EUGENE — McArthur Court is silent and Civic Stadium is history. The Heilig Theater has been replaced by a modern performing arts center. And that guy sitting next to me in the yearbook photo of my high school ski team? He now has a street named after him.
A lot can change in 50 years.
But Willamette Street, where I once cruised with my teenage friends like a Saturday night scene from “American Graffiti,” still has the trappings of a main drag. The Oregon Ducks football games continue to draw a crowd.
And although the “E” has disappeared from the slope of Skinner Butte overlooking downtown, the “O” remains. A couple of weeks ago it was painted not yellow, not green, but bright purple for South Eugene High School, my alma mater.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” wrote French novelist Alphonse Karr in 1849. “The more things change, the more it’s the same thing.” Thanks for the French lessons, Miss Adams.
The South Eugene Class of ’67 had nearly 600 graduates. More than 100 of them showed up last month for a class reunion, which included a Friday night reception at the Oregon Electric Station restaurant and a Saturday picnic on the shores of Fern Ridge Reservoir.
There was plenty of time to renew acquaintances with classmates (some of whom I saw for the first time in half a century) and to honor those whose lives had been cut short in the intervening years. No matter how disparate our lives and career paths had been, our common education put everyone on the same ground — even those with foreign citizenship or transgender identities.
We had all lived in Eugene when it was a sleepy Willamette Valley town of 50,000 people, less than one-third the size it is today. So for people returning after many years away, it was a priority to get out and see what changes time had wrought.
A long-ago place
I have lived more years in Bend than I did in Eugene, my home from sixth grade through my first degree program at the University of Oregon. I have had occasion to return frequently through the years. But I still found myself looking at Eugene through new eyes, recalling what once was and is no longer.
I imagine this would be true for anyone returning to a long-ago place for a short visit, like my classmates who now live in Florida or Wisconsin, New York or Toronto.
I was prompted to drive past the house on College Hill that was my family home through the ‘60s and ‘70s. The fruit trees are now fully grown, the steps have had a makeover, but the massive Douglas fir looming over Lincoln Street is still looking strong. The corner market is still called the Little Y. The sandlot where I played Little League Baseball and the community center where a friend and I learned to dance the twist with girls so tall they frightened us persist in nearby Washington Park. The Lawrence Street hill, where we ran our sleds in winters of heavy snow, hadn’t lost a degree of incline.
But Woodrow Wilson Junior High, my home away from home for three years, and the place where I sat in shock when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, is long gone. The original Eugene High School, it was demolished in the late ‘60s to make room for an evangelical church. I’m certain the unruly ghosts of its predecessor continue to haunt the grounds.
Most of my Wilson classmates wound up at South Eugene with me. Many came to the reunion. Most graduated; a few didn’t. One died in a horrific automobile accident; another succumbed to cancer. Kreg Viestenz was killed while serving in Vietnam in 1969.
Across 17th Avenue from Wilson was a tiny market where we’d rush after class to buy “penny candy.” Today it’s a rustic cafe, Cornucopia.
Some might argue that this isn’t a travel story. But travel is not always about trekking to a new or unknown destination. It may equally be about peregrinations of the mind. Everyone has been there. And few things will lead a mind to wander like a long-overdue journey to a former stomping ground.
The soundtrack makes a difference. In 1967, when the Beatles reflected upon “20 years ago today” and Aretha Franklin demanded “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” we were “Groovin’.” The Rolling Stones, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder were among our favorites. The Summer of Love was a heartbeat away, bringing with it the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. When Paul Revere and the Raiders played McArthur Court on the UO campus, I was among those cheering.
Today, many contemporary West Coast bands perform at the McDonald Theatre, on Willamette near 10th. I remember it as a movie house. Long before home video and cineplexes, my brother and I attended Saturday double-feature matinees with cartoons at intermission.
More serious films, like “Ben Hur” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” were shown a few blocks north at the Heilig, whose six-letter marquee stretched across Willamette between Sixth and Seventh. It came down sometime in the mid-‘60s, and the theater (a 1903 veteran of the vaudeville era) followed in 1973.
The Heilig was replaced in 1982 by the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, now renowned for its concert hall (home to the Eugene Symphony) and its Soreng Theater. The Hult also operates the Cuthbert Auditorium, a 5,000-seat open-air amphitheater across the Willamette River in Alton Baker Park, where summer rock concerts are held.
The single block of Willamette Street between the Hult Center and the Hilton Eugene is now a walking thoroughfare. A slice of Broadway (Ninth Avenue) has become a one-lane, limited-traffic route, with pocket parks and a plaza known as Kesey Square — so named for its statue of native-son author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) reading to his grandchildren.
North of the Hult Center, Willamette leads past Eugene’s Art Deco post office to the refurbished, 1908 Amtrak station. East is the Fifth Street Public Market, home to upscale shops, fine restaurants (including Marché), a spa, a winery and the modern Inn at the 5th. Less than a mile west is the Whiteaker neighborhood, once a low-income district, today (inspired in part by the resident Ninkasi Brewing Co.) the location of many of the city’s hippest restaurants and bars.
Change on campus
The most obvious changes have been on the University of Oregon campus, many of them directly related to the school’s athletic prowess. Hayward Field, McArthur (“Mac”) Court and Howe Field, which in my youth were home to football, basketball and baseball, aren’t what they used to be.
UO basketball was played at Mac Court starting in 1927, but it was replaced in 2011 by the $200 million Matthew Knight Arena. Hayward Field, where Duck football was played from 1919 to 1966, was adapted for use strictly as a track-and-field stadium after Autzen Stadium was built across the river. Outside its gates are tributes to legendary coach Bill Bowerman and distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Howe Field, built in 1939, has served women’s softball since PK Park opened next to Autzen for Oregon baseball in 2009. The new Jane Sanders Stadium was built last year at Howe Field.
The main athletic facilities, once housed in a single-story building adjoining Mac Court, have been relocated since 1991 next to Autzen in the Len Casanova Athletic Center. Besides administrative offices, Casanova Center houses locker rooms and training facilities for football and other sports; a state-of-the-art medical treatment center; an Oregon sports hall of fame; and the new Marcus Mariota Sports Performance Complex, courtesy of the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
Back on the main Oregon campus, along 13th Avenue just south of Franklin Boulevard, the $41-million John Jaqua Center was built specifically to assist student athletes with their academic work. Like many other facilities here, it was erected largely with the support of alumnus Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Nike, Inc. Knight’s support extends well beyond athletics: Last year, for instance, he gave $500 million to construct a three-building science campus.
I knew Bowerman, Prefontaine and Casanova. They were all a part of my University of Oregon years, immediately after high school. But I didn’t know any of them as well as Randy Papé.
Like his brothers and sister, Papé had been a member of the South Eugene High ski team that defeated Bend High for state championships in 1965 and 1967. He and I often trained together in Civic Stadium, which stood adjacent to South Eugene High before it was destroyed a few years ago by arson. A couple of times a week, our squad ran to the top of the stadium steps — sometimes with a teammate on our back — and jumped down as if we were skiing moguls.
In his 30s, Randy became president of his family business (The Papé Group) and the Liberty Financial Group. He became well-known for philanthropy, and for a time was a part owner of Mt. Bachelor. After he died in 2008, a prominent arterial link in west and north Eugene was labeled the Randy Papé Beltline in his honor.
Most of the people in my graduating class have retired now. They were doctors and lawyers, business executives and university professors. They were airline pilots and timber brokers, commercial fishermen and professional dancers, foreign diplomats and forest rangers, actors and artists, bakers and broadcasters, mechanics and bus drivers. At least three of them became writers, and one is a poet.
None of us will never know if a street is someday named for us. And it’s highly unlikely that any of us will be back in Eugene in another 50 years. Ten, maybe; 20, if we’re really lucky. But even then, we might be astounded by whatever new changes our old hometown shows us.
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.