Working For a Bright Future
World-Traveler Brings His Talents to The Dalles
By Rodger Nichols
Matthew Klebes was hired as city manager of The Dalles last year. At 36, he was the youngest person to hold the office since the city was founded in 1857. He brings a wealth of experience to the job, including having seen a good part of the world.
“My family and I are travelers,” Matthew says. “My mom started her career as a nurse, and my dad was a lab tech. They were with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and I was born in Farmington, New Mexico, right near Shiprock.”
The Klebes’ career paths took them to Alaska, South Carolina, New Hampshire and the island of Saipan near Guam.
“Guam, Saipan and Tinian islands played a big part in World War II,” Matthew says. “There were pillboxes and remnants of the battles that were fought there, and it really fostered my fascination and passion for World War II history.
I didn’t really watch cartoons growing up. I watched The History Channel.”
After a few years in Saipan, the family moved back to New Hampshire, where they still reside.
Matthew attended school in Maine, where he earned an undergraduate degree in political science. He worked for a little more than a year for U.S. Senator Susan Collins, and ultimately returned to the University of Southern Maine to get a degree in public policy and management.
Matthew describes the time as a bit of a roller coaster of a journey. After he got his degree, he was no longer on his parents’ insurance. In those pre-Affordable Care Act days, he was uninsured.
“I had 3 seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 21,” he says. “I had to quit the senator’s office because it was a minimum wage entry-level job that didn’t provide healthcare. I took a job at a medical clinic and a call center because after I worked there for 6 to 12 months, they would provide coverage for my preexisting condition.”
The Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. It mandates that health insurance companies can’t refuse to cover someone or charge them more due to a preexisting condition.
“This is very important to me because of my personal experience with it,” Matthew says. “I have to take medication every night, but without insurance, it’s $600 to $800 a month. It’s pretty brutal.”
Once his epilepsy was covered by medical insurance and his dosage dialed in, Matthew went back to graduate school but kept working to maintain the coverage. He worked at the call center from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., then went to school until 9 p.m.
“It was a very long day, but I did get the graduate degree, and the medical clinic actually helped pay for some of the education,” he says.
After graduation, he and his wife, Krystal, joined the Peace Corps for a 27-month service in the Philippines. They ended up in Puerto Princesa City, the largest city on the island of Palawan.
“My wife was teaching English at the local university,” Matthew says. “I was working for the city to develop a youth rehabilitation center for young adults between 15 and 21 who have committed a serious crime.
“Without this center, the court system had 2 options: Either send them to an adult prison or release them back into the community where they committed the crime under a diversion program.”
Matthew says he found the project rewarding as he worked alongside passionate and welcoming Filipinos. He also picked up the local language.
“I still know quite a bit of Tagalog today,” he says. “Last weekend, there was a Filipino food cart at the farmers market. It was just a blast to walk up and speak to them in their native Tagalog language.”
When Matthew and Krystal returned to the United States, he joined AmeriCorps’ unique Oregon program, Resource Assistance for Rural Environments. The program builds the capacity of rural communities to improve their economic, social and environmental conditions through the assistance of trained graduate-level members who live and work in communities for 11 months.
“I came out and interviewed in Seaside, The Dalles, Pendleton and La Grande,” Matthew says. “The Dalles was my top choice.”
While Krystal stayed in New Hampshire, Matthew drove his pickup truck across the country to The Dalles.
“Even then, housing was a challenge,” he says. “I couldn’t find a place before I drove cross country, and I had to camp at Memaloose Park for 10 days before I could find a place to rent.”
Krystal ultimately joined him to teach science at The Dalles High School while Matthew worked to establish the Main Street program in The Dalles.
“My desk at the time was in the Chamber of Commerce,” he says. “I worked closely with Chamber President and CEO Lisa Farquharson. We and the Main Street Board and volunteers ultimately grew the organization to a point that it had its own office and was looking to hire its 1st executive director.
“That person ended up being me. We worked on a lot of different projects, including holiday lighting to really light up the downtown during the darker months.”
To help raise money, Matthew developed Main Street Uncorked events, which held food and drink soirees in locations most local people hadn’t visited before, such as the Oddfellows Lodge, the Elks building before the renovation of the Neon Sign Museum, and the Cherry Growers building.
Matthew next became the assistant to The Dalles City Manager Julie Krueger. 3 years later, Wasco County offered him the position of administrative services director.
While working with the county, Matthew became involved in Q-Life, an intergovernmental organization including the city and the county that provides fiber optic services to the city. He now serves as its administrator.
In his role as city manager, Matthew says the time spent working for the county makes for a smooth partnership between The Dalles and Wasco County.
“The community really is wonderful,” he says. “I came here for 11 months and I didn’t stay just because of a job. I stayed because The Dalles is a special place.”