Eric Niemann picking up trash along highway
Eric Niemann picks up trash along the highway near Newton Street in the vicinity where Bob Ozretich was killed in 2018. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath is a city of volunteers and people always look for ways to serve others.

Reuben Shipley, a former slave, helped his owner move 2,000 miles across the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon in 1853 in exchange for his freedom. Shipley would also pay for the freedom of his future wife, Mary Jane Holmes.

Reuben would go on to become a successful landowner and on May 11, 1861, he donated 2 acres of his farm to establish Mount Union Cemetery on the condition that Black people could be buried there. The Civil War started a month later. Philomath was incorporated 20 years after that. Reuben’s courageous actions served others.

Another notable volunteer that we should all take a moment to remember is an unsung hero named Dr. Robert “Bob” Ozretich. Bob attended the University of Washington where he received his doctorate degree in oceanography. Bob was a dedicated volunteer with the Corvallis/Albany National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  

Bob used to travel on Highway 20 to get to Newport daily for almost 20 years where he worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Bob was passionate about a lot of environmental causes and organized members of his church to adopt Philomath Boulevard through the Oregon Department of Transportation Litter Program.

Bob Ozretich was killed on Jan. 13, 2018, during a trash pick-up along the highway near Newton Street. He was the victim of a hit-and-run accident by a motorist who was under the influence of methamphetamine. Bob died serving others.

On Feb. 1, 1968, Mr. Echol Cole and Mr. Robert Walker, two sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck as they attempted to seek shelter from the pouring down rain. Days later, 1,300 Black employees from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike for better wages.

Dr. Martin Luther King, a famous Civil Rights activist, traveled to Memphis in April 1968 and spoke to the striking workers in what would be the final speech of his life. An excerpt of the end of that speech:

“Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.”

The following day, Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated by a sniper bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. He died serving others. 

Dr. King shared that: “Life’s most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”  2020 has been a year of civil unrest not unlike 1861 or 1968. Let’s cherish the legacy of Reuben Shipley, Dr. Robert Ozretich and Dr. Martin Luther King whose lives serve as shining examples for the rest of us.

I challenge each of you, in honor of MLK’s Birthday this month to do something to serve others. Make it a day on, not a day off. You don’t have to be a martyr doing it, just do something simple. Stay safe.

MLK said, “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

(Eric Niemann is a former mayor and city councilor in Philomath. He can be reached at