By Paul Fattig
Oregon’s legendary Gov. Tom McCall died 30 years ago, yet the Republican’s legacy remains alive in the minds of many Oregonians.
With this month marking the 100th anniversary of his birth — March 22, 1913, in Massachusetts — his life and times will be presented Wednesday evening at Southern Oregon University. The Tom McCall Centennial Lecture will be presented by journalist Brent Walth, author of the 1994 book, “Fire at Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story.”
President Bill Clinton described the book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist as “a remarkable biography of a remarkable Oregon governor.”
The event begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, at SOU’s Music Recital Hall in Ashland. Tickets are $10, and can be purchased at the door or online through boxofficetickets.com or sohs.org.
The lecture is co-sponsored by the Southern Oregon Historical Society, the Jackson County Library Foundation, KOBI-TV and the Oregon Community Foundation.
Oregon Public Broadcasting will air “Tom McCall: An Oregon Experience” beginning at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 19. The hourlong documentary will feature Walth, former Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh, McCall’s former executive secretary, McCall’s son Tad and others.
During his eight years in office from 1967 through 1975, Oregon’s 30th governor helped push through the Oregon Beach Bill, the Oregon Bottle Bill, unprecedented land-use planning laws and the Willamette River cleanup.
Before running for office, McCall, who graduated from high school in Redmond and later earned a journalism degree from the University of Oregon, worked as a journalist, both in print and television.
He employed his journalistic skills to get his political message out, recalled former longtime Oregon Congressman Bob Smith of Medford, who served as speaker of the Oregon House when McCall was governor. Smith, also a Republican, served 12 years in the Oregon House, followed by 10 in the Oregon Senate before serving 14 years in Congress.
“I can remember him perfectly, sitting before an old typewriter typing out his own press releases,” Smith recalled with a chuckle. “He would spend half a day sometimes writing them out.
“But he was a very dedicated Oregonian and very popular, no question about that,” he added. “We operated pretty independent of each other. I had respect for him and I think he had respect for me.”
Yet the two strong-willed Republicans did have a few clashes.
“I had hired a fellow who worked against him in the election,” Smith said. “So McCall called me into the governor’s office and said, I understand you are thinking about hiring this fellow.’ I told him I had already hired him. He said, You can’t hire him. I won’t allow it.’
“I told him, Governor, I’m the speaker of the House. You don’t tell me what to do. I hired him and he’s a good man,’ ” Smith added. “That was the way we had started out together.”
But Smith is quick to observe that McCall worked hard to earn a lasting legacy for the state he loved.
“We didn’t have very many issues,” he said. “He was a very social guy.”
McCall served as governor of Oregon at a time when the state was experiencing “relatively good economics,” Smith said.
“It was also when we were having trouble taking care of the demands of people coming into the state,” he said. “That’s when he came up with his Visit but don’t stay’ reaction. I really think he would have reconsidered that if he had thought about it a bit more.”
Then-state Sen. Atiyeh won the 1978 Republican primary, turning back McCall’s bid to return to the governor’s chair, and later beat Democratic incumbent Bob Straub that November. Once in office, the new governor had a sign reading, “Welcome to Oregon. Enjoy your visit” erected along Interstate 5 at the California border.
“The thing about Tom, once he grabbed a hold of something he was tenacious,” Atiyeh, 90, told the Mail Tribune on Monday. “I never had any negative thoughts about Tom. We were friendly. But he had a large ego.”
Atiyeh, who served as governor for eight years beginning in 1979, noted that many of McCall’s accomplishments were also based on the work of the Oregon Legislature.
“But, because he was there, he was able to get them through,” Atiyeh said, reiterating, “He was very tenacious. He hung on until they were done.”
McCall died of prostate cancer on Jan. 8, 1983. He was 69.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.