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Revealing the man, one conversation at a time

The first time I saw John Wedell, he was dragging a cart along Pacific Avenue in the September sun, his head hanging so low his chin nearly touched his chest. Clad in two or three coats and his red helmet, he looked ready to overheat.

That was five years ago, when I was a freshman at Pacific University and John was a Forest Grove icon I didn’t yet know.

Through the years, “the guy with the carts” was mentioned a few times in my classes. Everybody had seen him, but nobody knew his story. Writers wanted to write about him, artists wanted to draw him, photographers wanted to snap his picture. They were drawn to him, but from a distance.

Rumors about John were plentiful: he used to be a professor at Pacific, his wife died of cancer, his son committed suicide, and more.

My boss at the News-Times, John Schrag,

finally introduced me to John Wedell last summer. It was the first time I’d seen his face up close. We asked him if he would let us write a story about him.

I was nervous and hesitant,

unsure if he’d let a stranger tell the story of his life.

He said yes.

Weeks passed until I ran into him again on Pacific Avenue.

“I haven’t forgotten about the

article. I’ve just been really busy,” he said before I had a chance to greet him.

“Tell me your name again,” he said the next few times we met. We began to chat regularly.

He often recalled what it was like to be my age — “getting that first job after college, eating well.”

I’d look at him and wonder how, at 23, he’d imagined his own life would turn out.

A few weeks later, I ran into him on Pacific Avenue, across the street from Tidwell Dental’s scrolling electronic sign.

“About the interview,” he said. He paused and lifted his binoculars to his eyes, aiming them at the time flashing on the sign. “Hmmm, Thursday at noon,” he murmured. He lowered the binoculars and turned to me. “I’m kind of busy today, but maybe tomorrow, between 10 and three.”

The next day, good as his word, John came to the News-Times office, sat down with a pen and notebook, and started from the beginning: his European ancestry. (It’s English, Irish, Italian, German and Austrian, he says.)

He proceeded through his childhood, his education, his jobs. The talks continued for months.

“This has actually been therapeutic for me,” John said after one session.

I was surprised. By that time I was aware of scores of people who greeted and welcomed John.  

But how rare is it, really, to talk deeply about your life with someone, to pass more than pleasantries with people you encounter all the time?

It was a feeling I could relate to.

I ran into a few glitches as I tried to report this story. John’s mother declined to be interviewed. And John asked his brother, Steve, not to talk with me because he didn’t want the story to turn into “a warped family history.” Steve respected that, saying only, “My brother is extremely smart. He has an extraordinary background.”

I think all of us here at the News-Times lost sleep thinking about how to respect the Wedell family’s privacy, while honoring the promise I repeatedly made to John that his story was still coming.

Why did he want us to do this story? “I want it to be known there are people around who have important contributions to make, but the establishment isn’t willing to give out nine-to-fives,” he told me.

I started this project thinking it might help me truly see someone I’d been looking at for so long.

I used to think the world was full of John Wedells. But I learned there is only one. All I had to do to find out was ask.

For the story on John Wedell, click here.



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