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Honoring a local hero

by: Derrel Hewett, Jonah Nickerson addresses a hometown crowd.

OREGON CITY - Oregon City's Jonah Nickerson learned first hand last Friday that the citizentry of Oregon City does indeed view him as their hometown hero.

Citizens turned out in force Friday at noon in a rally for Nickerson, celebrating his role in bringing Oregon State University's baseball team a national title, and his being honored as the 2006 College Baseball World Series Most Outstanding Player. From government officials, youth baseball and softball players, Beaver fans, former coaches and teachers, and family, a crowd of several hundred people was there to greet Nickerson, as he arrived at the rally by police and fired department escort.

Young ball players serenaded Nickerson with a rousing chorus of 'Take me out to the ball game' upon his arrival at Danielson's for the rally.

Mayor Alice Norris honored the 2003 Oregon City High School graduate with the keys to the city and proclaimed July 7 as Jonah Nickerson Day, urging all citizens to wear baseball caps for the day in honor of their 'hometown hero.'

'People ask me, 'What does [the key to the city] open?,'' said Norris. 'It's the key to the hearts of the citizens of Oregon City.'

Norris said that it's only the 15th time that the city of Oregon City has honored an individual with the keys to the city, and 'to the best of my knowledge, it's the first time a local resident has been so honored.'

Norris said that senator Mark Hatfield, vice-president George Bush and the 1982 Miss America were among only 14 others who have received the honor.

Nickerson received letters of congratulation from U.S. Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Darlene Hooley.

Blumenauer's letter read: 'As an Oregonian and a baseball fan, I am writing to congratulate you and Oregon State University on a fantastic season, culminating in a National Title.

'Your outstanding performance in Game 3 of the Championship Series and three starts in eight days make you well deserving of the most outstanding player award.

'You and your team displayed great heart throughout the College World Series. I was astonished by the poise you showed in winning six elimination games, and rallying from a five-run deficit in game two.

'I have no doubt you will go on to great things in baseball and beyond. I wish you the best in the [Detroit] Tigers' organization and once again congratulate you on bringing a national title to Oregon.'

J.J. Winkle, who coached Nickerson at Oregon City High School, said, 'Wow! What a fantastic performance! But it was no surprise to me. He's been performing like that since sixth grade.'

Winkle told of a conversation with his former player the morning of the national championship game: 'I was a lot more nervous than he was. I told Jonah he was pitching for the national championship and he said, 'Don't worry coach. It's just another ball game.''

Longtime Oregon City coach and educator Ed Burton remarked: 'What an outstanding role model. Jonah was an outstanding student and a good citizen in high school, and he hasn't changed.'

Long on appreciation but short on words, Nickerson told the gathering: 'I just want to say what an honor it is to be here today. Without you guys, none of this would be possible. I talked to J.J. on the phone every day and he said the people back here were going crazy. I just want to let you know the support meant a lot to us. I'm proud to be an Oregon City native.'

Nickerson then spent the next hour and a half signing autographs for hundreds of fans.

And those gathered couldn't have been more proud of their hometown hero.

'I just think it's really cool he would come to his hometown and sign autographs,' said Colleen Crutchfield, 10.

'It means a lot to me [to get Nickerson's autograph],' said Gage Engel, 11. 'He's one of the Tigers, a high-level team. He really deserves it. He pitched his heart out. He deserves the best. I'm really proud of him.'

'It's awesome!' said 5-year-old Carter Bell, who will start kindergarten at Beavercreek Elementary School next fall.

Carter said he plans to begin playing baseball with his dad, Oregon City High School teacher/coach Mark Bell.

Dylan Phillips, 13, showed up on crutches and had Nickerson sign his cast.

'I think he's a very, very good baseball player,' said Phillips. 'He's accomplished something I'll probably never do, but it's something I would like to do.'

Phillips added: 'It's pretty cool [getting his autograph]. It's awesome - seeing him on TV and then seeing him in real life. It's pretty cool.'

Dylan Foley, who is playing for Oregon City's American Legion team this summer, was there to collect an autograph on his own home run baseball from a Legion baseball game he played in on July 6.

Foley recalled an encounter with Nickerson, Nickerson's high school teammate Jake Bishop and Bishop's sister Brittany when Foley was just 11 years of age. Foley was down in the dumps after breaking his leg on the second day of his summer baseball season. He was lying on the couch when the doorbell rang.

'They brought cookies and a baseball signed by the whole varsity baseball team, Foley recalled. 'They stayed and talked with me for 30 minutes. It really lifted my spirits.'

Norma Barney, a retired Beavercreek Elementary teacher who had Nickerson as a student in kindergarten through the second grade, was on hand for the rally.

'He was a very, very quiet little boy,' Barney recalled. 'But he listened very attentively.'

Barney added: 'I'm thrilled to death [with Jonah's success]. We watched him last year and took pictures off the TV, and we did the same this year.'

Helen Kelley, who taught Nickerson at Oregon City High School, recalled: 'As a student, he was average to above average. He tried to do as well as he could, but his heart was in baseball….

'Watching him play for Oregon State University, he makes a great role model. On TV, they were constantly talking about his work ethic. You'd hear how he did his homework and studied his batters. He's the epitome of if you work as hard as you possibly can, you can make it happen.'

Leslie Wood, Nickerson's PE teacher in his junior and senior years at Oregon City, said: 'He was a great role model. He was far better than anyone else in class, but he encouraged teamwork and he was always helping out his younger classmates. He had a real quiet demeanor, but he always gave 110 percent. He was a gentleman. He was always real respectful of me and of his classmates.'

'We need more role models like Jonah,' said Greg Lord, who worked with Nickerson at camps when Nickerson was a youth. 'He was a good person all the way through school, and he's a good person today. Nothing's changed.'

Lord added, 'If he can stay injury-free, he'll make it [as a professional baseball player]. He has a passion and a hunger in his belly to do it right.'

Denise Harp, Jonah's mother, commented: 'I just know how hard he's worked for this, and I couldn't be more proud or more excited for him. It couldn't have happened to a nicer kid.

'But, you know what? If he didn't throw another baseball, it would be okay with me, because he's such a great person. I'm so excited for him. It's something he's worked for all his life.'