Community

Springfield philanthropists to retire to Portugal

MOVING FORWARD / PAYING IT FORWARD


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Viagem segura, Nancie & Mark
Nancie Koerber and husband Mark Thomas are headed to Portugal for retirement, leaving behind a legacy of good deeds for the community. From nonprofit work, to running a local inn, Koerber has made a lasting impact on Springfield. “She is an integral part of the community … I love her attitude. She says ‘strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet.’ She has a great way of looking at the world,” said friend Deborah Saunders, who is the executive director for Center for Community Counseling.

SPRINGFIELD – Longtime Springfield residents Nancie Koerber and husband Mark Thomas will be moving across the pond to the Silver Coast of Portugal, but what they are leaving behind is quite the legacy.

Koerber and Thomas are perhaps most well-known in the community for being the owners of the Pony House Inn, with the beautifully landscaped yard on the corner of C and 6th streets in the Washburne District of Springfield. 

Koerber grew up in the rural areas of Yreka, Calif. Her mother was a school teacher and her father was a real estate developer in Southern California. Koerber’s grandfather on her mother’s side, who she lived with part of the time, would flip houses. From age three, Koerber was his assistant; her first job was pulling nails out of boards for pennies, Koerber said. 

In her adolescent years, Koerber was houseless and had to find her own way through school. There was no secondary school in the rural area where they lived, so Koerber traveled to Yreka by herself and attended high school there.

Koerber graduated with her business degree from Sacramento State University in 1972 and then moved to Seattle where she worked for Tom Hopkins doing consulting in sales and marketing. After vacationing to Hawaii for a year, she moved back to California and continued to work as a consultant. She met Thomas in San Diego while he was working for NCR corporations, a software company that Koerber was consulting for. 

After they married, they moved back up to Medford, Ore. so they could take care of elderly family members. 

Thomas is from Drain, Ore.; His family belongs to the Applegate family, a set of three brothers who brought the first wagon train across America and they settled in Drain and Yoncalla. Koerber likes to joke that she “met a local boy to bring him back home.”

During their time in Medford, Thomas and Koerber started a nonprofit following the recession of 2008 called “Project Economy,” designed to educate people about the crash and how to save their homes. 

Koerber had also been a realtor for many years and noticed that many foreclosures in Oregon were going against state statutes. People were losing everything, Koerber said.

“When your life doesn’t work and everything’s falling apart, you go pay it forward. We didn’t know what we’re going to do either … my attitude is if we weren’t going to make money, we’re going to make a difference,” Koerber said. Over seven years, Koerber and Thomas saved thousands of homes in Oregon.

After living in the Medford area for 23 years, with the little cash they had, Koerber and Thomas moved to Springfield and purchased the Pony House Inn, starting at rock bottom, literally. The property was a condemned scrap metal yard with growing blackberry bushes, ivy and weeds. 

They started under the ground, rebuilding every pillar and post, leveling it and then building it up from there. 


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Nancie Koerber working on the renovations of the soon-to-be Pony House Inn after purchasing the property in 2014.

Koerber spent the first six months digging metal out of the ground and making piles in the driveway. Slowly but surely, she was turning it into an oasis.

 “I started gardening so people could see that we were gonna make something out of it,” Koerber said. Her love of gardening came from her maternal grandmother, who gardened through The Great Depression. While her grandmother mostly did it to survive, Koerber did it for the reward. “The tomatoes you grow are the most expensive tomatoes you’ll ever eat,” Koerber said. “It’s not about saving money like it was for Grandma. It was about just having a connection to things that grow.” 

Koerber and Thomas were strapped for cash upon renovating, but Koerber made what little they had go far. As realtor, she sold a house here and there to make just enough for the next renovation. When word got out that they needed help, the people whose homes they saved through her nonprofit were the first to sign up. 

Koerber and Thomas had enough help to have plumbing, heat pumps, painting, and sheetrock done at wholesale cost, purely by generosity. Miraculously, people kept showing up to help, Koerber said. Koerber even had her help teach them and some volunteers how to paint and lay sheetrock. 

Neighbor Patty Sage was excited about the renovations. “It was a real neighborhood eyesore. I was really excited to see these people working on it,” Sage said. In the beginning stages, Sage brought Koerber a housewarming gift and the two became instant friends. 

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All of Koerber and Thomas’ labor surely paid off. Above, the Pony House Inn at the intersection of 6th and C streets is now anything but an eyesore.

Soon, they came up with the idea of a plant exchange. In the spring of 2016, Koerber and Sage founded Washburne Annual Plant Exchange, running it out of the Pony House Inn.

Gardeners regularly thin out their gardens to prevent overgrowth, leaving a ton of leftover remnants and starts of a variety of plants to give away. The exchange was a hit, with Koerber and Sage moving as much as 8,000 plants each year.

”Gardeners don’t like to throw good plants out. We just started seeing the neighborhood clean up and the exchange was blooming,” Koerber said.

When participants started asking if they could donate, Koerber decided to give all proceeds to Ann’s Heart, a women’s shelter working to help homeless women find housing. Ann’s Heart was founded by Rev. June Fothergill of Ebbert United Methodist Church, who recently retired.

By the third year of the plant exchange, they were receiving up to $3,000 of donations, all of which were funneled back into the community. 

The Pony House Inn itself was also gaining popularity. A four-bedroom, four-and-a-half bath Victorian home on a corner lot with a wrap-around porch and tons of character made guests feel at home. Deborah Saunders, executive director for Center for Community Counseling, lives in Portland and used to stay at the Pony House Inn two or three times a month while working in Eugene. “I really did look at it as my home away from home. I brought my dog and cat upstairs to the room that we typically had. It was just a really nice place,” said Saunders. Koerber and Saunders have become friends, so much so that Saunders is planning to visit Koerber and Thomas in Portugal next year.

In order to retire comfortably, Koerber and Thomas are moving to the Silver Coast of Portugal to a city called Caldas Da Rainha – which means “bath of the queen,” referring to the healing mineral baths discovered by Queen Leonor in the 1400s.

Koerber fell in love with the history and the quality of life it provides. They wanted to retire in a place that was safe with low crime, affordable living, and high-quality health care. Portugal was the only place that crossed everything off their list. 

Koerber and Thomas are packing very lightly with only six duffel bags, three guitars, one carry-on, two boxes and three pets to start their new life in Portugal. While in Portugal, Koerber and Thomas plan to volunteer, ride bikes around the city and play music together – their favorite hobbies. 


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All the belongings Koerber and Thomas are taking over seas. As Nancie writes on her blog, she had to ask herself, “‘Are we human ownings instead of human beings? Does our stuff own us or do we own it?’ We need to let go of the old and make room for the new and in that process of letting go our emotions can take over. This process of letting go of most of our stuff really drove home our relationship with it. We realized our two small dogs ‘Ginger and Ruby’ and cat ‘Bob’ own us and thus were not an option to leave behind.”

Koerber plays eight instruments – flute being her favorite –  while Thomas plays the guitar. The two play Irish music together and have a whole set of castle music that they’re going to play at the castle five miles away from their new home. 

During a visit in May, Koerber was invited to organize live music at the 365-day-a-year farmers’ market in the center of the city. 

“I don’t think there’s going to be a shortage of things to do but I’m not going to tell them what we need to do. I’m going to listen. I’m going to ask myself what time and talents and treasures do I have that would serve and take this community the next step that it wants,” Koerber said. 

Koerber and Thomas plan to take Portuguese classes this fall, which will be Koerber’s fifth language. “I’ve always been a compulsive overachiever. It’s a flaw and my husband says you will be settling that down in retirement,” Koerber admits. 

Sage can also speak to the couple’s dynamic. “Nancie is a powerhouse. She builds community. When she gets an idea in her head, she’s like a dog to a bone,” Sage said. “Mark is the silent strength behind everything she does. He helps her do everything.” 

To add to the couple’s list of good deeds, for over 30 years, Koerber and Thomas have hosted hundreds of exchange students from all over the world. They still keep in touch with many of them, all of whom call themselves “Nancie and Mark’s Kids,” which is the name of their Facebook group. Because of Koerber’s and Thomas’ relationship with all the kids they have hosted and knowing how it transformed their lives, Koerber wants to start a program hosting students in Portugal. 

The program would provide affordable travel to students to Portugal for nine days. Koerber would bring about 30 students at a time, tell them stories, teach them music, history and show them around. Her position would be 100% volunteer-based and all profits would be put back into the Springfield community — a sort of “sister community,” as she called it. 

“I have loved it here, and it’s really bittersweet leaving,” Koerber said of Springfield. “The really sweet part is I’m leaving with great memories of wonderful people and of good things that I was involved in, but the bitter part is, it’s hard to leave a place you love.”

Koerber was an integral piece to the flourishing of the Springfield community in the last decade. She was a board member of the Springfield Chamber, Ann’s Heart, Washburne Neighborhood Association Board, Richard E. Wildish Community Theater, Springfield Renaissance Development Corp (SRDC) and volunteered at countless organizations. 

“Nancie was a dynamic leader in Springfield, sharing insights with others and encouraging others to join her in making Springfield a better place. She will be missed,” said Mike Eyster, SRDC president. 

Keep up with the adventure …

If you would like to follow Nancie on her new adventure, named after her favorite sock monkey, Miss Grape E. Good, follow her blog at www.itsgrapeegood.com. If you are interested in getting involved with her new program, email [email protected]