills said their insurance wouldn't tolerate the notion of nonagenarians hurtling down slope.

Harris, a longtime Gresham resident now living in a senior home in Oregon City, is still wondering how to mark her 90th year. On her 87th, she went skydiving. On her 89th, she rode a hot-air balloon. Bungee jumping is probably out on account of bone density issues.

But there will be a party. Harris will be feted at an open house beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 11, at Berry Park Retirement Community, 13669 S. Gaffney Lane, in Oregon City. Friends and former associates from her many volunteer jobs in the area are invited to attend so long as they don't bring presents.

Harris, born March 9, 1917, in Goldendale, Wash., has never been big on possessions. Instead, she has collected a lifetime of experiences, crafting them into sly and funny stories. Her narratives are peppered with tales from the years she was an interview specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau in remote stretches of the Western states. 'I knocked on the door once and a man answered stark naked,' she will say, just for openers.

But her best tale, told without remorse, involves the time in the early 1960s when she and a group of indignant wives burned down a house of ill repute in the Columbia River Gorge near The Dalles. Irritated by the unsavory commerce that took place there, Harris and her allies gave its occupants fair warning to evacuate and then lit the fire.

'It didn't do a lot of good,' she admits. 'The girls just moved across the road.'

Harris grew up in the Columbia River Gorge in Home Valley, Wash., one of two girls in a tiny school with a total student body of seven kids.

One of her favorite recollections about the East Wind is of riding west around Wind Mountain with her mother at the wheel of a Model T Ford. 'We'd just round the edge of the mountain and there was the wind and it would just stop that car. Mother would wait for the wind to let up a bit, and then she'd give it the gas and we'd drive around the mountain.'

Arlie was a country kid raised by her mother, Eva, and stepfather, Fred Groshong. She went to high school in Woodland, Wash., and at 18 'knowing nothing about nothing' was in Portland going to beauty school. She had a friend who worked part-time in a tavern, and Arlie helped her when she was sick.

'I'd never even seen a man drunk,' she remembers now of her initiation into Portland's nightlife. But she met Cliff Harris, 20 years her senior, and they were married in two months.

She and Cliff came to Gresham in 1946 to watch the community grow from a city of 3,000 into the state's fourth-largest city. Her late husband was from a longtime Gresham family. She took his history, as well as her own experiences growing up on a primitive farm, using them to embellish programs for local school children for the Gresham Historical Society.

In retirement she cared for her mother, who died just five months shy of her 90th birthday, and offered her people-savvy skills as a volunteer at the Gresham Salvation Army, Gresham Loaves and Fishes, Gresham Church of Christ and Gresham Garden Club, as well as the historical society.

'I was kind of a professional volunteer,' Harris says. She moved from Gresham five years ago to the Oregon City retirement community, which she describes 'as the hugging-est place' she's ever seen.

Her friends, Tim and Christie Jackson of Tigard, are hosting the party and investigating adventures to mark Harris' 90th.

'I'm thinking of inner-tubing,' Harris says. 'That's something I haven't done yet.'

The Berry Park Retirement Community is off Exit 10 at Interstate 205, four miles south on Highway 213, right on Molalla Avenue and left on Gaffney Lane. For more information, call 503-656-7614.