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McCall's message starts in Carnegie Library

Years ago, in my wastrel and wanderlust 20s, I camped along Fish Creek in the Mt. Hood National Forest. One morning I met an intense man combusting on the unmistakable fuel of malt liquor and methamphetamine. He introduced himself by yelling, “Hi! My name’s Todd. I was born by Todd Lake, Oregon! I live in Oregon City and I love Oregon! Don’t get no more Oregon than that!”

by: RENDERING COURTESY: CITY OF OREGON CITY - Pictured is an architectural vision of the Oregon City Carnegie Library praised by leaders last month. Matt Love read a longer version of this Community Soapbox on June 22 at the 100th anniversary party for the Cargenie building.At the time, I had no rejoinder for Todd, nothing to compare to his awesome self-appointed awesomeness.

But I had grown up in Oregon City, birthplace of hackey sack and the coolest municipal elevator in the world, my last name was Love, and I had always wanted to become a writer. It was just back then, I didn’t have a subject, a voice, or a passion.

I do now, and when I look back at my subject, voice and passion as a writer, and let’s face it, my teaching, too, it all comes down to Oregon. And I know it all began here, in Oregon City, in this very Carnegie Library some 40 years ago, around the time I started reading all the histories I could find in here because I loved history and in this town, history suffused the landscape. It was the landscape. It is the landscape. History remains the city’s greatest asset and always will be unless its leaders forget that and grasp for something shinier, trendy.

Eleven or 12 years ago, I was living near Pacific City on the Oregon Coast and serving as caretaker of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I hadn’t published a book, although I was investigating the tale of Vortex 1, the notorious 1970 free rock festival held at McIver Park that still has the distinction of being the only state-sponsored event of its kind in American history. It was a bona fide Clackamas County legend, and I was just beginning to realize how far out this story really was.

I was probably thinking about Vortex, when, one rainy afternoon at a garage sale in Cloverdale, I came across a Feb. 25, 1974, edition of the New Yorker. To my astonishment, it contained an article titled, “Letter from Oregon,” written by E. J. Kahn Jr.

A few sentences in the second paragraph caught my attention: “In the last seven years, they have become accustomed to all sorts of innovative and bizarre goings on. They have laws so progressive that, by comparison, many other states look doddering...the Oregon Legislature, which unblinkingly confronts social and environmental issues from which many state (and national) legislators would recoil...”

Some 6,000 words later, I had read Kahn’s lively account of the state’s unprecedented governing initiatives under the leadership of departing Governor Tom McCall, then near the end of his second and final four-year term in office because the state’s constitution prohibited a governor from serving three consecutive terms.

McCall called the initiatives, collectively, The Oregon Story, and the national media, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek, PBS, NBC News and “60 Minutes” had paraded to the Pacific Northwest to cover it and profile McCall. He even traveled to New York and appeared on “The Today Show!”

Remember that era? Remember McCall’s extraordinary gift for language and candor? Vintage lines:

Oregon is an inspiration. Whether you come to it, or are born to it, you become entranced by our state’s beauty, the opportunity she affords, and the independent spirit of her citizens.

The interests of Oregon for today and in the future must be protected from the grasping wastrels of the land.

If the salmon and steelhead are running, then as far as I am concerned, God knows that all is well in his world...the health of the environment is good if the salmon and steelhead are around. It is that simple.

Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. They are people who say: This is my community, and it is my responsibility to make it better.

We want you to visit our State of Excitement often. Come again and again. But for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live. Or if you do have to move in to live, don’t tell any of your neighbors where you are going.”

In the New Yorker article, McCall described The Oregon Story as one of “innovation and regeneration that can actually be used anywhere. We’re trying to export the hope and the formula.”

By 1974, Oregon could boast of many recent political innovations, most of them nationwide firsts: protection of ocean beaches from privatization and development, a law dedicating 1 percent of highway funds for bicycle and pedestrian paths, a mandatory five-cent deposit on returnable cans and bottles, an effort to clean up the polluted Willamette River, a government open-meetings law, visionary land-use planning to preserve farm and forestland, a forest practices act, a state-sponsored rock festival to forestall violence, decriminalization of marijuana, penal reform, and an astonishing level of voluntary energy conservation promoted by state government that seems unthinkable today.

In effect, these initiatives led Oregon to become within a generation one of the most desirable places to live in the country, if not the entire world.

Kahn quoted McCall: “America is beginning to open up. We’ve got an inherently good system. We’ve just got to get the right people to make it work. If I had to run for president to sell the Oregon message — to encourage more innovative and daring actions, that is — I would do it. But that will depend on a lot of things, and in any event the message is more important than the messenger.”

That message, the Oregon political message heard round the world in 1974, in my youth growing up in a mill town overlooking the Willamette Falls, I had heard it. It must have imbued me, somehow.

Others must have heard the message, too, including politicians from both parties, because by the mid-1960s Oregon was culturally and environmentally exhausted, intransigent, and needed modernizing in body, mind and spirit. The Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail stories weren’t enough to move us forward.

The message that Tom McCall sent was, and I think it’s high time the residents of this state recognize that, and that’s why I’m helping gather signatures for a ballot initiative to establish Tom McCall Day. (see Tommccall.org)

After reading “Letter from Oregon,” I suddenly became seized by one of those purely clarifying moments some of us are lucky to experience. It occurred to me, right there at the garage sale. It was: I think I live my life reflexively as a direct consequence of The Oregon Story’s message.

How? I wear a sweater inside the house to save energy. Wherever they lie, I pick up discarded cans and bottles, redeem them, and pocket the beer money, just as I did as a student at Mt. Pleasant Elementary and Gardiner Junior High, to pay for the sodas my mother refused to purchase. How else? The notion of buying bottled water repulses me. I bicycle to work and for recreation. I obey the speed limit. I teach McCall’s message to every student who enters my classroom, regardless of the subject. I try to conserve Oregon’s natural world and once had a hand in planting nearly 25,000 trees in Oregon’s denuded coastal watersheds. I could care less if people smoke marijuana in my presence. I visit Oregon’s publicly-owned beaches two or three times a day, never pay a cent for the privilege of doing so, and my frequent time romping there with my dogs bears a strong resemblance to a religious practice.

I have never forgotten Todd’s immortal phrase and often ponder it when I discover a fascinating Oregon story that qualifies for the immortal don’t get no more Oregon than that! category. Over the years, I’ve written a lot about them and wish I could somehow meet up with Todd, probably now in jail, or dead, or sober, and deliver my rejoinder to him, because now I have one.

Here it is:

Well, Todd, I think it does, brother. It does get a lot more Oregon than that. My name is Matt, I grew up in Oregon City and went to Oregon City High School, I live at the Oregon Coast, I love Oregon, my last name is Love, I’ve driven alone the distance to the moon and back all around Oregon to dig up lost stories, I once played in a band that covered “Louie Louie,” I wrote a book about Vortex, the 1977 NBA Championship Portland Trail Blazers and the Yaquina Bay Bridge, I play hackey sack with my students, I swim naked in the ocean in broad daylight, I drink rain, and I’m gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to establish Tom McCall Day as an official day of commemoration. Now Todd, let me tell you something...it don’t get no more Oregon than that!”

Note: A teacher at Newport High School, Matt Love grew up in Oregon City and is publisher of Nestucca Spit Press. He read this at last month’s 100th anniversary party for the Oregon City Carnegie Library.



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