Featured Stories

Clackamas says goodbye to Monroe Sweetland

Sweetland changed Oregon politics forever and fought for progressive causes
by: sweetland family, Monroe Sweetland

Monroe Sweetland - a true Oregonian even during the years when he lived in other states - passed away Sept. 10 in his home at Oatfield Estates in Milwaukie. He was 96.

'He always considered himself an Oregonian, even though he was raised in Michigan,' said his daughter, Barbara Sweetland Smith.

During his years in the state helped to save a marginalized Democratic Party, fought for workers' rights, served in both the House and Senate and helped create Portland State University. Along the way he found time to fight for NEA issues on the national level and run a successful business - and he accomplished many of those things while legally blind.

His daughter remembers him as 'a man of many parts' - someone who could write poetry at the drop of a hat, and who loved the great musicals of Oscar Hammerstein. Barbara Sweetland Smith said she asked him why: 'He said they always have something in them about social justice - he was profoundly interested in that.'

Oregon roots

'His grand-parents were orchardists in Hood River,' Smith recalls. 'Which is what drew his parents to Oregon, where his father was a successful coach at Willamette University.

Sweetland Field at Willamette University was named after him, but in 1915 they went back east, where Sweetland's father, a doctor, joined a medical practice.

From that time on Monroe Sweetland would spend large amounts of his life in other places - returning to his beloved Clackamas County whenever he could.

'After he finished with college in the early 1930s he came back to Oregon to work with the Oregon Commonwealth Federation,' Smith said, 'to try to create a progressive political movement in Oregon. He was here all through the 1930s working with the OCF to bring them under the banner of the Roosevelt New Deal.'

He was called back east to work with the CIO, organizing activities for the labor movement. He took part in World War II: 'He had a very interesting career - not in the military, he was too old and he had a family, but he worked with the Red Cross in the Pacific.'

Democratic ideals

When he came back to the state after the war, Smith said, Oregon was a solidly Republican state.

'The Democratic Party was hardly distinguished,' she said. ''If anything they were more conservative… the Ku Klux Klan had been active in Oregon. Most of the Oregon Democrats were on the far right - in a different era we would have called them Dixiecrats.'

Progressives, she said, were disgusted with the Democratic Party, and were voting Socialist. Sweetland ran for the position of the state's representative in the national Democratic Committee, and was elected, making him the highest-ranking Democrat in the state during the Truman era.

'When President Truman needed to consult with someone in Oregon about an appointment - there was no Democratic congressman or governor - there was Monroe Sweetland.'

In 1948 Sweetland bought the Molalla Pioneer, and moved Barbara and her mother to Molalla to run the paper. He would buy other papers as well, including the Oregon Democrat - 'it was published on a monthly basis to keep Democrats appraised of what was going on.'

'He was a busy man,' Smith said. 'What made it possible was my mother, Millie Megrath Sweetland, who handled the business side of the paper.'

National priorities

Sweetland was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1952, and to the Senate in 1954 and 1958. While he was in the state legislature he championed the formation of the Portland State University - a move opposed by the University of Oregon.

'Dad felt very strongly that an urban university was important to bring education to the greatest number of people.'

His legacy was recognized with a scholarship in his name.

In '65 he moved his family to California, where he would represent the NEA's legislative agenda for the western states.

'He considered his most important legacy - of all the things he did in his life, and there were many - the achievement of the Bilingual Education Act in the 1960s.

'It was my dad who lit a fire under the NEA… and they marshaled support in Congress for the passage of the act.'

Oregon homecoming

As his eyesight failed he left the NEA, but he wasn't ready to retire completely - he launched a business, Western Wilderness Products. Finally, in 1995 - at the age of 85 - he came back to Oregon.

'He was immensely happy,' Smith said. 'We were not unhappy in California - but when he sold his business, he felt he didn't have a reason to stay there.

'Oregon was his home - and he felt he wanted to return.'

He had one more political adventure ahead of him - in 1998 the party drafted him to run against Sen. Verne Duncan. They were afraid that Duncan was going to lose to a far more conservative Republican challenger, and they wanted a strong Democrat to run against him.

Duncan won his primary, and Sweetland lost the election - but there was no animosity between the two. 'Verne Duncan was the most frequent visitor to Dad's bedside during the last two or three weeks of his life.'