There's an old adage, adopted from the title of a 1940 Thomas Wolfe novel, that states, “You can never go home again.” Lara Chandler, now Tiffin, not only has disproved that adage, she's blown it to smithereens! After an outstanding four years as a student-athlete (in the truest sense) at South Salem High School, Lara returned when her alma mater needed her most, taking the reins of leadership as principal. She has guided SSHS since 2014.
Lara made her mark on the high school athletic stage as a swimmer. She got her aquatic start at the age of nine in Kent, Washington when she joined the local Kent Area Dolphins. The initial experience didn't go well. “I actually hated the first day of practice, especially getting water up my nose when attempting my first flip turn.” But Mom and Dad came to the rescue and convinced her to go back for a second day. Thank goodness for Mom and Dad!
Lara moved with her family to Salem in order for her parents to open a Bresler’s 33 Flavors Ice Cream shop in West Salem. She joined the Salem Aquatic Club led by Al Stephenson, “who was an amazing coach for me.” Gravitating to the distance races, she tried to get in as many yards as she could by attending each morning and evening practice that was available. She began attending morning practices in the 5th grade, getting up at 4:00 a.m., going to practice and going back home for a short nap before heading to elementary school. “When my carpool didn’t show up for the early morning trek across the bridge to Olinger Pool, I would wake my dad up to take me...never once did he complain, no matter how late in the night he got home from work ...”
In middle school, Lara swam for Walker. Middle schools were only 7th and 8th grades. “I…remember setting some all-city records that may still stand, only because I think swimming was cut from the budget soon after I left middle school.”
While swimming for South Salem High School, coached by Terri Robinson and John Turman, Lara often would practice three times a day - in the morning for SAC, in the afternoon for South Salem, and in the evening for SAC. “I don’t remember my places at state other than our relay my freshman year. I do remember the experience of going to morning practice, getting a ride to school from a teammate, drying my hair in the bathroom across from Room 109, and eating breakfast in Mr. Mosman’s calculus class.”
She recalls that “Swimming for my high school was an honor for me. I love the connection to South that it provided, such as to my peers, coaches and teachers.” She was captain of the swim team, a 4-year state qualifier, and an 8-time Valley League (district) champion.
As a 9th grader (1983) Tiffin:
finished 1st at the district swim meet as part of the 400 free style relay team that set the school record for the event and, subsequently, placed 3rd at state;
finished 3rd at districts in the 200 freestyle;
finished 2nd at districts in the 500 freestyle, qualifying for state.
As a 10th grader she:
again finished 1st at the district swim meet as part of the 400 free relay team and qualified for state;
finished 1st at districts in the 200 and 2nd in the 500 free, qualifying for state in both events.
As an 11th grader she:
won all three of her events at the district meet: the 200 free, the 500 free, and the 400 free relay;
finished 11th at state in the 400 free relay;
finished 12th at state in the 500 free.
As a senior she:
completed the district “three-peat” in the 200 and 500 free style, finishing as champion in both individual events again, while setting a new school record for the 500 free and qualifying for state in both again;
anchored the 400 free relay and again qualified for state.
Taking seriously the “student” in student-athlete, Tiffin was one of four valedictorians, carrying a 4.00 GPA while managing her time in the pool. She was also ASB Vice-President and co-editor of the yearbook. A 1986 graduate, her efforts in the classroom earned her a full-ride academic scholarship to attend Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
At Whitman College, “I was pumped my freshman year to get to fly to a swim meet for the first time, as I qualified for NAIA Nationals in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. I still remember walking into the pool and being amazed at its size and beauty in comparison to the pools in which I grew up.” Lara ended up qualifying to compete in the NAIA National Swim Meet for both individual events and relays all four years at Whitman. She was a 3-year team captain, an All-American, and an Academic All-American.
At Whitman, Tiffin served as a lifeguard, as a resident assistant (R.A.), and worked for the admission office, primarily recruiting swimmers. During her senior year she served as the lone student on the Board of Admission. Lara graduated as one of four women who majored in mathematics. She also minored in economics.
After graduation in 1990, Tiffin worked for two years as an admission counselor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. It was while at UPS that the Saxons came calling. Then SSHS Assistant Principal Jan Morgan and head swim coach Terri Robinson encouraged her to leave her job and enroll in Willamette University's Master of Arts in Teaching. South was set to have a math opening in the near future. Unsure of the future, Lara nevertheless heeded their advice. One of the qualities of a good leader is knowing when to listen.
From 1993-2000, Tiffin taught math at South Salem and, in addition, served as Activities Director from 1995-1998. While in this position, Lara and her students started the Halloween Trick-or-Treat Party for the community, an event that still exists today. She was named the Darrell E. Crossler Kiwanis Outstanding Educator of the Year in 1999. In her second year of teaching, then Athletics Director and fellow Beacon Dave Johnson decided he had his next swim coach. Following in the footsteps of her coach, Terri Robinson, and after serving as an assistant swim coach for the Saxons for two years, she became the Saxons’ head coach, a position she held from 1994-2000. As coach, she was voted the league’s boys swim coach of the year twice and girls swim coach of the year twice. Her teams were competitive, well-prepared and conditioned, and technically sound. Using the knowledge she had obtained as a top-level competitive high school and college swimmer, together with the analytic skills honed as a math teacher, she was known as a coach who could strategize her teams to victory. She crafted winning lineups that led to numerous undefeated dual meet seasons and a district championship.
In November of 2000, Lara was hired by then South Salem Principal Kris Olsen as interim Athletic Director, becoming both Salem-Keizer's and the Valley League's first female AD. Olsen took a chance and it certainly paid off. Through hard work, compassion, and integrity she proved she could do the job as well if not better than her male counterparts. As with any administrator, the support team was critical; people like Donna Bosco and Tara Thompson shared Lara’s goals and offered their time and support so that student-athletes and coaches had what they needed to be successful. As Athletic Director, she initiated, with numerous supporters, the Saxon Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 2007, Lara left the only school she knew, moving to Judson Middle School to get principal experience in a smaller environment. While at Judson Middle School, she was named a Crystal Apple Award winner, and for three years she had the privilege of being in the same building with her daughter – Rylie, a student at Judson. Lara and her team initiated an embedded intervention period, the Jaguar Enrichment Time, that gave students time within the school day to get the academic help that they needed.
In 2014, South Salem was in need of a principal. With her deep Saxon ties, Tiffin was obviously a candidate. However, she didn't intend to apply. Rylie, then a 9th grader at South, had been the “principal's kid” long enough and Lara wanted her to have her own high school experience. What she didn't count on was how insistent Rylie would be that she apply. She did and became South's principal, a position she holds today. Sometimes great leaders know when to listen.
In this role, Lara has upheld South’s tradition of excellence by recognizing all of South’s programs, while rooting students on to state championships in athletics, music, DECA and culinary. In 2021, she was named the Oregon Music Education Association’s Administrator of the Year for her support of South High’s music programs, staff and student-musicians. Over the past two years, Lara led South through an $84,000,000 bond project while also navigating the ramifications of a global pandemic. Under her tenure as principal, South’s graduation rate has increased by 10% and the dropout rate has decreased to under .5%.
“Being the principal of my alma mater has been an honor. It’s been a labor of love, as I continue to strive for students to feel as connected to South as I do.” (That's a tall order because it's hard to imagine anyone as connected to a school as Tiffin is to South. Read on.) Lara credits swimming for a large portion of her success. By “being involved in swimming, I developed a work ethic, sportsmanship, organization, teamwork, time management, perseverance and the list goes on...[M]y connections to South are deep. My sister graduated from South, was the ASB President and a four-year letter winner. I met my husband at South where he taught, coached and served as the district’s first athletic trainer. Our daughter graduated from South, was a valedictorian, IB Diploma recipient, ASB president, and four-year letter winner. It’s been a special place for our family.”
“I could not have done any of this without the support of my family. My parents, John and Bev Chandler, were instrumental in getting my swimming career started. The only time they ever pushed me was to go back to that second day of practice when I was nine. [They] gave me every bit of support they could, buying me swimsuits, driving me to swim meets all over the state, spending weekends away. As my professional career developed, my parents continued to support me by taking care of Rylie many evenings, instilling in her many of the traits that I so admire in her...As I became an administrator early in my career and without much notice, Micah made numerous sacrifices with his own career in order to support my aspirations. Without his willingness to change schools and give up his athletic training, I would not have been able to fulfill my dream of being an athletic director. Without him taking on more responsibilities at home, I could not have devoted as much energy as I did to my job....Rylie has only known me as an administrator and has given up a lot of time with her mom so that her mom could take care of others. She didn’t know any different, but I did and I am eternally grateful to her for making it possible for me to be a working mom.”
Over the course of my life, I’ve learned a few things from my parents, my coaches, my mentors, my friends, my family:
Do your best where you are, with what you have been given.
Strive to leave a situation better than how you found it.
If you can, you should. If you’re on solid ground, you should step up and solidify the ground for others.
Hard work pays off.
Blaze a trail and leave crumbs, rope and walking sticks for others to follow.
Show your gratitude. Tell people thank you and how amazing they are. Praise them. Appreciate them. Reward them.
You never know the impact you are having, so make sure it is positive.
Lara was inducted into the Saxon Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.
If “home is where the heart is,” it's clear that Lara Tiffin is home. It's clear that Lara Tiffin is a Beacon.