Oregon’s former Governor Victor Atiyeh died recently, at the stately age of 91. Governor Atiyeh served the residents of Oregon between 1979 and 1987. I am not going to pretend I remember what kind of a governor he was, but I do remember that he was recognized as a statesman during his service, and died a respected statesman. Governor Atiyeh left an impression on me, though not in the way most politicians leave an impression on their citizens and residents. I will always remember him warmly.
Governor Atiyeh held me in his lap when I was about seven years old. The governor would have been about in his first year in office. We were on a family vacation somewhere. I don’t remember where, other than it must have involved unpaved service roads that had no business being marked on a map, and probably stinky days in a hot, dusty campground with ferocious bugs.
We were on our way home and Dad said, “The kids need to see the Capitol.”
We veered off the highway into downtown Salem and soon found ourselves marching up the marble steps through the front doors toward the gold plated pioneer. It was summer, and it was quiet. The legislature was not in session, so it must have been late summer 1979 or sometime in 1980. We toured the capital, walked through the lonely gallery, but never had the opportunity to see the gold pioneer himself. We were about finished, standing on the mezzanine outside the Senate chambers and lobbyist center. My brother asked,
“When do we get to meet the Governor?”
“Oh. No,” my parents responded. “You don’t meet the Governor here,” they disappointed him.
“But I thought the Governor lived here?”
“Well, he works here,” they responded. “But it’s not like that. You cannot just drop by the office and say hello.”
“Why not?” my brother persisted.
“He is very busy,” they replied.
“But we can check, right?”
It was clear my brother was not going to be satisfied until he had confirmation from a higher authority that no, in fact, you cannot just pop in and say hello to the Governor like you are checking in on a friend.
“Well, we can see if he is here,” my parents tried to appease him. “I doubt he’ll be available. He is probably in a meeting. The Governor is very busy.”
We went back around the corner of the majestic marble hallway, into the center office labeled, “Governor” in large brass lettering. We waited while my parents talked quietly to the receptionist.
“I know we don’t have an appointment,” they began humbly, “but we were wondering if the Governor is available?”
We were told to wait just a moment in the regal reception room. We sat patiently taking in the woodworking and the art.
After a few minutes the receptionist returned and invited us back to the Governor’s office.
There he was. Live and in person behind a regal wooden desk. Governor Vic Atiyeh. He invited us to gather around him, undoubtedly for a photo that I do not remember. He reached out and picked me up and put me on his knee. I was a pretty little kid, so I must have looked like I was about five or six years old instead of seven or eight, but I was still young enough to appreciate a lap. There I sat, after the unmemorable photo op. The adults talked while I sat snug in the Governor’s lap. I have no recollection what we discussed. I still remember the desk in front of me, and the Governor’s solid lap. I’m sure I got bored at some point. I think my brother must have asked for an autograph, but I went home with the better memory.
I learned something about what it means to be a public servant that day. Governor Atiyeh was available for his constituents. Certainly, if he had been in a meeting or away from the building we would have left with only the kind words of the receptionist. We interrupted him in the middle of a work day. We we were not even with an organized tour, it was just the five of us. At the tail end of a long road trip we must have been filthy and we must have smelled accordingly. The Governor indeed has a very busy job, but Governor Atiyeh was not more important than his constituents that day. Part of the job of most elected officials is “constituent relations,” but most of them have staff who handle that.
Many years later I learned from a loyal bureaucrat that it was uncharacteristic of Governor Atiyeh to welcome a grungy family unannounced and hold the youngest child in his lap. I do not know how often similar encounters may have taken place during the eight years he was in office. Maybe these types of events became less frequent over time. I do know that we were important enough for him to clear his desk and welcome us spontaneously. Times are different now and dropping in on the Governor might not even be permitted and under current security protocols. He is still a model to all elected officials.
Rest in peace, Governor.