Ron Abell died on Saturday.
Though never formally employed by Willamette Week, Ron could lay claim to being a member of the original gang. By the time WW published its first issue in November of 1974, he’d been involved in Oregon politics in just about every way imaginable—as newspaper and television reporter, as staffer in Salem, as campaign worker for Wayne Morse and Neil Goldschmidt, even as delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972.
He wrote numerous humor columns, but his true calling was political reportage. In the mid-1970’s, when this paper was getting its start, few knew Salem better. He was utterly clear-headed about what it took to jam through legislation and run a state government; at the same time, he genuinely liked, appreciated and—mostly—respected the people he covered.
So while he wrote about their doings with precise language and never puffed up any of their doings, when he spoke of them, it was with a surprising combination of affection and bemusement. A fine example is a 17-page memoir Ron submitted to the Oregon Historical Society in the fall of 2005 offering “Some Personal Observations on the Wayne Morse Re-election Campaign of 1968.” Despite its modest title, it’s the clearest analysis available of what happened in that pivotal election.
Why Ron treated me so decently I’ll never know. He was, for all intents and purposes, one of my initiators into the mysteries of Oregon. Back then, he was a serious jogger—who chain-smoked Carltons. He loved to hang out in bars, like the Goose Hollow Inn—but never seemed to drink that much. He helped bring the James G. Blaine Society back to life in 1970. That, in turn, returned the expression “Californication” to Oregon parlance. (David Duchovny’s TV series should owe his estate royalties.) Most would have gloried in such a PR coup. Ron was actually a little embarrassed.
His was a gruff, world-wise demeanor—aided considerably by the deep vocal magic of so many cigarettes. But he was genuine in his caring and never claimed expertise when it didn’t exist. So you could rely—absolutely—on what he wrote and said.
Around then, I was entrusted for a period with the job of managing the copy of a number of important Oregonians, including former Gov. Tom McCall. I rarely met these legends in person, dealing instead with them and their helpers by telephone. The job was to give short pieces of writing coherence and punch. Frequently, ego was the major obstacle.
“Let ‘em say whatever they want about others,” Ron advised. “But don’t let them lie about themselves.”