Chet MacMillan, city commissioner and school board member, dead at 91

A controversial figure through the 1970s

By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin

Published Aug 17, 2014 at 12:01AM

An often controversial figure in Bend politics throughout the 1970s, Chester “Chet” MacMillan died Aug. 9 in Medford. He was 92.

Born in Kansas, MacMillan served in the Navy in both World War II and Korea, then came to Bend in the early 1960s to open a plumbing business.

In 1968, MacMillan made his first run for public office, one of 11 candidates for five seats on the Bend City Council, then known as the City Commission. He finished sixth, but two years later won an impressive victory in a seven-way race for the school board, winning more than twice the vote of his two closest rivals combined.

Having campaigned with an eye toward returning “discipline and morality” to schools, MacMillan often tangled with his fellow board members, ending up on the losing side of efforts to give the board “watchdog” responsibilities over a high school honors reading list, allow an outside group to distribute Bibles to students and ban the sale of beer at a rodeo at Bruin Field, the district’s stadium at the time.

Bob Greenlee, who served on the school board with MacMillan in the early ’70s, said he recalled MacMillan as often difficult to work with.

“He had very firm opinions about religion and conservative actions, and sometimes, those ran counter to what really needed to be done,” he said.

Then, in 1974, MacMillan jumped into the race for City Commission, the precursor to Bend City Council. In a Bulletin editorial shortly before the 1974 election, the paper said it couldn’t endorse a vote for MacMillan.

“No one, except possibly a retired person, can possibly do justice to both at the same time,” said the editorial.

A few weeks later, MacMillan won the seat.

In the spring of 1975, MacMillan was defeated in his bid for re-election to the school board, but he remained on the city council through 1980. As during his time on the school board, MacMillan often took a strongly moralistic tone, floating proposals to ban the possession of alcohol at Drake Park and railing against a pinball parlor on Greenwood Avenue where teens had been arrested on drug offenses and other charges as “a disgrace to the town.”

His was the only vote for his 1977 proposal to open every city commission meeting with a prayer, but while serving as mayor in 1980, he took it upon himself to deliver pre-meeting prayers on his own.

MacMillan’s daughter, Sharon Behm, said her father’s outspokenness often overshadowed his generosity. While running his plumbing business, he often found himself working for elderly people who couldn’t really afford to pay him, she said.

“If they did not have any money he would not charge them, and if they insisted on paying he’d just take a minimum, $5 or $10, whatever he thought they could pay without hurting themselves,” Behm said. “And one little old lady, she always paid him in muffins.”

In 1972, MacMillan and his wife, Ernadeen, opened the Bend Roller Rink, in a former dairy that today is home to the Midtown Ballroom on Greenwood Avenue. The couple lived upstairs, and again, Behm said, used their business as an opportunity to help the less fortunate, often cooking meals or providing a place to sleep for kids who had nowhere else to go.

Behm said her father won the respect of many people who, although they disagreed with him politically, realized he was committed to doing the right thing as he saw it.

“A lot of people in Bend didn’t like him, but if he told you something, he believed it,” said Stacey Carpenter, MacMillan’s granddaughter.

After leaving Bend in the early 1980s, MacMillan moved to Texas, where he dedicated himself to a longtime sideline of providing ministerial services to prisoners. Behm said he’d learned to fly while living in Bend, and often traveled the country in his plane to visit with inmates. In more than a few cases, MacMillan and his wife remained friends with the men he met through the ministry after they were released from prison.

“He was very headstrong, but that’s why he did the things he did,” Carpenter said. “The squeaky wheel gets things done, and he got a lot of things done around there.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com