State leaders send off ‘Oregon’s grandpa’

Vic Atiyeh remembered in jubilant service

By Taylor W. Anderson / The Bulletin / @taylorwanderson

Former Gov. Vic Atiyeh was remembered Wednesday as a leader who didn’t care if he got credit for fixing problems, as Oregon’s political leaders filled the Capitol House chambers for his memorial.

In 28 years of public service, eight of them as Oregon’s last Republican governor, Atiyeh only lost one election. He led the state through high inflation, unemployment and interest rates in the 1980s. And he is widely regarded as one of the most transparent of Oregon’s governors.

Former staff and family members who spoke Wednesday said Atiyeh, who died July 20 at 91, was calm and decisive in his focus on creating programs to help the state’s poor and his dedication to serving all Oregonians.

Atiyeh, who served as state representative and senator before being elected governor in 1978, died two weeks after falling in his home on his 70th wedding anniversary. His wife, Delores, didn’t attend the memorial service in Salem for health reasons, said Denny Miles, Atiyeh’s press secretary.

Rep. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, spoke of Atiyeh’s desire to do whatever was right. Winters pointed to Atiyeh’s work bringing new industry to Oregon at a time when the logging industry was in decline and the national economy was struggling.

“We cannot wait for the federal government, because the citizens of this state will starve,” Winters recalled Atiyeh saying.

Atiyeh created the first statewide food bank in the nation, Winters said, drawing applause from visitors. He also pushed tougher punishment for hate crimes, she said.

“Behind all of this was the ever-present compassionate leadership of Gov. Atiyeh,” Winters said.

Former Gov. Barb Roberts, a Democrat who served as Secretary of State and state representative under Atiyeh, remembered the Republican governor calling more special sessions than any governor in history.

Roberts recalled an old-time politician who didn’t care about party lines and instead focused on the issue at hand.

“Gov. Atiyeh and I could have been at partisan loggerheads. We could have been,” Roberts said. “Particularly on tax policy issues. But we shared a common commitment to our native state of Oregon.” Instead, she said, Atiyeh worked across the aisle.

“His voice carried weight in every part of Oregon,” she said. “Oregon won’t be the same without you, my friend.”

Miles, Atiyeh’s former press secretary, said the nation’s first Arab-American governor traveled a quarter-million miles inside Oregon during his two terms as governor.

The governor maintained good relationships with the state’s Indian tribes, said Miles, who acted as master of ceremonies for the service. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs responded by giving Atiyeh a lifetime fishing license on the Deschutes River.

Miles said Atiyeh asked that his memorial service be “jubilant,” and the crowded chamber filled with laughter and applause throughout the two-hour service.

Atiyeh’s children, Tom and Suzanne, spent much of their lives with their father in the Capitol. They recalled the state’s adoration for their father, who Suzanne called Oregon’s grandpa. Tom pulled out a bamboo fly-fishing rod that Atiyeh made for him in the 1950s.

“He can’t be with us because he has gone fishin’,” Tom Atiyeh said.

“I consider this his last open house,” said Atiyeh’s former chief of staff Gerry Thomspon. “Rest well, boss. You deserve it, and I will miss you.”

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,

tanderson@bendbulletin.com