A place with lots of history can provide a sort of existential comfort—it’s the opposite of existential dread. The Willamette University Archives contain thousands of documents, photographs and other windows into the lives of nearly two hundred graduating classes of students. Time has passed them by, and what remains are only distant but familiar snapshots like faded photos of a childhood friend. These snapshots tell us that there were those who came before and those who will come after, and that time is too big and indifferent to spend it stressing over a bad grade or an oncoming final. After searching the immensity of Willamette’s history in the Archives, our concerns seem small. Here’s some things I found along the way.
The beginning of Greek life
This issue of “The Willamette University Alumnus” from January 1927 observes the beginning of Greek life in real time.
The uncredited author of the article “New Societies for Old” says that fraternities are usurping the place in campus life once held by literary societies. “This is an age of specialization,” he says. “General erudition is generally looked upon with disfavor. We seek specialized scholarship rather than culture and with this change comes change in student societies.” Instead of joining societies which study Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony, members of the author’s generation were joining fraternities focused on subjects like forensics or the social sciences. Alpha Phi, for instance, began as a fraternity for the dramatic arts.
An eldritch being
The January 1960 issue of “Alumnus” unearths knowledge that probably ought to have stayed buried in the past. Did you know that before Blitz the Bearcat, there was a monstrosity known as Barney Bearcat (pictured below)?
Campus was a battleground
1919 was the first year of “Alumnus,” but the magazine’s writers still had decades of Willamette history to look back on. In fact, the June issue featured Charles B. Moores, who described himself as a “...reputed relic of prehistoric times.” He recalls how the campus used to be enclosed by a railway fence and that Willamette’s west end was a wheat field.
Moores also painted a picture of Willamette during the Civil War. He said “...the campus was something of a battle ground, with Union troops greatly predominating. Republican and Democratic families seldom communed and among the students there was great political friction.”
The only Civil War battle of note on campus was between students Bill Cross and Lafe Williams on the athletic field. Williams was a Democrat and Cross a Republican, and the two wrestled on behalf of their respective sides. It was a Union victory and—fifty years later—Moores got in touch with both to find that Williams had been voting Republican ever since.
Also hearkening back to the Civil War, this May 1948 issue featured a parade in which the Chi Omega sorority had a “southern theme” float. According to the caption, the float featured a blackface caricature. Racism and white resentment are inherently intertwined with Willamette’s history and we can never forget that. This is just one item in a long list from Willamette’s past.
An inspiring author
Willamette alum and author Martha McKeown (class of 1923 and Lausanne resident) offered a refreshing allyship in the university’s deeply colonial history. McKeown was a renowned author, teacher, historian and advocate for Indigenous rights. An “Alumnus” article in May of 1949 talked about the release of her first book “The Trail Led North,” which chronicles the life of her uncle Mont Hawthorne. The book is available on the second floor of the library.
McKeown was the only white woman ever accepted into the Wy’am tribe. She fought to create markets where the Indigenous people of the Celilo village could sell traditional crafts like beadwork and drums, and more importantly, she tried to fight the development of the Dalles Dam which illegally destroyed the fishery reserved by the village in treaty.
In her activism, McKeown continued the work of her uncle. Mont Hawthorne’s life contains surprising examples of empathy across racial borders, especially for a white man in the era of the Wild West.
After a somewhat obscure but impressive career as a writer, McKeown spent her final days in a Portland hospital. Davinne McKeown describes how her grandmother was roomed next to Flora Thompson, a close friend from the Celilo village and widow of its former Chief Tommy Thompson. “To the east,” Davinne McKeown says, “Mt. Hood could be seen from the balcony on clear days. And, with its location, near the top of the building, the traffic below was muted to a vague and distant roar. Perhaps, with imagination, the noise reminded the two old friends of other days beside the rainbow-crossed spray of Celilo Falls.”
I bought a book
Another Willamette author appears in the summer 1991 issue of a campus magazine called “The Scene.” An article titled “Caraker advice: ‘Write daily’” by Andrea. G. Dailey details an interview with Willamette alum and author Mary Caraker (‘51).
After earning her English Literature degree at Willamette, Caraker taught at Oregon and San Francisco high schools until she eventually became a full time writer. She chose science fiction at a 1981 writers’ conference, inspired by keynote speaker Ursula K. LeGuin.
Some of Caraker’s novels include “Watersong” and “The Faces of Seti.” Her most impressive accomplishment, however, is publishing her stories in Analog Magazine—one of the most prestigious short fiction magazines in the U.S. Having been rejected by Analog many, many times myself, I bought an issue in which Caraker is published to attempt a little osmosis of her writing ability. For good measure, I’ve also got a Ouija board next to my keyboard.
On the subject of Ouija boards, 1922’s October “Alumnus” quotes President Carl G. Doney (namesake of Doney Hall). Referencing universities, he says “They have seen the banishment of witchcraft, the destruction of superstition and the downfall of persecutions.” Fortunately, I can personally attest that witchcraft has escaped persecution at Willamette today as much as Doney’s irony escaped him.
Willamette’s history contains infinite stories. People have been hoping, dreaming, trying, failing and succeeding here in many of the same ways since the west end was a wheat field. Willamette is no stranger to the breadth of human experience. Students here have been knocked down, achieved great success, seen the world change around them and survived the racial hatred of an inherently white supremacist institution. If anything else, a look at their lives lets you know that you are not alone. Wherever you are right now, a thousand steps have tread.