End of an era: The fate of the field station plates

Decades long tradition comes to close, but spirit of project lives on.

For decades, Seattle Pacific University students who made the trek to Blakely Island were met at the end of their trip by a red plate. Every class that made their way to the field station in a given year would come up with a slogan and sign that year’s plate. Now that Blakely Island is under new caretakers, that tradition has ended. But the spirit of the project lives on, in the memories of the people who created it and in the minds of the new caretakers.

Cindy Hubbert worked as the caretaker for the Blakely Island Field Station for 22 years alongside her husband Leroy, and it was them that brought the tradition to Blakely. However, it was not something they came up with themselves. In fact, it was something they experienced before they even came to SPU.

“We used to live in a town in South Carolina. My brother-in-law and his wife lived there and we became acquainted with good friends of theirs. We were invited to dinner one evening and our hosts had a red plate placed under another plate at the dinner table.  The person who sat at that place setting was asked to sign the plate. It was their way of showing them, over time, who all had come to their home! I always thought that was a great way to remember,” Hubbert said.

The red plate from 2001 (Courtesy of Peg Achterman).

It was that memory which inspired the Hubberts to implement a similar practice on Blakely.

“When we were hired to work at the field station, I thought about that special plate, for those who had visited our friends home, and wondered how that might work at our ‘home’ on the island. I, unfortunately, didn’t think about it quick enough, that first year we were there, to get one.  But every year after that I made sure I had a special red plate for each group to think of something to say and have a classmate write it on the plate,” Hubbert said.

Once students found out about the tradition, demand spread quickly.

The red plate from 2004 with class slogans (Courtesy of Peg Achterman).

“It got to where I was asked, at the end of every group, if they would get to sign the red plate.  It was always a lot of fun to see what each group would say,” Hubbert said.

Given the special place that the plates held for Hubbert and the fact that she and her husband started the tradition, when they retired in 2022, Hubbert recalled a choice she had to make.

“When we were retiring, I was asked if I wanted to take the plates with me. I had thought it would be fun to have them and remember what each group wrote over the years, but it just did not seem right to take them from the field station,” she said.

And so, the plates remained at the Blakely Island field station. But once the new caretakers arrived, it became clear that the tradition would have to come to an end.

Brian Rodda and his wife Deb arrived as the new caretakers in 2022, but by the time they got to the field station, there were no more blank plates. Soon after, a surprise visit from the fire marshal spelled the end of the tradition.

“I talked to the previous caretakers and the story goes that when they started the tradition they brought up a large heavy glass case from the lab, put it along the wall, and put all the plates in there. But, as it turns out, the case blocked the light switch and part of the door and the fire marshall said we had to move it,” Rodda said.

Once they realized the safety concern, the they were faced with a difficult decision, Rodda recalled.

“What are we gonna do with all these plates? How are we gonna find a place to store them that’s safe? So we decided that maybe we wouldn’t continue the tradition. But that’s hard because you feel bad. We don’t want to let anybody down,” Rodda said.

Various plates from over the years next to the container in which they are stored (Courtesy of Peg Achterman).

Currently, according to Rodda, the plates are all stored in a plastic container in the storage room of the dormitory. Regarding this storage method, Rodda noted that as new caretakers, they have a lot on their plates already.

“It would be nice to display the plates in the lab, but there are other projects that require our attention first,” Rodda said.

The Blakely Island guestbooks (Helen Petersen).

However, not everything from the old days of the field station has gone away. Amid the towering shelves of books in the dining pavilion, placed on side tables beside plushy seats are the Blakely Island guestbooks. Dating back to 1992, these books have seen many groups come and go. However, the most recent signature was from last April, so there’s potential for a revival yet.

“We love the old guest books but it doesn’t seem to resonate with this generation of students, so we haven’t purchased a new one. We’re totally open to buying a new one  and see who fills it out this summer,” Rodda said.