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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Remembering Mark Hatfield’s last visit to Gilliam, Wheeler counties

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By Grant Schott

Mark Hatfield was a progressive Lincoln Republican, as was typical of his party in Oregon through the 1980s. As Governor and young freshman senator, he was mentioned as a possibility for president or VP (more the latter) in 1960, 64, and 68. A World War II vet who served in the Pacific, he was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War and proponent of the Nuclear Freeze. As chair (or ranking minority member), of the Appropriations member, he worked wonders for OR in a bipartisan way, whether it was supporting the timber industry for rural Oregon (benefiting both owners and union workers) securing funding for mass transit and OHSU for Portland, and protecting regulated Bonneville Power for businesses and consumers in the NW.

Ron Wyden established the tradition of annual town hall meetings in every OR county when he was elected in 1996. His first stop was my native Fossil. I remember Hatfield coming to Fossil/Condon once when I was a kid. I was a political junkie even in grade school, so my mother and I went to the Condon agriculture dinner (I believe the Wheat League sponsored) on Oct. 30, 1984, at the Catholic Parish Hall to hear him speak. He had appeared at the Isabelle Edwards Hall in Fossil earlier in the day. Hatfield was reelected to a fourth term a week later, and I wore my Hatfield button. Senator Hatfield was extremely cordial and treated me like I was as important as any adult there (I must have been the only kid.) My mother told him I wrote to his office every now and then. He said, “name sounds familiar.” I did not believe him for one minute; I always wondered if Mom did.

The Wilkins family from the Clem/Mikkalo area was being honored that night as Gilliam County Conservation Farmers of the year. I did not know them, but Henry (or Hank) Wilkins started dating my Aunt Nancy the following spring and I have been proud to call him my uncle for over thirty years now! Hanks’s son Keevyn & wife Hollie and sister Ann were there, although his father Lester “Boss” Wilkins was unable it make it, as was daughter Tara, who was at college.

I still have memories of that night: Hatfield saying that, because of entitlements, the Appropriations Committee didn’t have the power it did 20 years earlier; John and Phyllis Johnson were at the main table at the stage; Gilliam County native and former Antelope mayor Don Smith was campaigning for State Senate; and mom and I had a nice visit with Al Riney.

The following year, the Wilkins family won the Oregon Conservation Farmers of the Year award, and Senator Bob Packwood was present at the Ag tour and lunch. Uncle Hank always chuckles that Packwood asked him to fill a coffee cup with beer for him.

I talked to Hatfield at the groundbreaking for the Columbia Gorge Discovery Museum in The Dalles in May 1996, his final year in the US Senate. In his speech that day, Hatfield said he might someday tell the story of how he finally persuaded President Reagan to sign the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. I asked several people over the years who I thought might know, and they did not. I read recently that Hatfield implied to Reagan, he might block funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative (or “Star Wars”) if he did not sign the Act, which Reagan did, in 1986.

I last saw Hatfield at the annual Hatfield Lecture Series at Oregon Historical Society in November 2006. He introduced former Senator Gary Hart who discussed his biography of President James Monroe. Hatfield was frail after a bad fall (some said stroke) two years earlier but was in good spirits. A legendary political science professor from OSU and mentor of mine Bill McClenaghan (worthy of his own post) was nice enough to introduce me. Bill had known Hatfield since the two were young professors in the early 1950s.

I voted for Hatfield in my first election, the last one he was on the ballot and would vote for him again.

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