Oakridge woman thrives on volunteering around town

OAKRIDGE — This story wasn't supposed to be about Vivian Erickson. And that would have been just fine with her.

This story was supposed to be about the fifth annual "Mardi Gras in Oakridge," two days of Cajun food, blues and swamp rock that ended Sept. 12 at Greenwaters Park. It was the sixth and final offering in the summer concert series, which featured country music, old-time radio and a micro brews and local wines festival.

But you can't talk about the Mardi Gras party or any of the other summer shows here without talking about Erickson. In the event posters around town, she's recognized as the "Proud Volunteer" who has organized the concert series for five years in this 3,700-strong community trying to shift from mill town to recreation destination.

Not one for the limelight, Erickson would be the first to tell you that she doesn't do it alone. But talk to just about anybody else, and you'll hear ample appreciation of Erickson and the energy she puts into Oakridge.

Especially given how sick she is.

Tina Layton, a local resident for more than 20 years, is among those who keep Erickson from doing much of the event's physical work.

"She came to us like a breath of fresh air," Layton said. "She's definitely in the middle of bringing some more life back. This town's shining again."

A California native, Erickson, 54, and her husband, Robert, were empty-nesters in Portland 10 years ago when she told him to find her something to do — maybe a small motel she could tinker with. He was a truck driver, and he found a motel for sale in Oakridge, which meant she had to find a map.

"He called me up and goes, 'I found a motel. It's in Oakridge.' I go, 'Where the hell is Oakridge?' "Erickson said, laughing.

The drab, 1950s-era Oakridge Motel looked like something out of the classic horror movie "Psycho." But Vivian and her husband set about converting it into a log cabin-esque enterprise with log cedar siding, methodically improving rooms that still had planks of original wood from local mills.

Erickson was a mother of seven, and that's all she ever thought she'd be. But she's always been outgoing, always up for throwing a party, and in Oakridge she found a town trying to recast itself as a recreation destination — a fun place to be.

She started serving on boards and committees, and soon the awards from civic groups started piling up: Business of the Year, Everyday Hero, Extraordinary Volunteer and, two years ago, Citizen of the Year.

When it comes to service, "I just do it," she said. "That's the way it's supposed to be. Everybody should be that way."

Erickson started organizing events and booking entertainers, making sure to cover every last detail so performers like blues singer Vicki Stevens had only to show up and start belting it out. Stevens said she quickly discovered that the mother of seven is commonly referred to as a mother of 3,700.

"Everybody loves her," Stevens said.

There are still plenty of empty buildings in Oakridge, still too few people and too few jobs, some say. But Layton believes that the town is getting stronger.

If only Erickson could say the same for herself.

She has battled breast cancer for at least nine years, and it has spread. She needed a golf cart to get around during the event and the soreness in her muscles and joints robbed her of the vivacious, flamboyant energy for which she is known.

But there was no stopping her.

"If I stop, it'll catch up with me," she said, laughing, as she searched for a tissue. "I have to keep doing stuff. As long as I keep doing good things for people, God's going to keep me here."

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