Happy Birthday, Tom McCall

Oregon Governor Tom McCall was one-of-a-kind and his portrait hanging in the state Capitol leaves no doubt about his hulking presence and deep commitment to preserving Oregon's natural beauty.Today would be Tom McCall's 100th birthday and memories are flowing from all quarters about Oregon's iconic and maverick former governor.

Historian Matt Love, writing on the Powell's Books blog, relates an sentimental anecdote from Jay Nicholls who played golf with McCall at the Devil's Lake Golf Course in Lincoln City after McCall had exited politics and had a home at Roads End. After a round of apparently bad golf, Nicholls said his 1964 Volkswagen microbus broke down and he wasn't able to give McCall his usual ride home.

Nicholls recalls he and McCall got behind the vehicle and pushed until there was enough momentum to allow Nicholls to hop in and jump-start it.  McCall loped alongside the now moving bus and dived in the passenger side, smiling broadly and saying, "Jay, they can never tell you I'm not a man of the people."

Most people then and now view McCall as a man deeply committed to preserving the richness and natural beauty of Oregon — from its beaches to litter-free roadsides to a cleaner Willamette River.

McCall was a Republican, at least in party affiliation, and a hulking man with a New England accent, which gave him his charm. But it was his candor and passion that made people love him, even when they disagreed with him, which for some was often.

Capitol reporters loved McCall because he was prone to wander out of his office after a drink or two to offer up opinions on almost any subject. His well-known and respected press secretary, Ron Schmidt, was left to pick up the pieces and translate what McCall really meant to say. 

While McCall might at times seem careless, he was, in fact, careful. He picked his fights to fit a larger narrative of the Oregon he wanted to preserve. He famously told the rest of the world to visit Oregon, but not stay, which became an irresistible siren call for thousands of people to move to someplace with a governor who would talk like that.

His achievements are legendary — preserving public ownership of Oregon's beaches, beginning efforts to clean up the Willamette River, adopted open meeting laws, instituting land-use planning and adopted a Bottle Bill. Many were national firsts. All passed with bipartisan support. His causes began before he held elected office, including his 1962 television documentary, "Pollution in Paradise."

A former TV journalist and commentator, McCall was no dummy. He recruited and kept a top-notch staff around him. When faced with a potential student riot to protest an American Legion convention in Portland, McCall and his team brainstormed and came up with the idea of a state-sponsored "hippie rock concert." That averted the kind of stand-off that led to the deaths of students at Kent State and added to the magical McCall legacy.

My own McCall story dealt with a proposed aluminum plant adjacent to estuarine areas near the mouth of the Columbia River south of Astoria. The plant, which was backed strongly by local economic interests, raised huge red flags for commercial and sports fishermen, environmentalists and many wary long-time residents. McCall ultimately weighed in to block the plant and, through Schmidt, gave me — then the news editor of The Daily Astorian — the scoop. 

McCall's influence continues today, not just through the enduring legacy of his achievements, but also from the commanding presence of his portrait that hangs in a singular position in the state Capitol, facing the House chamber. Most of the gubernatorial portraits that grace the Capitol show their subjects in motionless repose. McCall's portrait conveys the dynamism that characterized his two terms as Oregon governor and his entire political career, in and out of office. 

Brent Walth, now with Willamette Week, captures the spirit, spit and vinegar of McCall in his book, "Fire at Eden's Gate." It is a good read and a great way to commemorate McCall's 100th birthday.

If you are in Salem, take a moment to view the 9-foot tall, 1,000-pound sculpture of McCall towering over the banks of the Willamette. Sculpted by Rip Caswell, McCall is holding a fly rod and carrying a huge fish. At a stop in Redmond on a statewide tour before the statue was formally put in place, a fifth grade boy read this inscription, "May we forever prove that, by our own action, people can join together for mutual benefit and greater good."

Happy birthday, Tom McCall.