Gary A. Warner
The Bulletin

Buehler on Buehler

What you wanted to be when you grew up: A ­Major League Baseball player

Favorite baseball team growing up: Cincinnati Reds

Favorite baseball player growing up: Tom Seaver

Favorite football team growing up: Minnesota Vikings

Favorite football player growing up: Fran ­Tarkenton.

Favorite music: Classic rock

Favorite musical acts: Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, the Eagles

Favorite movies: The first “Rocky,” “Star Wars, Episode IV — A New Hope,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”

Favorite non-fiction book: “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” by Sam Quinones

Favorite history book: “A Study of History” by Arnold Toynbee

Next book to read: “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It” by Richard Reeves

Favorite TV show as a child: “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”

Recent favorite TV show: “The Americans”

Favorite foreign cuisine: Thai

Food “guilty pleasure”: Pepperoni pizza

Specialty you cook for your family: Buttermilk blueberry pancakes

Favorite drink: Crux ­pilsner

Where did you go for honeymoon: Cancun

Favorite U.S. place: Maui

Favorite foreign place: Rome

Guilty pleasure: I love watching funny pet videos.

Editor’s note: Knute Buehler has represented Bend in the state House since 2015. He’s now the Republican nominee for governor. The Bulletin is publishing a two-part profile of Buehler. Part one, today, looks at his life up to his entry into politics in 1992. Part two, to publish Sept. 16, will look at Buehler’s political career.

Just northeast of Roseburg is Colliding Rivers Park, where the Little River flowing north slams head-on into the North Umpqua River flowing south. The spot churns and pops with water and air before merging into the main branch of the North Umpqua, now heading tranquilly west.

Knute Buehler still visits the place where he spent childhood summers in the 1960s and ’70s. But over time, he says he’s found new meaning in the forces that come in from the left and the right to form a main stream.

“Sometimes, conflict can create incredible beauty at the end of the day,” said Buehler, the Republican state lawmaker from Bend who is the GOP’s nominee for governor.

“Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing that right now in politics, because things are not mixing. They just hit head-on and try to go over the top of each other. The strength is in the mixing, be it rivers or politics. Ideally, you get the best of what is coming in from both sides.”

Buehler, 54, is hoping his political version of colliding rivers will unseat incumbent Gov. Kate Brown and end Republicans’ nearly 32-year drought in winning the governor’s mansion.

Whether the idea sinks or swims will be decided by voters in November.

The poor kid from an under-­educated family in Roseburg is a world-traveled orthopedic surgeon and artificial joint designer in Bend with a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship on his resume.

Talking earlier this summer at McMenamin’s Old Church & Pub in Wilsonville, not far from his suburban Portland campaign headquarters, Buehler looked much like the young student in photos at Oregon State — coolly confident, composed and physically trim three decades later. He has traded in the dungarees and striped polo shirt for a dark blue blazer, light-blue collared dress shirt and dark slacks with a crisp crease. The shaggy bowl-cut hairdo and Tom Selleck-style mustache have given way to a businessman’s orderly, short haircut with a close-cropped, gray-flecked goatee.

Buehler says he has the time and personal resources to fulfill one of the promises he made as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford — to return home, be a leader and engage in civic affairs.

Roseburg: The butcher’s son

When Knute Carl Buehler was born on Aug. 1, 1964, the third and last of three sons for Werner and Dollie Buehler, a life that would take him around the world and reap great personal rewards and wealth would have seemed far-fetched.

Buehler’s paternal grandparents immigrated from Germany after World War I, settling in Drain, about halfway between Roseburg and Eugene.

“They ran a small grocery store,” Buehler said. “My grandfather never spoke English, and my grandmother spoke broken English.”

His maternal grandparents were from Oklahoma.

“Both of them were of Native American heritage, but not registered in a tribe,” Buehler said. His grandfather grew up on a reservation and spoke Choctaw.

“They and my mother were not very forthcoming about this family history,” Buehler said.

Neither Buehler’s father nor mother graduated from high school. His father was a butcher, his mother a housewife. Buehler said they instilled in him and two older brothers the message that the things that may have held them back were not preordained to be the burden of their children.

“My parents stressed that if you worked hard and played by the rules — rules are important — you could succeed in life,” Buehler said. “But they also knew how important education was because of how it limited them in their quality of life.”

Though the Buehler household was nominally Republican, the roiling electoral landscape of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t intrude very often into family discussions.

“Politics was not a big subject around the dinner table,” Buehler recalled.

Religion has also been a background presence in Buehler’s life.

“I attended a wide variety of churches growing up,” Buehler said. “My parents were not very religious, but I attended church with friends. I most frequently went to Catholic church.” Asked if he currently goes to church, Buehler said, “No.”

Don Crossfield met Buehler while teaching a freshman honors math class at Roseburg High School.

“He was quiet, determined, and resolutely detailed,” Crossfield recalled.

Buehler was best known on campus as a top pitcher on the high school baseball team. He was also the second-string quarterback and punter on a Roseburg High team that went 14-0 his senior year, winning a state championship.

Crossfield coached basketball, where Buehler became one of his favorite student-­athletes, visiting his home and even babysitting his 2-year-old and infant daughters with the help of a teammate. Though a star athlete, Buehler recognized that he shared the court with 14 teammates.

“He was willing to sit on the bench sometimes so that others could also get their glory time,” Crossfield said.

Crossfield helped Buehler fill in the blanks on how to lead a life beyond Roseburg.

“When you are the first generation of your family to graduate from high school, there is a lot of common sense things you don’t know about,” Buehler said.

“Don was among the teachers who have helped me over the years. Oregon’s public schools were my elevator to success.”

Corvallis: On the way up

Though his grades would have given him plenty of options, Buehler chose to apply to only one four-year college: Oregon State University. His older brother Mark was a pre-med student there. Leaving home was a big enough change without going farther away.

“Oregon State was a good choice,” Buehler said. “It has a nurturing, supportive environment where people are judged by their personal character. It’s not an Ivy League school where who you know and how much your family gives to the university’s foundation really matters.”

Buehler majored in microbiology with a minor in history, but his passion was for baseball. As a pitcher, Buehler’s slider was good enough to make the Beavers’ team as a walk-on. But the high school star had to be satisfied with being a little-used spare part on the back end of the pitching staff of the nationally ranked Beavers team. The only thing higher than his exemplary 4.0 grade point average was his disappointing 6.75 earned run average.

“I’d be getting hit pretty hard, and the manager would come out to the mound,” Buehler joked. “I’d say, ‘Don’t take me out; I’m not tired.’ He’d say ‘You may not be tired, but our outfielders are.’”

Still, the teamwork that went into playing a supporting role was a lesson for Buehler. And it would soon help open the door to one of the most exciting and prestigious chapters in his life.

Baltimore: A reality test

When Buehler was in grade school, his father suffered a major stroke and only partially recovered. Buehler wanted to help others whose lives were disrupted by illness.

Accepted to five medical schools, Buehler picked Johns Hopkins University. He started in the fall of 1986, moving across the country.

“The biggest head-­snapping change in life for me was going from Corvallis to Baltimore,” Buehler said. “I had never seen the abject poverty and struggles of such a tough city.

“You had a crack epidemic creating all kinds of problems,” Buehler said. “There was a breakdown of family life, a lot of violence,” Buehler said. “One night when I was working the emergency room, there was a gunfight in the waiting area. We took the two wounded guys right into the trauma bay.”

During Buehler’s time at Johns Hopkins, a new medical threat was coming to fore.

“We were seeing young healthy men coming in — and dying — of incredibly rare cancers and infections, and it was hard to figure out the cause,” Buehler said. “We were on the leading edge of a wave of HIV/AIDS. It was a scary time for a lot of people seeking help.”

The time in Baltimore challenged the notions about life Buehler formed in Oregon.

“It creates a lot of questions in your mind. How could there be such poverty, crime and breakdown of society, plus a new disease on top of it,” Buehler said. “I felt I needed to better educate myself on all these matters.”
Fellow Hopkins student Tomasz Beer said what stood out about his roommate and future lifelong friend was a restless mind.

“What was truly extraordinary about him was his relentless curiosity,” said Beer, now a medical school professor at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “He asked questions constantly and did not make assumptions.”

Buehler was on his way to becoming an orthopedic surgeon when a chance conversation changed his life.

“One of my classmates had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and said he thought I would have a chance if I applied,” Buehler said.

The scholarship, established in 1902, sends Americans to the prestigious British university and had traditionally been given to star academic students who had also been seen as leaders — and taken part in athletics.

“They were looking for people who weren’t just bookworms,” Buehler said.

Buehler’s baseball background was a plus alongside his straight-A record. But he still had to go through a rigorous interview process that included traveling to Seattle to answer questions on a range of topics, including medical ethics, where he was asked about abortion and genetic engineering.

Buehler was accepted at Merton College, established in 1294, whose alumni have included medieval theologians, poet T.S. Eliot, Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito and several Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

Oxford: Another world

“Knute had many friends in Roseburg, at Oregon State, and at Hopkins,” Beer recalled. “He had two brothers. He was not used to solitude. So the relatively monastic life of a Rhodes scholar was tough.”

Unlike American universities with their focus on lectures and tests, students at Oxford are assigned a massive amount of reading material used for papers they must “defend” in oral questioning by faculty. The process sometimes borders on the prosecutorial.

“I was almost brought to tears by the questioning of one professor,” Buehler said. “It was that confrontational.”

But the British system also honed his writing in a way that would help his future political writings.

“They don’t want a long tome,” he said. “They want a crisp, tight argument.”

But the decision to move overseas for two years was not without issues. Buehler had met a fellow medical student at Hopkins named Patricia Owen. They met over an anatomy lesson featuring a cadaver. Both were involved with other people at the time, but both sensed the possible beginnings of something early on.

“One of the things I found most attractive about Knute was that he was passionate about helping people,” Patricia recalled. “From our first conversation, we both felt that we had found a kindred spirit.”

Ironically, their relationship became closer even as Buehler was taking steps that would separate them for long periods.

“Truth be told, that was probably the biggest problem,” Beer said. “He was miserable in England at first. For the first time (and the last), I wondered if he would make it. But he is Knute. So he buckled down and powered through. And after a while made some new friends, had a visit or two from Patty and it all worked out.”

Buehler continued his medical degree studies at Johns Hopkins even while enrolled in a master’s program in politics and economics at Oxford. He returned home during breaks in Britain to fulfill requirements in Baltimore and see Patricia.

The couple got engaged between Buehler’s first and second year at Oxford.

Buehler’s time at Oxford coincided with the greatest upheaval in Europe since World War II. The Berlin Wall fell the autumn of his second year. The Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc was rapidly unraveling the Cold War. Buehler crossed the English Channel the following winter to visit Beer, then in Poland, for a first-hand view.

In Gdansk, Beer and Buehler attended a massive rally at the city cathedral where Lech Walesa, the Solidarity labor union chief, spoke. Afterward, the crowd streaming down the streets were stopped by plain-clothed secret police.

“They kind of started pushing us around and my friend is speaking in Polish,” Buehler said. “I took out my passport and held it out. They stopped. That was the golden ticket — an American passport. They just rushed us by and started harassing the next group.”

Splitting time between Baltimore and Britain also made Buehler appreciate the more free-wheeling aspects of American life that were suppressed in Oxford.

“Merton was one of the oldest colleges, and everyone wore a tie, coat and button-­down shirt to dinner,” Buehler said. “If you have seen the Harry Potter movies, it was like that — the movie’s school scenes were filmed at Oxford. I started wearing a red plaid shirt from Roseburg. I remember one university ­bursar seeing me. He was a Scot, and said, “I haven’t seen a shirt like that since the Yanks were here in the ’40s — keep it up.”

While at Oxford, Buehler was introduced by a friend to a visiting celebrity, billionaire businessman Ross Perot, who was considering an independent run for president in 1992. The two hit it off.

Over the five years from the fall of 1986 to the spring of 1991, Buehler earned a master’s degree in politics and economics from Oxford and a medical degree from Johns Hopkins. He was on the road to becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

But Buehler had picked up a new avocation along the way: politics.

It would be more than two decades until his political career would fully bloom. But Buehler knew one thing even then — whatever was going to happen would happen back home, in Oregon.

— Reporter: 541-640-2750,