Controversy has bubbled up at a small high school in Eastern Oregon after a volunteer track coach was let go because she took a 17-year-old boy to his prom in April.
Melissa Bowerman, 41, who had been coaching the Condon/Wheeler track and field team with her 73-year-old husband, Jon Bowerman, was ousted this month in a phone call from school officials. Jon Bowerman is the son of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman.
“We started an investigation that led to us asking her to un-volunteer,” Condon Superintendent Jan Zarate said.
But many in the community disagree with the decision and are lobbying the superintendent and school board on Bowerman’s behalf.
Melissa Bowerman said she went to the Condon High School prom with one of the track athletes because the boy felt bad about not having a date and had been struggling in English class.
“If they go on (academic) probation and suspension, then they can’t go to the track meets,” said Melissa Bowerman, who also has a son on the track team. “I said, ‘OK, I will go with you, but we’ve got to talk about English first. You’re going to do better in English.”
Melissa Bowerman says attending the prom was an error in judgment, but she maintains she did not have an inappropriate relationship with the teen. She said the two danced to a few slow songs but mostly played ping pong and foosball at the prom, the East Oregonian newspaper of Pendleton reported.
Gilliam County Sheriff Gary Bettencourt, who received a complaint from a chaperone, said he has found no evidence that Melissa Bowerman broke the law.
The boy’s father, meanwhile, said he gave Melissa Bowerman permission to take his son to the dance.
“The first thing I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t a good idea.’ But Melissa has been like a surrogate mom to these kids for years,” Bob Thomas said.
Bettencourt told the East Oregonian that he interviewed the Bowermans, the boy that Melissa Bowerman took to the prom, as well as other track athletes, parents and chaperones.
“Everybody’s opinion is that what she did was inappropriate and she had poor judgment,” Bettencourt said. “However, she hasn’t done anything criminal … There isn’t anybody here that thought there was anything going on more than a coach wanting to help one of her athletes do better in school. This is a deal about getting a better English grade so he can participate in track.”
Some parents, student athletes and community members spoke to the school board about the Bowermans’ character and value to the community earlier this month and have asked the board to reverse the decision to dismiss Melissa as coach.
Melissa Bowerman’s late father-in-law is well-known among Oregon sports fans. Besides co-founding Nike with Phil Knight, Bill Bowerman coached track at the University of Oregon from 1949 to 1972, winning four national titles. His relationship with track great Steve Prefontaine has been featured in two films.
In just four years under Melissa and Jon Bowerman, the Condon/Wheeler track and field program has grown from six athletes to more than 30. The girls’ team won its first state title on Saturday.
Jon Bowerman said he might resign because of the situation, and possibly sell his family’s ranch near the school.
“The only thing we’ve done wrong is build them a new track and get uniforms and build them a powerhouse program,” he said. “If she doesn’t come back, I’m not coming back.”