On the record about a legend
At the anniversary of Tom McCall's death, his widow recalls their life and times PLUS 'We've got to wait for this younger generation to take hold,' Audrey McCall tells a Tribune editor in a wide-ranging interview
It's been two decades since Tom McCall died of cancer.
Revered, emulated and perhaps the most noteworthy of Oregon's 35 governors, McCall was a maverick from a famous Massachusetts family. In his career, he gained more national news coverage for himself and Oregon than most of his predecessors combined.
For instance, in 1973 he was one of the nation's first politicians to suggest that impeachment might be in order for President Richard Nixon's apparent role in the Watergate scandal.
McCall's political wins are legendary.
His first major victory happened in July 1967 and became known as the Beach Bill, protecting the state's beaches from private development.
In 1969, McCall helped found the anti-litter group Solv with the aim of beautifying Oregon. Today, tens of thousands of Solv volunteers provide millions of dollars of services to more than 250 Oregon communities.
In 1970, he vowed to not allow the federal government to store deadly nerve gas at the Umatilla Depot. He won that battle, too.
He's the father of the Bottle Bill of 1971 Ñ the nation's first mandatory bottle-deposit law Ñ which was designed to decrease litter in Oregon.
Perhaps McCall's greatest legacy was his emphasis on the environment and wise planning for growth.
Addressing the Oregon Legislature in 1973, he said:
'There is a shameless threat to our environment and to the whole quality of life Ñ unfettered despoiling of the land. Sagebrush subdivisions, coastal 'condomania' and the ravenous rampage of suburbia in the Willamette Valley all threaten to mock Oregon's status as the environmental model for the nation. We are dismayed that we have not stopped misuse of the land, our most valuable finite natural resource.'
That year, McCall's desire to prevent sprawl resulted in the state's first comprehensive land-use laws, including creation of the state Land Conservation and Development Commission, which works with local communities on land-use matters.
McCall, a print and television reporter and commentator before and after his political career, served as Oregon's governor from 1967 to 1975. He was a Republican who also appealed to Democrats and independent voters. He died at age 70 on Jan. 8, 1983.
He was born in Massachusetts in 1913 but spent most of his life in Oregon. In his crisp New England accent, he signed off on his television commentaries as 'Tom Lawson McCall.' An imposing figure, he was 6 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall Ñ too tall to be an officer when he joined the Army, so he became a war correspondent instead.
McCall loved reporters, loved the limelight, loved to drink and smoke, and, most of all, loved Oregon. He banged out his speeches and commentaries with a two-fingered style. McCall's zest for life and his victories and disappointments are described in detail in Brent Walth's book 'Fire at Eden's Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story.'
Tom and Audrey McCall had two sons, Tad, a retired Navy officer who lives in Virginia, and Sam, who died in 1990. The McCalls lived in Portland's Sylvan neighborhood before Tom was governor and in Portland Heights after their years in Salem.
Audrey McCall, 88, recently agreed to talk about life with her husband and Oregon politics. She stood by McCall through an unsuccessful run for Congress, two terms as Oregon's governor and another unsuccessful run for governor late in his life.
She lives independently in a Northwest Portland apartment.
Q. If he were alive today, would Tom be working on any of Oregon's challenges? What would they be?
A. Oh, heavens, I would think we wouldn't have all of (those challenges). I've talked to other people my age, voluntarily, people I don't know, but they find out who I am, so they want to discuss it. And we're just so discouraged and disappointed. Just can't believe what's happened. So now we've got to wait for this younger generation to take hold. And I think they're beginning to realize some things they must do.
Did you persuade Tom to take on any issues important to you?
He was always way ahead of me. Way ahead of most people. In fact, when he was quite ill, before he was dying, I said to him, 'Why do you just lie awake at night? Why don't you read?' And he said, 'I just have too much to do, I have to think about it.' He was always taking the next step.
What would Tom say today to legislators about funding public schools?
What do you think? I can't even understand it, can you? It must be terribly discouraging for the teachers. To everyone in education. Tom would never let anything like that go by.
What would he think of five special sessions in 2002 and the acrimony in Salem?
I don't think there is any question. I think it was a disgrace on everyone's part, the Legislature and the governor. You just can't see how such acrimony can be carried to such an extent. The most important part of government is learning to get along and make compromises that are the best for the good of the people. They never seemed to come close to it.
What issues are important to you today?
For one thing, I think we are lacking in strong, honest leaders. People with conviction and who are willing to carry them on in the battle if it has to be. The economy in this state didn't get here overnight.
I don't feel we should have even slipped this far.
Of course, I was never so keen for bringing in the new industries. When Hewlett-Packard wanted to come in, Tom said they had certain measures that they had to meet: That was his criterion. They didn't do that, as they progressed. They offered them all sorts of financial help É which was a terrible mistake. They could have come, and would have, with all we had to offer them, without all the rebates and freebies.
How did you and Tom meet?
I was a home economist in Moscow, Idaho. My boss was a very good friend of Tom's boss, so they arranged for Tom to cover my cooking school, and this is what he did. So he came to my cooking school. And he was tall, lean and hungry, and that's how I met Tom. He was on the newspaper there, you know. Working for a small newspaper in a college town is certainly lots of fun.
You were married in 1939. What was that time like?
We were all sort of happy-go-lucky. We didn't realize what it (war) would be, you see. We weren't aware of how awful things could be.
Were you active in politics?
No, I really didn't get too active, just sort of on the sidelines.
Which of his accomplishments as a public figure most pleased Tom?
Perhaps the Bottle Bill, because it brought the esteem and the publicity he needed to help carry on the others. And also that was the beginning of recycling. Some places we went and spoke about it, and they thought it was crazy. A couple of towns É we were picketed, even. And now it's just accepted, just a part of life.
The lower Willamette River is on the federal Superfund list because of pollution. Would Tom be active in efforts to clean up the river?
Oh, well, yes, he was the first to talk about cleaning it up, and then he cleaned up the industry.
There are ideas to revamp Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Do you have any thoughts about changing the park?
I just want to see what develops and what other ideas there are. If it could be improved, I wouldn't have any objections.
Would Tom like the way the park is used?
He certainly wouldn't be very critical of it. I can't see him waving his arms and saying, 'No, you can't do that in my park.'
Of all his jobs Ñ governor, reporter, war correspondent, secretary of state, news analyst Ñ which do you think Tom liked best?
Well, he always said he was a newsman on assignment. It's what he believed. He was a newsman at heart and always had been.
Did you enjoy those years when Tom was governor?
Loved it. Great fun. Lots of hard work but lots of fun. Now they have housekeepers and cooks. I had a fine young lady who helped me, but to say I had a housekeeper or a cook was quite an exaggeration.
Is Oregon on the right track?
I don't see any great sign for joy. I hope it's going to do better. I think one thing about Oregonians is, we are a people with faith that can't help but believe that Oregon won't come back and be the treasure we consider it. I won't live to see it, but I'm looking forward to the fact that it will happen. We have so many treasures, but too many people now.
Some people think most of Oregon's best accomplishments came under Tom's leadership. What do you think?
I think he would be considered one of the great governors, and I'm not the only person who says that. I'm merely quoting people. But there was no one, I'm sure, with a greater sense of humor and a greater sense of fun, and it was certainly great living with him. Life's not much fun anymore.
If Tom could speak to Oregonians today, what do you think would be his key comment?
You mean would he still say, 'Come and visit but don't stay?' What he meant was, stay away until we have our land-use planning in place so we can control random growth. I'm sure he'd still say that. I think anything going, he'd be speaking out about.
Of course, I think he's the greatest fella who ever lived.
David Kern is news editor of the