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Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman talks about being on the work crew when fellow volunteers Allan Deutsch and Robert Ozretich were struck by an allegedly impaired driver. The collision killed Ozretich. 

Bob Ozretich was an unsung hero, community and family members have said.

“Some people lead with their mouths, but Bob led in actions,” said Angel Harris, a member of the NAACP Corvallis/Albany branch, in which Ozretich was active. “He was a man of integrity.”

The 70-year-old Ozretich died Saturday while picking up trash along Highway 20 in Philomath with a group from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis. The church had adopted a stretch of highway through the Oregon Department of Transportation’s litter cleanup program, and several times a year Ozretich would organize volunteers to pick up trash.

Police say an impaired driver drove his pickup into Ozretich and fellow crew member Allan Deutsch. Deutsch, 85, was seriously injured and remains at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. The men were wearing orange vests and carrying yellow trash bags, according to police.

A third man on the crew said Ozretich had placed a six-foot tall orange reflective sign near the scene that read “LITTER PATROL.”

“He was very safety-conscious,” said Nick Houtman, who met Ozretich through the Unitarian Church more than 10 years ago.

Houtman said he was picking up trash from the north side of the highway, while Ozretich and Deutsch were on the south side. Houtman was about 300 yards away when he looked down the highway to see emergency lights. A motorist traveling east stopped to tell Houtman one of his crew members had been hit.

He walked down the hill to see Deutsch being placed in an ambulance.

“I did not see Bob,” Houtman said. “I saw a blue blanket on the ground in the ditch and that made my heart sink.”

Houtman said he didn’t hear the collision or see the truck that struck his friends. Police say the driver, Ricky Ray Ferguson, left the scene of the crash and removed decals from his truck in an effort to change its appearance. Ferguson was arrested four hours later 12 miles from the scene of the collision. He has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and other charges.

Ozretich was active in local political and social justice efforts.

“He’s a pretty understated, quiet person,” Houtman said. “He’s one of those people who gets stuff done, who just works behind the scenes a lot.”

Ozretich co-founded the Corvallis Area Move to Amend, which is part of a national movement to reject the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling regarding campaign finance. He helped pass a 2012 advisory vote in Corvallis in which voters asked the City Council to urge state and federal representatives to support a constitutional amendment to end corporate personhood and money as speech.

“He was very motivated to work in political circles and wanting to make the world a better place, and that was an inspiration and a motivation for all of us to do what we can,” Houtman said.

Ozretich testified before a city committee in 2015 in support of a resolution prohibiting the city from investing in fossil fuel companies. The resolution ultimately passed.

He represented the Benton County Democrats at the Fall Festival, Benton County Fair and other community events, said Janet Wolf-Eshe. Ozretich also helped with phone banks and canvassing.

“They’ve just always been so involved with many, many important, worthwhile causes,” Wolf-Eshe said of Ozretich and his wife, Rachel.

Wolf-Eshe said Ozretich was trustworthy and would always accomplish what he said he would.

“He will be greatly missed,” Wolf-Eshe said. “Many friends and people who were involved in organizations with him will never forget him. Corvallis has lost a very wonderful person who chose to do good with his life.”

Wolf-Eshe said she is trying not to be angry at the man who killed Ozretich, taking a cue from Rachel, who has always said that “hate has no place.”

Annabelle Jaramillo, vice chair of the Benton County Board of Commissioners, said Ozretich gave a lot of himself to the community. She said she enjoyed spirited conversations with him about Citizens United and other political topics.

“When he believed in something, he believed very adamantly,” Jaramillo said. “I really give him credit for being dedicated to his values.”

Harris, with the NAACP, said Ozretich helped put on the organization’s annual Juneteenth celebrations and Freedom Fund Banquets. He attended lobbying events at the state Legislature in Salem. He would check people in at events and stay to help clean up, Harris said.

"Bob was the very definition of community," said Shelley Moon, senior vice president of the local NAACP. “He gave countless hours to the NAACP and to his passion for social justice. He was so humble, so gentle, so loving, and yet a powerhouse for social justice."

Moon said the NAACP will miss Ozretich deeply.

State Sen. Sara Gelser wrote on her Facebook page Monday that Ozretich fought for peace, equality and ideals of democracy.

“That his life came to an end while he was serving our community on a beautiful Saturday morning is a tribute to his selfless commitment to putting words into action, and walking the walk,” Gelser wrote.

Reed Ozretich said his father was a loving man.

“To have him ripped away from us like this just really is shattering for us,” he said.

Ozretich and his wife have two sons and three grandchildren.

“We were so proud of his work, of his commitment to his community, both locally and globally,” Reed said. “I personally as his son was so proud of him and so happy to be his son and to be raised by him and my mother.”

Ozretich worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for 40 years as a chemical oceanographer. He worked at the coastal ecology branch in Newport for many years before transferring to the Corvallis branch, where he was a quality assurance manager. Ozretich retired in 2014.

Reed Ozretich said the family plans to hold a celebration of life Jan. 27-28 at the Unitarian Universalist Church, with more details about the event to come.

Lillian Schrock covers public safety for the Gazette-Times. She may be reached at 541-758-9548 or lillian.schrock@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter at @LillieSchrock. 

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