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Gov. Atiyeh remembered with tributes, laughs

Oregon says its official farewell at the Capitol


SALEM — Vic Atiyeh’s nine decades of life and 28 years of public service — including his eight years as Oregon’s 32nd governor — were recalled Wednesday with laughter and serious words.

The famous, the familiar and the family all paid tribute to Atiyeh in the House chamber, where he began his political career 55 years ago, as part of Oregon’s official farewell.

“Help us to rejoice in a good life well-lived,” said the Right Rev. Michael J. Hanley, 10th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon.

Atiyeh was governor from 1979 to 1987, and in the Legislature for 20 years beforehand, representing Washington County. He was the most recent Republican elected to that office. He died July 20 of complications from renal failure at age 91.

Current Gov. John Kitzhaber and two of Atiyeh’s other successors, Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski, led a long list of official attendees during the two-hour service.

"Gov. Atiyeh is Oregon's symbol of public service," Roberts said. "He is our role model of a true gentleman."

Among those absent was Atiyeh’s wife of 70 years, Dolores, who is in poor health.

The desks he occupied while in the House and Senate were decorated with photos and candles.

The Chamber Singers from Pacific University performed — Atiyeh donated his personal archives to Pacific last fall — and there was participation from the Boy Scouts of America, Oregon State Police and Oregon National Guard. Chief Delvis Heath of the Warm Springs, Paiute and Wasco tribes also paid tribute to Atiyeh.

Atiyeh himself spoke in the same chamber at the public funeral of former Gov. Tom McCall in 1983, when Atiyeh was governor, and at the memorial service for former Gov. Bob Straub in 2002.

He was one of four former governors in the chamber for the memorial service of Mark Hatfield, former governor and senator, in September 2011.

A tough eight years

Atiyeh led Oregon during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1982, when he called three special sessions, he and Democratic legislative majorities — with a few Republican votes — balanced the state budget by cutting spending and increasing taxes.

“Gov. Atiyeh and I could have been at partisan loggerheads on tax policy issues,” said Roberts, who then was a Democratic state representative — and later House majority leader — before she was elected governor herself in 1990.

“But we shared a common commitment to our native state of Oregon … to keep its schools funded, its basic services stable, and to vote for the future health of our economy.”

Roberts, 78, was governor from 1991 to 1995. She said Atiyeh once advised her upon becoming governor: “I would never be a stranger again in any part of Oregon. He was so right.”

Gerry Thompson, who was Atiyeh’s chief of staff from 1981 to 1986, said Atiyeh did more beyond the immediate crisis to open Oregon’s economy to international trade and high technology.

“He knew the economic base of Oregon had to change, and he was going to make that happen,” Thompson said, noting the 20 overseas trips that Atiyeh made during his two terms. Nine were to Japan, and it was 30 years ago that electronics giant NEC made a commitment to a Hillsboro plant.

Denny Miles, Atiyeh's spokesman during his governorship, said "Atiyeh" was invoked by a Fuji TV executive to get groups to smile for the camera. Fuji TV aired the series "From Oregon with Love," about a Japanese boy who comes to central Oregon, from 1984 to 1996.

Suzanne Atiyeh, his daughter, said her father worked hard to get to the top in Oregon politics. She said he’d already had to take over the family rug business at age 21, when his father died, and left college to do so.

“He made it look seamless, but he also did the hard work,” she said. “As far as I am concerned, he was the bravest man I ever met.”

Humorous moments

But as Atiyeh wanted it, there were light moments in the service as well, often from the same speakers.

Thompson recalled the time when Atiyeh and his wife were preparing to attend a California event in honor of former President Gerald Ford — Atiyeh was Ford’s Oregon campaign chairman in 1976. Atiyeh, dressed in a tuxedo, had stepped back at a guest home in Palm Springs to get a better picture of the sunset when he fell into the swimming pool.

“He crawled out of the pool, walked down the hall, found Dolores and said ‘I have a problem,’” Thompson said.

Jackie Winters, then the state ombudsman under Atiyeh, recalled a 1979 roast for the Salem-Keizer NAACP in which she was the roastee — and he was one of the roasters.

If farmers complained to him about the lack of rain or wives complained about husbands, Atiyeh said, “I tell them to go see Jackie.”

Winters, now a Republican state senator from Salem, said it wasn’t all in fun.

When a change in federal food stamps threatened to deprive people of their benefits, Winters said, she and Atiyeh helped organized what emerged in 1980 as the Oregon Food Bank and its network of 20 pantries around the state to distribute food.

“Jackie did all the work, and I get all the credit,” Winters quoted Atiyeh as saying with a laugh.

Noting that Atiyeh signed the laws creating advocacy commissions for blacks and Hispanics, and designating hate crimes, Winters said: "The governor had a unique understanding of diversity."

Atiyeh was one of three sons of an immigrant from Syria who settled in Portland, and was the first Arab American governor.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican, was only in high school when he met Atiyeh for the first time in 1974, when his father was a state representative from Hood River and Atiyeh lost his first bid for governor.

A few years later, Walden worked for House Minority Leader Roger Martin, who made his own bid for governor in 1978.

“Roger and I both learned what it was like to underestimate this low-key rug merchant from Portland, this quintessential Boy Scout who wanted to be governor,” Walden said. “Tom McCall learned that lesson as well.”

Fame and fishing

Atiyeh won the GOP primary in 1978 against Martin and former Gov. McCall, who attempted a comeback, and then went on to unseat Democratic Gov. Straub. He won a second term in 1982 against Kulongoski, then a Democratic state senator, who was elected to the first of two terms as governor in 2002.

Atiyeh, in all his years, was in the minority party in the Legislature and as governor. But after the years of McCall and Straub, Walden — who transferred to Atiyeh’s 1978 general election campaign — said Atiyeh’s campaign consultant advised him that Oregonians wanted “oatmeal.”

“Darn good oatmeal,” Walden said. Competent. Effective. And very good for the state. A healthy choice for what Oregonians needed during a very difficult time. Oregonians needed someone who could work across party lines and get things done. And Vic Atiyeh was just that person."

Tom Atiyeh, his son, ended his brief remarks by holding up a fishing pole and saying, “He can’t be with us because he has gone fishing.”

The elder Atiyeh fashioned the pole out of bamboo for his son 60 years ago.

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Adds Gov. Roberts comment higher up; clarifies Fuji TV executive's use of "Atiyeh" to get groups to smile for the camera.