Memory and Humility
We received quite a response to Deb Mohr’s article in our Spring issue about a cross being burned in front of her UO sorority in the early 1950s while she was dating a Black man. See our Letters section on page 4. The last time I remember getting this much response was for a 1999 article by Beth Hege Piatote, MA ’97, about the challenges of expanding racial and other forms of diversity at the University.
Almost all the letters we received about Mohr’s article were positive, and most were from people of her era at the UO, thanking her for finally telling a story that had lingered in the background of their lives. Whether they knew of the specific instance of the cross-burning or not, they all grew up with the pre-1960s codified racism of Oregon and the United States. And Mohr’s story seemed to serve as a kind of purging mechanism for them.
Racism is the original sin of the United States. The country was literally built on the genocidal slaughter and displacement of Indians and by the labor of African slaves. Exclusion—of men without property, women, minorities of all sorts, new immigrants, gay people—has been built into the nation’s law and culture throughout its history. The Oregon law against interracial marriage that Deb Mohr and DeNorval Unthank ran into is just one example.
Our nation’s foundational, wildly ambitious promise of equal opportunity and efforts to make that a reality are among the keys to our greatness—and the path to redemption from our original sin. But one of the underlying dynamics of our history is the struggle between the drive to make American society more inclusive and passionate resistance to those thrusts. That’s why, I suspect, Mohr’s and Piatote’s stories triggered such a response.
Remembering the battles of that struggle is important not just as a reminder of where we come from but also to help see more clearly where we are. Some might say that dredging up the nightmares of our past is a useless exercise of self-flagellation, for those who “hate America.” But repeating over and over what a great country we are, as our leaders and people who claim the mantle of “patriot” often do, doesn’t do much to make us actually great. Finding a humility that acknowledges our flaws, past and present, puts us in a better position to learn, to grow, to come closer to the greatness of our professed ideals.
In 2071, will Oregon Quarterly (in whatever form it might be presented then) feature an article by a gay person, describing what it was like in 2011 not to be able to marry the person he loved? Or the now elderly child of Hispanic immigrants remembering the challenges of succeeding in the Oregon education system in the early twenty-first century? Or a poor person recalling the dark days of unequal access to health care? Or an American Muslim, telling of suddenly becoming an outsider in the vague us-and-them dichotomy defined by the War on Terror? Thank goodness we still have a chance to change those stories, and thanks again to Deb Mohr—and all those who responded to her—for an old story that still has much to tell us today.
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Most college graduates can point to a single professor who made all the difference for us—lit a spark, made us believe, gave us a direction. For me that person was UO journalism professor Ken Metzler ’51, who died in April. It is totally coincidental but entirely fitting that my career path led me to be editor of this magazine, which Ken edited for fifteen years and transformed from a campus-news-oriented publication to a lively feature-based magazine. That’s just one of a multitude of things for which I will always be grateful to him. Peace be to him and his family.
I read Deb Mohr’s story [“Cross Burning at Gamma Phi Beta,” Spring 2011] with great interest. I enrolled at the UO in September 1958, and the athletic department asked me if I’d mind rooming with Sam Owens, an African American from Southern California. I said it was fine with me if he didn’t mind rooming with a White guy from South Salem High. We moved into Morton Hall dorm. I’m sure the football department thought my 3.6 high school GPA would help keep Sam in school so he could play for the Ducks but they couldn’t have been more wrong. We both partied as we shared a love of jazz, local music, and dancing. We both were gone by spring. Sammy back to SoCal and me to Clark Junior College. I eventually graduated in 1963. Back then even Jewish members had to be slipped under my fraternity’s national restrictions and our African-American friends just dropped by for backyard basketball and social visits. Now as a retired lumber exporter I’ve traveled to fifty-two countries but rooming with Sammy was a memorable start to a great education and awareness of society outside Eugene and Salem.
John C. Braun ’62
First, I want to congratulate you all on an incredible publication! I have read it for years and never bothered to say hello, thanks, congrats, or anything. My apologies! You guys are great. Secondly, I just finished Deb Mohr’s stunning story. Truly a chilling account of the terror of racism. I applaud her for coming forward with her story. The time period is quite compelling for me as I was a kid growing up in lily-white Roseburg at that time.
Dan Arensmeier ’59
I read Deb Mohr’s article with interest because my sister, Ninon Odile King ’47 dated a Black student, Carl Maxey ’47, while in her last year at the University. She lived in a dormitory, not a sorority. But she does remember unfriendly calls and comments from dorm windows when walking with Carl. Mrs. Turnipseed, then director of dormitories, apparently took no action. This was just a few years before Deb Mohr’s racial campus experience. After graduating from the University (Phi Beta Kappa), Ninon married Carl in Spokane, Washington. He became a well-known civil rights lawyer there. You will find a detailed description of Carl’s life and work at historylink.org, a publication of the Washington State Historical Society, or Wikipedia. Your publication is an excellent one, and I congratulate you on your work.
Francis P. King ’43
New York, New York
Thank you so much to Deb Mohr for undertaking the painful task of telling a story that needed to be told. Although I grew up in Portland, I am originally from Texas. I spent my first two years of college at Texas Tech in Lubbock, where I pledged Gamma Phi Beta. I remember being very disturbed when alums told us that “Negro girls had their sororities and we had ours.” I transferred to Oregon as a junior, and did not affiliate with the house in Eugene. At some point I heard about how a cross had been burned on the Gamma Phi lawn, and also that Mohr’s husband had become a prominent architect in Eugene. Although I did not know Mohr, I admired her integrity and was thrilled to think that she and her husband had defied and risen above those ugly prejudices. Thanks to Deb Mohr for her courage, her love, and her loyalty. I am proud to be her sorority sister!
Judy Hyatt Bacon ’60
I received Oregon Quarterly today and, as usual, have finished it. Deb Mohr’s fabulous story reminds me of my collection of what some referred to as “strange friends” while I was at Oregon: Jack, a sullen, crippled young man disfigured by a disease that left him wheelchair bound and angry, a Black football player, two track team guys, and a good number of friends from Gamma Phi Beta. I still remember that a group I belonged to, names are no longer that meaningful, tried to force a young Black man to resign. I am relieved to say at the end the group “allowed” him to stay. I put allowed in quotes because the word is so ugly used here.
I went to Oregon because of Bill Bowerman (yes, I was on the track team) and stayed there because of him and Dr. Paul S. Dull, who chaired the Asian history department. I never saw a person of color until I arrived at the UO in 1959. And that person was Otis Davis, of Olympic gold fame and a member of Bowerman’s team—one of the greatest guys I ever met. I didn’t know about the Deb Mohr story till today. I would have gladly been her and De’s friend if they would have allowed or honored me. I still love my “strange friends.” Love the magazine.
Bill Klimback ’63
Regarding “Cross Burning at Gamma Phi,” the author is suspect in mentioning Gamma Phi Beta ten times but not the name of the fraternity that erected the grotesque cross on the sorority’s lawn. I’m not arguing that this deplorable display of ignorance did not occur, but I question the magazine’s motive to single out one sorority on the Oregon campus when this type of vulgar display was happening throughout the state. I was a member of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority at the UO. We were then, and are now, diverse in our membership and dating. Our nation’s past laws against minorities are shameful and Oregon’s especially. We have come a long way, but should never forget our deplorable past. Gamma Phi Beta continues to be a strong presence on over 120 college campuses including the UO; promoting young women to success scholastically, personally, philanthropically, and professionally.
Julia Hart-Lawson ’77
La Jolla, California
Editor’s note: Hart-Lawson is president of the La Jolla alumnae chapter of Gamma Phi Beta Sorority.
On behalf of Gamma Phi Beta International, I would like to thank Oregon Quarterly for publishing the recollections, albeit painful, of our past member, Mrs. Doris Burgess Unthank [Deb Mohr]. The social upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s was a challenging time, and our organization is truly sorry for the pain experienced by Mohr as a result of her interracial relationship. We applaud Mohr for following the courage of her convictions—as we expect all members to promote integrity, respect, and appreciation for the worth of all individuals. We deeply regret that in the tumultuous times of the 1950s, Mohr did not receive this support from her chapter.
Today, Gamma Phi Beta Sorority is proud of our nondiscrimination philosophy. We do not tolerate discrimination or advocate intolerance of any kind, including that which is related to race, national origin, ethnic heritage, religion, disability, age, or sexual orientation. Our members are expected to uphold the highest form of respect for each other while supporting the personal choices of members.
Linda Lyons Malony
Editor’s note: Malony is international president of Gamma Phi Beta Sorority.
The members of the classes witnessing Deb Mohr’s painful experience on the Oregon campus in 1951 have greatly diminished in number, and the prejudice she encountered has also diminished somewhat. She has told a cautionary tale, however: any marginal, minority population seeking acceptance in the larger society may still encounter the fear and hatred that Debbie’s relationship with DeNorval Unthank aroused. The struggle for understanding and equity is not over. I do not think most of us were of much help to Debbie that spring. We were socially and morally unprepared for what was then an unusual departure from a behavioral norm. Anita Holmes had the courage to write the Emerald editorial; it did not occur to me to thank her. I do remember seeing Debbie and DeNorval on campus, together but very much alone. If they ever saw me, it was as a blank, noncommittal face—a person who did not entirely understand the course their lives had taken, but was at the same time saddened by their isolation. I know now that they were simply two people who had fallen in love, something almost all of us were hoping to do in that long ago spring of 1951.
Robert N. Funk ’52, LLB ’55
Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania
What memories were brought back to me after reading “Cross Burning at Gamma Phi Beta.” I was a freshman student living in Carson Hall in 1951. Growing up, I had only seen Blacks when my mother and I took the streetcar from our Oregon City home to Portland to shop. I had no knowledge of what prejudice was. When I entered the UO in the fall of 1950, there was a Black student who lived across the hall from me in a “single” room. She was such a funny and happy young lady that I was shocked when the news broke that there had been a cross burning and that a sorority asked their “sister” to either stop dating the young Black man or move out.
It really makes me feel ashamed that the University did not do more to resolve the issue. I feel proud that Mr. and Mrs. Unthank handled the situation so admirably and that Mr. Unthank went on to distinguish himself in the community, which had been so prejudiced.
Marlene Norquist Brady ’54
I wish to thank Deb Mohr for her article. I was from Washington state going through rush in 1953 and had no knowledge of what had happened two years before. I narrowed my choices down to Gamma Phi and one other and ultimately chose the latter. When the house I chose asked me what my second preference was, they were shocked that it was Gamma Phi because of its recent “reputation.” I was told only that a White girl from Gamma Phi had married a Black man and therefore created a bad stigma for the house. I was never aware, to my knowledge, of the cross burning. I am now aware of what Deb and her husband went through, as well as the Gamma Phi house. Thank heavens things have changed for the better.
Lynn Meyer ’57
Mercer Island, Washington
Thank you for the great article on how beavers are helping save salmon [“Beaver Believers,” Spring 2011] The piece did a nice job in illustrating that not all Beavers are out milking cows.
John Schmitz, MS ’68 (OSU ’64)
I just wanted to write and thank you for Bonnie Henderson’s outstanding article [“Beaver Believers”]. It is so important to communicate the essential role beaver dams play for salmon. I just returned from the State of the Beaver conference where I presented on our city’s effort to save local beavers and what that meant on a very small scale for our watershed and our community. We saw first hand the powerful effect of beaver wetlands—we now regularly document new birds, new fish, even mink! I can’t think of a more potent message to communicate at the state policy level and I wish your article was sent to every politician and fisherman on the Pacific coast.
Editor’s note: Perryman is president and founder of the Worth A Dam group (www.martinezbeavers.org)
Win McCormack’s book, and your introduction to the excerpt [“Apocalypse Here,” UpFront, Spring 2011] share a fearful, hyperbolical style, which is long on hysteria and short on perspective. First, the Rajneeshee’s did not engage in the first act of bioterrorism on U.S. soil. The U.S. government did when it intentionally poisoned large numbers of Native Americans with [smallpox-infected] blankets. Second, the story is told as if the Rajneeshpuram residents as a group were engaged in violent criminal acts, when, in fact, those residents were mostly unaware of Sheela’s violent acts, and were targeted for many of her worst criminal acts, from the attempted murder of Osho’s personal physician to massive wiretapping. Third, there is no reliable evidence that Osho was aware of Sheela’s violent acts or plans. Remember, Osho called in law enforcement and cooperated fully as soon as Sheela fled the United States and her actions came to light. Finally, while Sheela’s violent crimes are abhorrent, that community was facing hostility from much of Oregon and all branches of the U.S. government from the time of their arrival. That hostility and legal assaults pre-dated the violent responses by Sheela and her group. They weren’t just crazy people becoming violent for no reason. Rajneeshpuram was a community under attack, and a few people defended themselves in a violently illegal manner. Declaring the city “illegal” was like terminating Salt Lake City because of a predominantly Mormon population. Never before had a city been declared illegal because of an establishment clause violation; an order correcting the wrongful influence is the constitutionally appropriate action. Much more could be said; your space limits prevent that happening here.
Philip Niren Toelkes
Best issue [Spring 2011], ever!
Michael O. Whitty ’65
Thank you for another great edition of Oregon Quarterly. I love to hear about past alumni, great writing, and so on from my alma mater. It really brings back wonderful memories of the UO.
Jason Ruderman ’86
My husband and I have been receiving your publication since the ’50s or ’60s—not sure. This is the first time after all these years that I have been motivated to tell you that finally we are much enjoying the Oregon Quarterly in all its colored pictured glory.
I was a student in the ’50s and my husband graduated in the ’60s after returning from serving in the armed services. Thank you very much. We like the interesting format, the continuation of Class Notes, and the great articles. We are, of course, huge Duck fans, as is most of our family.
Marylou ’58 and Lowell ’63 Slick
The Spring 2011 Oregon Quarterly is outstanding. My husband and I are 1953 Oregon graduates and think this issue is among the best we have read. Just so interesting and it truly displays the basic meaning of the word variety. Pat and I lived through the “Cross Burning at Gamma Phi Beta.” It was even more ugly than the article portrays. Thanks again to the OQ staff.
Pat ’53 and Andy ’53 Dignan
WEB EXTRA LETTERS
Loved the Spring Oregon Quarterly article “So Close,” photos, colors, layout: very nice. As soon as I saw it, I got the Oregon Duck 2011 football fever rush. I almost wish they didn’t do so well because each game became so important, I was about out of my mind with each play for the whole season.
OK, the Ducks technically won the 2011 BCS game. The replays showed the Auburn player’s wrist touched the turf, a body part, not the hand [on Auburn’s game-winning drive]. I was disappointed Coach Kelly didn’t make more about it during the game or later and that the article didn’t make more about it.
But with LSU, an SEC team, our first game in September at Dallas, it’s the BCS-2011, Part II, i.e. revenge of the Ducks: fire, thunder, and lightning.
I’m always talking about Oregon here in the south. There is another fellow on the University of Tennessee Chattanooga campus who wears a Duck sweatshirt around. I will show him the Quarterly next time I see him.
Frank DePinto ’79
I think it is gross the way we dump so much money into sports programs in college. Hundreds of millions down the drain and what do we learn from it? Why not fund the School of Architecture and Allied Arts and produce the best architects and city planners on Earth? How about journalism and other programs? So what if some dude can catch a forty-mile-per-hour pass! College should be about producing the best and brightest, not about what team can score the most points. Let’s have college for the sake of learning. If people want to participate in and fund sports they can do that at a school designed for that purpose. I find the cover of this issue disturbing. It exemplifies much of what is wrong with our education system.
Jacob Weinstein ’04
Upon learning that the Ducks [were] number one in football [Briefs, Winter 2010], I finally need to make one long-made decision known: I will give money to the University of Oregon. While we have a competitive football team, the national rank of the University will likely improve due to the enhanced attraction of the University through the prowess of its football team and athletic programs. This has happened in the past with another university that I am greatly familiar with. It’s a little school in South Bend, Indiana, that parlayed the success of its football team into increased donations from alumni and the continued improvement of its national ranking (to those who give great import to such a thing). You might have heard of it: Notre Dame. It is now ranked number nineteen by U.S. News & World Report. I see no reason why the University of Oregon cannot follow in those footsteps, though some alums who do not appreciate the role athletics can play do think otherwise. Some of us have a vision. Others do not. I prefer to side with the visionaries.
Michael J. Ryan III ’77
The cover of the Winter 2010 Oregon Quarterly—the Mac Court farewell issue—shows a sea of hands. They are giving the Hitler salute, some say. Really? The Duck mascot has two arms up. So have several others. An estimate of the numbers of bodies and a count of hands closest to the camera confirms that those present have up both their right and their left. Perhaps they are cheering or paying homage to someone. No fascists here—just spirited Webfoot fans. I wish I could have been there among them.
John Vazbys ’57
Mahwah, New Jersey
All of the talk about Hitler . . . absolutely amazing! And now it spills over into this publication . . . weren’t there any letters to the editor about “all of the Obama salutes?” Obviously Kevin Dahlstrom has not ventured north from San Ramon, California, to attend an Oregon athletic event in a while . . . or he just watches too much Glenn Beck. If he had just studied the picture a little longer, he might have noticed that most of the upraised arms were forming the letter O. But then again . . . I guess when Kevin went to school in Eugene there was a much larger Nazi presence at school than when I did back in the ’60s . . . we were leaning a little more to the left!!
Stephen Jarvis ’69