Morgan was not the easiest father in the world. My nephew, Joshua Reiss, once remarked when he was quite young, that there were two kinds of grandparents: hard and easy. When Rosina asked him which she and Morgan were, Josh responded—and without hesitation, I might add— “hard grandparents.”
But, the older Morgan got—or perhaps the older I got— the easier he became. And, looking back at his childhood, his “hardness” stands to reason. He came from a hard generation.
Raised by a single-parent father in Depression-era Albina— a neighborhood known for its immigrant street-toughs— my father grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Portland. He pulled himself up, learned how to survive, educated himself through the public library system, and was lucky enough to meet people who encouraged him to succeed. Morgan worked odd jobs through grade school and high school, making ends meet in a household that— in his words— “was so hard, I really don’t know how we did it.”
I think he was tough because he knew “the worst of hard times” and he wanted better for his children. He did not want to see us squander any opportunity. And, in later years he was a wonderfully caring father to his grown children.
He taught all of us so much, I thought I’d talk a bit about what I learned from him.
Morgan, as any who knew him, had an acerbic sense of humor, but for many years that was lost on us as children. He would offer up withering comments about “The Laws of Physics” when one of us burned our mouth on a baked potato or something. But I have to tell you, the concept of latent heat has stayed with me over the years. He often made wry comments about when we grew up and had our own children. He said he planned to drop by and laugh at us. But, in fact, when any of us had difficulties when our children were growing, he offered his sincerest sympathies.
His cynicism and sardonic wit stayed with him until the very end. In his final year—and living in a memory unit in McMinnville—he dryly observed to Rosina, “There are a lot of really crazy people in this place.”
In my mid-thirties I dated a man, who, after I’d quoted Dad for the umpteenth time, asked me, “Was your father a personal friend of Mark Twain?” Of course he wasn’t, but I think they would have enjoyed each other.
He was also a practical teacher.
As a very young child he taught me how to shear a sheep. And how, if the sheep dies from fright (or perhaps old age), you can finish the job to at least salvage something from the incident.
He certainly taught all of us not to smart off in the back seat of the car. All my siblings have memories of his lightening-quick arm whipping around in a broad arc. Anyone not experienced enough to duck got a blow to the head. Those of us who survived tittered helplessly behind our hands.
Dad knew— and taught us by observation— that there is almost always a mechanical solution to any problem, and if there isn’t one available, there is no reason why you cannot make one. He built tools for every purpose and continued to well into his 80s. The last thing I remember him creating were some wonderfully utilitarian wooden folding stools, and a copper rose trellis that still stands at his last house in McMinnville. Unlike other trellises I’ve seen, the one he designed is light, perfectly proportioned, and sturdy.
I spent hours with him in his workshop at the Black Butte Ranch, and he taught me how to weld and the importance of good tools— “Buy the best you can afford, and take care of them for life.” Return a dirty or misused tool to him, and you would be sorry.
Never run with blasting caps. That story can probably go untold at this gathering, but I can tell you that I’ve never done it again.
Never divulge secrets others entrust you with. When we lived in Washington D.C., Dad drove me to school every morning. On occasion we ate breakfast with Drew Pearson while Morgan gave him insider information for his muckraking column, The Washington Merry Go-Round. They talked openly in front of me— a twelve year old— knowing I would not repeat what I heard.
Never give personal information over the phone to people you don’t know. Morgan was head of the Democratic Party in Oregon, at a time when the Republican Party owned the state. He helped to get Democrats like Wayne Morse, Maureen Neuberger, and Edith Green elected, but not without creating a lot of enemies. I learned to say my parents were “busy and could not come to the phone” whether they were home or not.
He taught us the importance of organized labor and a decent wage. Not only did he teach us, but he led by example, supporting The Oregon Reporter, an alternative newspaper started by striking reporters at the Oregonian and The Oregon Journal during the 1960s.
He taught all of us how to drive a car. FAST. There is a family story about a trip I took with him from the Black Butte Ranch back to Portland in his little Volvo P1800 in well under the already recording-breaking time the rest of us drove. He taught all of us how to properly take a corner and the joy of driving a stick shift. I’ve been told by many a passenger that I drive like a man.
Around my 18th birthday, he took me out to a bar in Portland. He knew the owners would serve me. I think mine was scotch; I know his was bourbon—An Old Fashioned, made with Old Taylor, and no sugar was his standard for years. After we’d both had a few of drinks he said, “You seem to have a pretty hard head for liquor,” and he warned me that it could be just as problematic as being a cheap date.
Watching the news with my father was an exercise in critical thinking. By the time I went college and took the class of the same name, it was like kindergarten. Always look to the motives behind any politician, he said, and question why someone wants to run for office. And…. he once posed a question that I’ve thought about over the years, “What would you be willing to do in your career to get a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court?”
He taught all of us the importance of voting along party lines, government regulations, of staying out of debt, being leery of the stock market, voicing opposition to stupid decisions, and— above all— to be true to ourselves.
He had an uncanny ability to see the consequences of any action taken. Whether it was bad legislation or a personal decision, Morgan often saw the ramifications over the long haul. He often butted heads with politicians and bureaucrats who did not share his insight.
One person who appears to have understood this is Jack Bogdanski, an Oregon political blogger and professor at Lewis & Clark Law School— and who might be in the audience today. He recently wrote in an astute tribute, “Morgan was still publicly commenting on politics when he was nearly 90 years old. In a 2001 op-ed piece in the Oregonian, he blasted deregulation of private electric utilities in Oregon, warning that corporate greed would push rates for consumers through the roof.” And Morgan was right…. predicting Enron as well as the big crash of 2008.
He was probably the most ethical man I’ve ever known. He once made a football bet and lost to my son, aged ten or so. He honored the wager and went with Sam to see Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood, part II. Anyone who knew Dad knows what a sacrifice that was. I think a stiff drink was required after that outing, but he did it.
In the long run, my dad taught me a lot, but I would say his biggest gift to me was that uncanny ability to anticipate consequences. It caused him a good deal of hardship in his political career—because he was not willing to look the other way or take the path of least resistance. But he was almost never wrong.
Morgan used to say, “You only live once, but if you do it right… that’s all you need.” Certainly he lived a big and full life. He was a rancher, a politician, a businessman, as well as a sailor with an innate talent for navigation. He and Rosina lived in Europe, Washington D.C, the Bahamas, and many points in between.
He was a tough and principled man who came up in tough times. He was a big man—a big thinker—and we could use a lot more men like him.