When freshman John Lester takes a stroll across the campus of Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., he may want to stop for a moment at the flagpole. He may even want to salute. Although there’s no plaque to honor what happened there, John’s unusual connection with the flagpole is the reason he’s on campus this fall.
Twenty years ago last May, John’s mother, Phyllis, now 46, went into labor under the flagpole and gave birth to her son minutes later in a nearby classroom building. To honor a promise made by the school’s late president, Robert Hammill, college authorities have awarded John a one-semester scholarship to Lane. “It’s a dream come true,” says John, with a grin, of his belated birthday present. “Birth is always something of an accident, but I’m sure lucky it happened there.”
Lester’s windfall, worth around $1,100, came about because Lane, looking for ways to publicize its 25th anniversary, started a search this fall for the mystery baby born on campus 20 years earlier. A friend of John’s, who knew the circumstances of his birth, read about the college’s search in a local newspaper and tipped him off. For Lester, who graduated from high school in June and didn’t have enough money to go to college, the timing couldn’t have been better. (Next semester, he will receive a federal grant to continue his studies.)
Lester’s identity had remained a mystery because his mother chose to remain anonymous at the time of her son’s birth. It was a difficult period for Phyllis, then a secretarial student at Lane. Her husband had deserted her and their 5-year-old daughter, Lisa, a few months earlier. (They later divorced.) At 275 lbs. she was also grossly overweight and, amazingly, unaware of her pregnancy. After classes on May 6,1969, she went into labor under the flagpole. A stranger ran for help into the nearest building, which happened to house the department of nursing. While nursing instructor Arlene Underhill searched for sterile equipment and called the local hospital for an ambulance, her students wheeled Phyllis into the makeshift maternity ward. A registered nurse, Underhill had never delivered a baby. “I heard that ambulance screaming over the hill and I thought, ‘Oh, good. At least the ambulance drivers can deliver her.’ ” Wrong. One knew nothing, and the other turned pasty white and began to tremble. Underhill did the honors.
Last week Phyllis, John and Underhill, now 67 and retired, and a supporting cast who helped out at the birth, got together for a reunion at the college. Phyllis, for one, is thrilled that a member of the family is back at her alma mater. “I told John the other day, ‘Well, son, I may not have been able to do much else for you, but I guess I did one thing right.’ ”