In the days after a mass shooter shattered this conservative timber town, a journalist returns to find the people of her hometown to be sharply opinionated, even stubborn, yet eager to do all they can to help each other heal.
ROSEBURG, Ore. — In the homestretch of my seven-hour drive down I-5, a billboard just north of this town invited me to enjoy tapas and craft brews at a place called Salud.
I felt confused.
The Roseburg of my 1970s childhood had a Wagon Wheel and, for special occasions, Beef & Brew. Ethnic food? I remember one Chinese place. “Brews” meant Bud, Coors or Schlitz.
In the 34 years since I graduated high school and moved out of Roseburg, nothing had hinted at great economic or cultural progress in this conservative, Southern Oregon timber town. Not my three brief class-reunion visits, not my friends’ Facebook posts, not the occasional news story about a meth bust or a layoff at a lumber mill.
And certainly not a week of endless CNN broadcasts detailing reaction to the Oct. 1 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College. Almost immediately after that horrific news broke, the people of Roseburg stood before television cameras defending their right to own guns, some of them saying that if everyone had had their weapons with them that day, instead of locked away in their cars, this man would not have been allowed to kill nine people and seriously wound nine others before killing himself.
In liberal Seattle, gun talk like that is code for backwoods, backward, ignorant.
But the character of this place is not so easily summed up. Roseburg is no more purely a simple-minded redneck town than Seattle is a congested, unaffordable tech hub losing its soul.
Despite my horror at seeing “active shooter” reports from the hilltop campus where I once took swimming lessons and played tennis, despite the trauma of waiting that day to hear whether friends’ family members were OK, and despite the dismay I felt as my co-workers expressed disdain for the people of my hometown — or maybe because of all these things — I felt compelled to drive south and sort out the news reports and my own feelings about a place I couldn’t wait to leave at age 17.
“There’s a lot of strong community ties here … we’re also very opinionated at times, and stubborn.”
Brian Haskett, a classmate of my older brother’s, has lived in Roseburg all but seven months since he graduated from Roseburg High School in 1978. He looks away as he describes his town’s behavior on the day President Obama flew in to console families of the UCC shooting victims. Hundreds of protesters lined the streets, outnumbering and overshadowing supporters as they waved signs saying “NOBAMA,” “Obama-Free Zone” and even “Go Back to Kenya.”
Haskett was disappointed: “I really wanted to show America that, even in a time of darkness, we as a community can put our differences aside and show love and solidarity.”
His reaction surprised me. A gun-rights proponent who has been out of work off and on over the years, Haskett recently took courses in computer information systems at Umpqua in hopes of finding full-time work. I vaguely remember him as a tough-seeming teenager, and his look now reminds me of the “Sons of Anarchy” character Clay Morrow. He hunts and fishes, believes government is wasteful, and thinks we’re all paying a price for taking God out of the classroom.
But he also thinks the mental-health system needs review and believes Obama — who lost big here to Mitt Romney in 2012 — is “one man trying to do a hard job.”
His sentiments of peace and solidarity were echoed by others, whether conservative, liberal or in-between.
I guess it’s hard to argue politics when you’re grieving.
Haskett knows two people who saw their friends get shot that day. One, he said, is “what-iffin” because he didn’t have his gun with him, and the other is torn by guilt because she turned and ran when she saw what was happening.
“There’s some grief counseling that needs to be done now,” he said.
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Indeed. It seems everyone in this town of 22,000 has a connection to this shooting.
“There’s no more than three degrees of separation,” said my classmate Al Jenkins, a counselor who has spoken with some of the victims’ relatives. His own daughter Charissa, a senior at Roseburg High, knew six of the 18 who were killed or injured. Three of the dead recently graduated from RHS.
“It hits all of us,” said Dustin Hall, helping out at Handsome & Smart Tattoo, where people paid $50 for UCC-themed tattoos, with the money going to a victims fund. Hall’s buddy Chris Mintz blocked a classroom doorway, trying to keep the shooter from entering. He left the room, returned and took several bullets, but survived. “The ripple is just huge,” Hall said. “Everybody has somebody.”
But: “We’re resilient.”
Roseburg, on land originally inhabited by the Umpqua Indians, was settled in the mid-1800s by pioneers who cut a southern branch of the Oregon Trail to avoid floating down the Columbia River. Gold mining, agriculture and trade fed the region’s growth, followed soon by the railroad, then timber harvesting.
In the early 1900s, Roseburg became home to a very large Ku Klux Klan chapter. And yet, former Douglas County District Attorney and Circuit Judge Bill Lasswell said that in the 1980s and ’90s he never saw a defendant treated unfairly by a jury, regardless of race.
Lasswell, 81 and retired for six years, pointed out that even though Douglas County gave presidential candidate George Wallace, a segregationist, one of his strongest pockets of support in 1968, it did the same for Democratic Sen. Wayne Morse, a Vietnam War opponent.
And when the peace-loving Rainbow Family held a 1978 gathering for thousands in the woods up the river from Roseburg, the event went off smoothly, unlike similar gatherings by the group elsewhere around the country. Some of the more left-leaning residents in town even joined the party.
“And so,” Lasswell offered, trying to sum up the place, “it’s a contradiction.”
“There are a lot of fair people, a lot of progressive people,” said Lasswell, who won nonpartisan races, registered as a Republican, usually votes Democrat and has never owned a gun. He just returned from a trip to Paris and urged me to check out a local winery that hosts concerts featuring Mozart players and opera music.
Doesn’t it say something about the place, he asked, that you can have that type of thing and be successful?
So why the vitriol over gun rights and the government — not just Obama, who speaks urgently about the need for gun control — but for government generally?
Many people said feelings have hardened since the 1990s, when the United States greatly limited federal timber sales to preserve habitat for the northern spotted owl. That ruling cost some 3,000 high-paying timber jobs in a county already hit hard by cyclical recessions. Unemployment peaked at 18.4 percent as recently as 2009. And though it has dropped steadily to about 8 percent this year, that’s still a couple points higher than the state of Oregon and nearly three points higher than the U.S. average.
“Timber’s been on the decline for 40 years. It’ll always be a component of the economy here, but we can’t rely on that to make a full comeback,” said my friend Kathleen Nickel, head of marketing for the local hospital, Mercy Medical Center.
Nickel stayed in Roseburg after college because she fell in love — with the police chief, Mark Nickel, who recently retired. Now she’s helping Mercy’s chief executive promote the idea of a medical education college, saying the region desperately needs family-wage jobs.
Others are looking in their own way to diversify the economy. Nearly 30 wineries — some of them getting national attention — line country roads, including the narrow lane I once took to pick beans for summer spending money. Craft brewing also has started to take hold. Still — and ironically, given the anti-government sentiment here — public agencies like Fish and Wildlife and Veterans Affairs are among the largest employers.
Nickel said Douglas County has had trouble recruiting employers in part because it relies on grants instead of directly investing local money into development projects. And the town is smarting over a recent decision by Roseburg Forest Products, the county’s largest employer, to move its headquarters an hour north to Springfield, saying it could no longer attract quality workers.
“We need to come together foundationally, not just, ‘Oh, I want to do something good today,’ ” she said at the end of a week in which people at the hospital rallied in unprecedented ways to help care for survivors and their families. After the hospital staff fielded 2,500 phone calls one day, 1,700 the next, and arranged 4:30 a.m. interviews for East Coast TV personalities, my friend chose her words carefully.
“This is about who we elect to represent us legislatively and locally. And we need to think about the economy here. It’s really tough.”
In 1981, I couldn’t wait to get out of Roseburg. I loved jogging the country roads and swimming in the river — the same one that meanders past UCC. But this also was a place where my sister’s go-go boots and my brother’s “black music” drew unwanted attention. I set my sights on city life and a journalism career inspired by Watergate.
So why did some of my friends stay? And do they all still get along?
They cited family ties and their love of hunting and fishing. Even Jenkins, the counselor and a tie-dyed pacifist hippie, had cut short a hunting trip to see me. He races off-road trucks for fun, surrounded by people much more conservative. Yeah, there’s the occasional political argument. But mostly they all get along.
“You don’t effect change by yelling and screaming.”
At the hospital, that became a problem during presidential-election season, said my classmate Stacey Hawks, a nurse. Televisions were turned to Animal Planet to avoid political shows and the unavoidable commentary by patients.
Still, said Hawks, she has seen people come together to support the UCC victims (her son, incidentally, had to hide in the college library during the shooting). When she needs camaraderie, she turns to her “yoga family.”
“There’s a real diversity of people here,” she said. It’s just that many are quiet.
Aside from the occasional war of words on Facebook, I saw no sign of rifts between my longtime friends.
Darren Paschke, who was laid off soon after college from his management job at a lumber mill, has built a long career as a production manager for a wastewater systems company. He’s not too political, and during election season sometimes blocks vocal Facebook friends, picking them back up after the voting is done.
“I just like seeing how your kids are doing, what you’re up to,” he said.
For Leanne MacFarlane, who once lived over the hill from me and let me ride her horses when we were kids, it’s important to choose people with similar beliefs to share your life with. But with casual friends it doesn’t matter so much. And last year she left her husband of 30 years, an eye-opening decision for a Christian conservative who once harshly judged anyone who would divorce.
“I could be pretty self-righteous,” she said of her past attitude. “It doesn’t matter who people are; everyone deserves respect.”
I think that’s something more of us could learn.
In fact, I’ve gained respect for the people of Roseburg. Not so much those protesters. But the teenagers I saw hugging each other for comfort. The baristas raising money for victims. Lots of big guys with tears in their eyes. All of those who quietly showed this place is filled with love, not hate.
I came here unsure how I felt about this small town, beyond the bucolic scenes of my childhood memories. While the trip might not have settled all my questions, it did do one thing: made me realize good things can come from staying in your hometown, or at least staying connected to it.
Just before I left town, I stopped at a reservoir where student leaders from two high schools had organized a day of fishing to pay tribute to 20-year old shooting victim Treven Anspach. More than 350 people showed up.
Christy Smalley, whose son played soccer with Anspach starting at age 4, said, “It’s just amazing what you see. It’s an eye-opener. Everyone’s here together, supporting each other.”
As she spoke, the sun broke through the fog and families reeled trout in from the picturesque lake. There wasn’t a protest sign in sight.
Before I headed toward the freeway and north to Seattle, I sat on the ground and took it all in. That’s when I realized: I might have been in a hurry to leave this place as a kid, but this time around I wished I could stay a little longer.