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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 261

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This is the grave of Tom McCall.

Born in Scituate, Massachusetts in 1913 to a wealthy family who also had a big ranch in central Oregon, McCall fell in love with the West and graduated from Redmond High School and then the University of Oregon. He became a journalist and got a job working for a paper in Moscow, Idaho from 1937-42, when he so pissed off the University of Idaho Athletic Department by criticizing the firing of a number of coaches that he was encouraged to find a new job. He moved to Portland and got a job at the Oregonian, the city’s largest paper. He was a battle correspondent during World War II and then went back to the Oregonian. He also started doing public service announcements and other radio work because he had a good voice. He took some time away from journalism to be the assistant to Oregon’s governor and later utterly abysmal corporate hack Secretary of the Interior in the vastly overrated Eisenhower Administration Douglas McKay. As McCall’s career advanced, he began using his increasingly prominent voice in the Oregon media for political aims. Although a Republican, he began working on the plight of migrant farmworkers, leading to a bill providing those workers greater rights.

In 1962, McCall produced and did the voice for a documentary on the degraded state of the Willamette River and the air of Portland. This hit a nerve in Oregon. Soon after, Oregon would become the nation leader in popular environmentalism with McCall as its political voice. McCall left broadcasting in 1964 to run for Oregon’s Secretary of State. He had long had political ambitions, having been the Republican nominee for Congress in 1954 against Edith Green. He lost that race, but he won in 1964 and then instantly prepared to run for governor in 1966. That election was very much about environmentalism. But it was hard for McCall to differentiate himself from the Democratic nominee, Bob Straub. Both ran on being as green as possible. But with McCall already a popular and well-known figure, he won the race. They would have a rematch in 1970 on the same terms, and McCall would win again.

As governor, McCall would work heavily on environmental issues. One of the big issues the state faced was the future of its beaches. While they had been named public highways way back in the 1910s, working with pro-development politicians such as Mark Hatfield (who was a completely bought man of industry, despite his moderate reputation today), beach developers and hotel owners began demarcating beach spots for their own purposes. McCall spent significant political capital to end this practice, staging big media events that demonstrated to Oregonians that their beaches were no longer for them all, but rather just for tourists. He won this battle.

McCall’s environmentalism, and that of Oregon generally, was heavily defined against the devil, by which I mean California. That state was everything Oregon did not want to be–overcrowded, endless sprawl, horrible pollution, degraded environment. And now that Californians had ruined their own state, they were seeking to move to other western states to ruin. That worried Oregonians a lot and McCall tapped into those concerns. His famous quip that tourists “visit but don’t stay” both summed up how Oregonians felt about other states and their deep ambivalence about their state becoming a global tourist destination. Although McCall felt some regret that this line made him famous, if anything, many Oregonians felt far more strongly about it. I have seen reports of Californians complaining that Oregonians left nasty messages on their cars, simply because they were from California, in the aftermath.

McCall also pushed through the controversial statewide land use zoning program with its urban growth boundaries to protect the Willamette Valley from becoming the Los Angeles suburbs. That has remained tremendously divisive over the years. Developers want to turn farmland into subdivisions, housing prices have risen, a lot of the population has moved to southwestern Washington for cheap land. But it has also made the Willamette Valley home of wineries and breweries, a major tourist destination of its own.

McCall was term-limited in 1974. And he really struggled to find a place after he left the governor’s office. He was ambitious with nowhere to go. He did some more journalism in Portland and then in 1978 decided to run for governor again. But he lost the Republican primary to the pro-corporate Vic Atiyeh. The state, like the nation, had changed in the previous four years. The Republican Party began its long and endless move to the right. For Republicans, business interests were now more important than the environment. Atiyeh then defeated Bob Straub, served two term, and Oregon has not elected a Republican governor since, as the state’s Republican Party is now that of Idaho or Utah in a liberal state. In fact, Oregon does not have a living Republican ex-governor. In any case, many commenters noted how rootless McCall was without office, a man who loved fame and using that fame to good ends was now nothing more than a has-been defending his legacy.

At the end of his life in 1982, McCall was both defending the legacy of the land-use policy and fighting a nasty form of cancer. When a ballot measure appeared to repeal the land-use plan, McCall, open about his cancer and that he would die soon, said:

“You all know I have terminal cancer—and I have a lot of it. But what you may not know is that stress induces its spread and induces its activity. Stress may even bring it on. Yet stress is the fuel of the activist. This activist loves Oregon more than he loves life. I know I can’t have both very long. The trade-offs are all right with me. But if the legacy we helped give Oregon and which made it twinkle from afar—if it goes, then I guess I wouldn’t want to live in Oregon anyhow.”

The ballot measure was defeated. McCall died on January 8, 1983. At the end of the century, he was named the most important Oregonian of the 20th century by various media outlets. And that’s probably accurate. No one did more to turn Oregon’s environmental beliefs into law.

Tom McCall is buried in Redmond Memorial Cemetery, Redmond, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit some of our other oddball political figures of the mid-to-late 20th century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Dick Lamm is still alive and somehow Jerry Brown is still governor but there are plenty of other interesting figures to cover. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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