Mention Eugene, Oregon and my mind floods with memories – University days, anti-Vietnam War protests, coming out, the Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy presidential campaigns, and my first professional job.
This upcoming Saturday, August 6 I will give a talk with slides of my biography of Oregon’s fiercely independent firebrand Dr. Marie Equi at the Eugene Public Library downtown. As I prepare my presentation, I can’t help but think of the late 1960s when I studied history at the University of Oregon’s Honors Program. I never expected to return to campus decades later with an historical biography published by Oregon State University Press.
I lived off-campus my first two years at the university. The administration granted me and half-dozen housemates an exception to the rules since we had already clocked four years of dormitory life at Mt. Angel Seminary High School. We rented a small house near the old mill run within easy walking distance of classes. This was the fall of 1967, and the protests against the Vietnam War and against President Lyndon B. Johnson accelerated. Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy visited the campus prior to the Oregon presidential primary election. They both opposed the war. For some students, the choice between backing McCarthy or Kennedy resembled this year’s choice between Sanders and Clinton. I switched from McCarthy to Kennedy, mostly due to Kennedy’s passion for social justice and his reaching out to poor Americans.
At some point during the conflict, student demonstrators flooded into the Administration Building on campus for an over-night sit-in. No serious clashes occurred with guards or city police, as I recall, but other protests during this period involved arson and vandalism and involvement of the Oregon National Guard.
I returned to Eugene in the early 1970s after graduating from the University at Albany in New York. I had obtained Conscientious Objector status from the US Selective Service (draft board) and was not required to do alternative service. I settled in West Eugene close to what was then called the Beltline. This was my first house purchase, one that required just $1500 as a down payment.
One of my colleagues at the Kaufman Center was Ron Wyden, then a young attorney who established a Senior Law Service for older people in Eugene. I remember a more experienced colleague remarking that Wyden was on his way for a career in politics. Of course, he’s now Oregon’s senior US Senator.
I remember the Riviera Room, a gay bar and disco at 39 10th Street between Willamette and Olive, replete with strobe lights, a large dance floor, and plush booths. I had heard that the “Riv Room” was the center of gay socializing in Eugene. It became the first gay bar I entered. I was just coming out, nervous but determined to cross the threshold. I chose a Tuesday night, figuring it would be less crowded – and threatening. I told myself all I had to do was enter, go to the bar, order and drink a beer and then leave. Nothing more eventful happened then, but I returned often with relief.
Since then I’ve visited Eugene several times, sometimes to do research for my book in the University Library’s Special Collections. This Spring I gave my first Eugene book talk at the same library. I felt honored to be there. It seemed like I had come full circle. And now this Saturday I get to return with a talk at the new Eugene Public Library downtown. I can’t wait.