I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.
–Abraham Lincoln

A new year is upon us, a time of warmth and light, embraced by humans of many persuasions from ancient times to the present to get through the bracing winds of winter. But what many of us love even more are those quiet moments of reading and reflection that follow the busy days, a time to reconsider where we find ourselves and what each of us can do to make this world of ours a kinder place.

A fortunate friend, considering a choice that would further advantage him while disadvantaging those less fortunate, sheepishly taps the imaginary devil on his left shoulder and then the imaginary angel on his right, a man caught between knowing what he wants and knowing better. It is a choice as old as humanity, a choice that we Americans seem to have before us once again. How much does each of us follow the ideals that we profess? And where is the leader who will clear distraction from our path and give us the moral compass to guide us safely home?

Through the years our country has produced a number of such leaders. Some years ago another friend told the story of one of them. “Before he started speaking out, the people of his state weren’t sure who they were,” she said. “But he told them, and they liked what they heard and responded: “Yes, that’s who we want to be.”

That leader’s name was Tom McCall, and from 1967-1975 he was the governor of the state of Oregon. It was during his tenure and in large measure due to his colorful language, idealistic fervor and political skill that the state gained its reputation for accomplishments in land use planning, public access to ocean beaches, and cleaning up and protecting the environment. Born in Massachusetts, where one of his grandfathers had been governor and the other grandfather had specialized in shares of copper mining companies before becoming an advocate for financial reform, McCall grew up on a ranch in the desert of central Oregon.

Prior to his election as governor, McCall had gained a reputation in the state as a fearless journalist and commentator who delivered his message in a deep, clear voice with a broad Bostonian accent. When he wanted people to understand the truth, he showed it to them.

As a journalist, he produced a documentary entitled Pollution in Paradise, which revealed the disastrous condition of the air and water quality in the state as a result of unregulated industrial waste, chemical dumps, and untreated sewage. The public reacted to his message, and the Oregon legislature passed legislation allowing the state to shut down polluters. As for McCall, his attitude toward those who would foul air and water and endanger human health and the health of the people’s natural resources remained constant throughout his life, as did his belief that a clean and healthy environment and a vibrant economy go hand in hand.

As governor, he continued to show the people of Oregon the likely results of the choices that were theirs to make by shining a light on those choices. Oregon has a beautiful seascape and its beaches remain open to all. Public access to Oregon’s beaches had been protected since 1912 under Governor Oswald West’s Beach Bill, but the bill had not specifically designated the dry sands as well as the wet sands. In 1967 a bill was introduced in the Oregon legislature to include the dry sands as well and thus assure continuing public access to the beach. Much of the legislature was at first opposed to the bill until Governor McCall landed on the beach in a helicopter followed by a second helicopter filled with reporters and photographers who showed the people what they stood to lose. Word spread rapidly. Legislators heard from their constituents. As McCall signed the bill, he is reported to have stated that “no local, selfish interest should be permitted through politics or otherwise to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.”

Quality of life for all was his theme. He laid it out in1973 when he addressed the Oregon legislature:

Quality of life is the sum total of the fairness of our tax structure; the caliber of our homes, the cleanliness of our air and water; and the provision of affirmative assistance to those who cannot assist themselves.

He reminded the citizens of Oregon of their responsibility and urged each of them to do their part:

I am just…wondering, where is the glow of yesteryear? I’m wondering where the heroes went. Gosh, I don’t know how long ago they left. Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. They are people who say: This is my community, and it is my responsibility to make it better. Interweave all these communities, and you really have an America that is back on its feet, a comfortable nation to live in again. I really think we’re gonna have to reassess what constitutes a hero.

                              –Tom McCall in an Interview with Studs Terkell

Even near what he knew would be the end of his life, Tom McCall kept fighting for truth, for responsibility, for doing what needs to be done, for a better life for all. And in that spirit, he continued to urge each and all of us onward.

May your quest go well.
May we continue to find accord and high purpose.
May we forever prove (by our action) that people can join together for mutual benefit and greater good.
May we continue to work together.
May we face and endure every winter with spring . . . forever on our mind.

–Tom McCall’s Farewell address to Oregon Legislature 1975

We all know there is much to be done. It is time to get to work.


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