Creating a Legacy

Artist and SOU Alum Leaves Bequest to Schneider Museum of Art

It’s not an uncommon experience for alumni of SOU to name the community as one of the most enduring and impactful reasons they loved SOU. There’s just something special about the small campus in Ashland that draws people to this beautiful location where art, connection, community, and purpose all converge.

In fact, artist and former SOU student, Thomas Eldridge, is one of those people. His lifelong commitment to painting and art is a testament to the power of education and its influence. Thomas was instrumental in developing the Schneider Museum of Art and the arts complex at SOU, and to commemorate his love, he’s endowed a bequest to the Schneider Museum, with the hope that his contribution will continue to inspire student artists.  

Thomas Eldridge Painting SOU ALUM

Thomas Eldridge, Artist, SOU Alumnus ’84 & Benefactor

A Welcoming Small Campus Community  

In 1978, after a trip to Europe, Thomas Eldridge yearned to return to Ashland, a town he’d visited previously. Luckily, a friend recommended him for a guest house rental on the outskirts of town. He settled in and while working as a ski lift operator at Mt. Ashland his first winter, he also pursued his education at SOU. This move was a turning point in Thomas’ life, marked by a love for the community and a newfound academic focus at SOU.  

Thomas thrived in the small school atmosphere at SOU. Early on, he showed his artistic work to professors in the art department, and they responded well by offering a personalized approach to his arts education and development. He befriended professors even outside his major, including the registrar, Bob Davidson. Their shared passion for skiing created a strong friendship which allowed them to become search and rescue buddies.  

Thomas says, “I loved the community at SOU. I would work weekends as a ski lift operator and use the weekdays for school. Living far from campus, I would hitchhike to and from school. Back then, everyone knew everyone.”  

Equally as important, the close-knit environment at SOU allowed Thomas to connect with people across departments. He collaborated with Max McKee, the leader of the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, on a backdrop for a children’s play. The play, inspired by the Wizard of Oz, became a traveling exhibition that visited grade schools in the Rogue Valley and Northern California. Thomas also did graphic artwork for the music department. Thomas designed the poster for a Vincent Price lecture titled “Villains Still Pursue Me?” This lecture, which Thomas attended in 1983, covered the evolution of villains in film, from silent movies to Price’s own career. Back then, before computers and typesetting, posters were created with individual paste-on letters. 

During his time at SOU, Thomas was also a teaching assistant for Professor Lyle Matoush in the printmaking studio. Thomas, along with other students, helped to teach the printmaking class at one time. Thomas also enjoyed being part of the music scene at SOU. Despite not knowing how to play the string bass, he was recruited by Max McKee to join the orchestra. Max, confident in Thomas’s ability to learn quickly, promised Thomas would be playing a note on the first day, two notes on the second, and seven by the end of the week.  

SOU’s art scene, for me, was never just about what I got out of it. It was bigger than that. The whole complex, the museum – that was a community effort, a dream a lot of people had. It wasn’t about me using it, it was about making something special for everyone.” 

— THOMAS ELDRIDGE, Artist, SOU Alumnus ’84 & Benefactor

Becoming an Artist at SOU & Finding Community  

Thomas began working as an assistant director for the SOU Student Art Gallery under his friend Dave Whitehurst while also pursuing his undergraduate degree. After Dave graduated, Thomas took over the role. Recognizing the growing public interest in the upcoming Schneider Museum, which had not yet opened, Thomas aimed to elevate the gallery’s offerings to reflect the regional art scene.  

During his two years there, Thomas collaborated with various individuals. He worked closely with an English professor, Ed Versluis, to organize a major exhibition – a showcase of M.C. Escher’s work. This exhibit, sourced from the Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco, proved highly successful. The exhibition broke attendance records, drawing over 6,000 visitors from the entire Northwest region.  

Beyond exhibitions, Thomas also implemented changes related to the gallery’s operations. He introduced a 20% commission system for artists selling their work, aiming to generate revenue and potentially fund future museum endeavors. Additionally, Thomas oversaw the remodeling of the Stephenson Union Gallery. This involved closing off the open balcony that previously allowed noise from downstairs to disrupt the gallery space. Through fundraising efforts, Thomas secured the resources necessary for this renovation.  

Thomas’s involvement with the SOU art scene went beyond the gallery. He collaborated with Lars Svensgaard along with Gina Ing on KSOR radio to promote the gallery through interviews. As the museum project gained momentum, Thomas’s painting professor, Bob Alston, and his friend Judy Howard Hanson nominated him as the student representative on the Schneider committee. 

The Schneider Museum

Thomas played a role in various aspects of the museum’s development. He participated in both the planning and acquisitions committees, with the latter allowing him to contribute to selecting artwork for the new museum. He even had a say in choosing the museum’s architect. While Thomas graduated before the museum’s completion, he takes pride in having been a part of the process that created a valuable resource for current students.  

Further, his connection to the Schneiders, the museum’s benefactors, further deepened his involvement. He became friends with them and even assisted at some of their events. This connection also opened doors for promoting the upcoming museum through exhibitions at the Stephenson Union Gallery. These exhibitions, like the M.C. Escher show, often included fundraising efforts through merchandise sales. Thomas also played a key role in organizing a show featuring a renowned watercolorist discovered by Sylvan Simone, a L.A. Art Dealer, who later retired in Ashland. The artist, Jerald Silva from Sacramento, CA, created life-size watercolors that Thomas was proud to showcase.  

Most importantly, Thomas says, “The Schneiders were particularly good to me. They not only saw my hard work beyond the classroom, but I was also the very first recipient of their merit award. SOU instilled a love for learning and a desire to contribute, even if it started with just a dollar. And here I am, almost 70 years old, still making art and feeling grateful for the impact SOU had on me.” Thomas graduated with a BFA in Art in 1984.  

While putting together their trust, Thomas and his wife, Denise, faced a challenge. He had a daughter from a previous relationship and three grandsons, while they had no children together. They wanted to be fair to both his daughter and his wife, Denise. The solution they came to was to divide their assets strategically. They allocated a specific amount to his daughter and grandsons. The remaining majority of their estate, primarily the value of their house, would be donated to various charities. They each chose two charities they cared about, and the Schneider Museum was one of four they decided on.