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Happy 100th Birthday, Tom McCall — From the Oregon Story to Portlandia

Were he alive, former Oregon Governor Tom McCall would have turned 100 on March 22, 2013. This is a birthday worth celebrating, and many of us are doing exactly that because we want to honor an Oregon politician who immeasurably improved our lives and had the temerity to say something like, "Oregon is demure and lovely, and it ought to play a little hard to get. And I think you'll be just as sick as I am if you find it is nothing but a hungry hussy, throwing herself at every stinking smokestack that's offered."

Skeptical of such an outrageous claim that McCall improved our lives? Just amble down Oregon's publicly owned beaches at no cost and you must surely agree. Back in 1967, McCall helped protect them from exploitation by his impassioned support of the Beach Bill, eventually signing it into law after a hard-fought legislative victory where he bucked his own party's leadership.

During his two terms as a maverick Republican (1967-1975), McCall and a largely bipartisan legislature collaborated to implement a series of progressive governing initiatives that McCall collectively called "The Oregon Story." McCall described "The Oregon Story" to one national reporter as one of "innovation and regeneration that can actually be used anywhere. We're trying to export the hope and the formula."

In this era, Oregon could boast of many political innovations, most of them nationwide firsts: protection of beaches from privatization and development, a law dedicating one percent of highway funds to bicycle and pedestrian paths, a mandatory five-cent deposit on returnable cans and bottles, an effort to clean up the polluted Willamette River, visionary land use planning to preserve farm and forestland, a forest practices act, an open public meetings law, penal reform, decriminalization of marijuana, a state-sponsored rock festival to forestall violence (Vortex 1), and an astonishing level of voluntary energy conservation promoted by the state government that inspired many citizens to do the same.

Everyone who has ever spent any time in Oregon has benefitted from the bold bipartisan accomplishments achieved during the McCall era. In effect, they led Oregon to become one of the most desirable places to live in the country within a single generation and quite clearly laid the foundation for the later creation of Portlandia.

When I hear the name "Tom McCall," I like to imagine an alternate (better) American history where he was the western Republican governor who became president, not Ronald Reagan. McCall believed that intelligent government with foresight could enhance the lives of people. Reagan convinced an immature electorate otherwise, that government was the enemy. McCall's entire political career was a complete contradiction of that disastrous lie.

President McCall. It has such a wonderful ring to it. Just think where this country would be today after two of his terms in the White House as opposed to Reagan's. I do all the time. In fact, I'm going to write a historical science fiction novel with that exact premise. I plan on calling it McCallandia and yes, it will differ from Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach's classic 1975 novel. In that visionary book, a progressive and sustainable Pacific Northwest has seceded from the United States and bars any visitors. In McCallandia, a progressive and sustainable Oregon merges with Washington and Northern Californian and invades the rest of the country not with a military but with... a... well, you'll have to wait for the book. Jerry Brown's in the mix too.

In my decade-long unearthing of numerous McCall anecdotes, one humorously stands above all others as exemplifying the great spirit of the man. It came to me courtesy of Depoe Bay resident Jay Nicholls, who was a high school friend of McCall's son Sam in the mid to late 1960s and later became friends with McCall. I'll let Jay tell the tale:

In 1977-78, I was a young greenskeeper at Devil's Lake Golf Course in Lincoln City and Tom used to come out and play golf. It was just after he finished his second term. I lived in Roads End and Tom had a second home there. He was kind of a hack but had a lot of fun and always played with the salt of the earth type guys, no politicos. Audrey (his wife) would drop him off and I would often take him home in my 1964 Volkswagen bus, a model notorious for not starting at times.

During our rides, he would ask me my reflections on today's youth and we'd talk about cheese. Tom loved cheese! He'd always invite me in and we'd drink a cold beer. He loved it ice cold, in a bottle.

One day Tom needed a ride home, but the bus wasn't starting. I said, "Okay, but we need to give it a push." So we both got behind the bus and gave it a push. We got it rolling down the fairway and I got up in the front and jumpstarted the thing. I threw open the passenger door and Tom came running up, hopped in, and said, "Jay, they can never tell you I'm not a man of the people."

Happy 100th birthday, Tom McCall. I'm going to the beach now to walk the old husky. I'll draw you a cake and decorate it with a hundred driftwood candles and relish the idea of how hard I plan on celebrating your birthday party at the Jack London Bar in Portland on Saturday, March 23, at 8:00 p.m. The weird cool folks from the Dill Pickle Club and Kick Ass Oregon History will be on hand to help me out. And a lot of hungry hussies too.

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Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.

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Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain

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