Former Oregon governor Vic Atiyeh, who was a lifelong Duck even though he attended the UO only two years, is being remembered as a friend of higher education and the university following his passing Sunday at age 91.
Former UO President Dave Frohnmayer, who served as a state legislator and later as attorney general during Atiyeh’s tenure, recalls the former governor as a dedicated and proud supporter of the university. Atiyeh was a regular guest at many university events long after he stepped down from the governor’s office and was the recipient of both the university’s Pioneer Award and Distinguished Service Award.
“He was very proud of his association with the U of O,” Frohnmayer said. “He was very loyal to the university. He was a Duck.”
Atiyeh served during one of the most difficult periods in state history, winning election just as Oregon was sinking into one of the worst recessions it had ever faced. As tax revenue plummeted, Atiyeh had to balance his own desire for limited government with budget realities that threatened the state’s core public services, including education.
Frohnmayer said Atiyeh did his best to protect higher education from more devastating cuts because he recognized the importance of a college degree. But he also saw higher education as a key to revitalizing the state’s economy and pushed universities to move beyond programs in resource majors such as agriculture and forestry and begin training young people for the jobs of the future.
“He viscerally understood the importance of higher education,” Frohnmayer said. “And I think he was one of the first people to really see its international implications.”
Atiyeh attended the UO as a pre-law major from 1941-43. He was a guard on the football team and was scouted by several NFL teams, even getting an offer to play for the Green Bay Packers.
But the death of Atiyeh’s father in 1943 ended both his college and football aspirations. With both of his brothers still serving in World War II, Atiyeh left Eugene to take over management of Atiyeh Bros. Carpets, the family business his father and uncle founded in 1900.
But Atiyeh always savored his connection to the UO. He was a lifetime member of the UO Alumni Association and served on the UO President’s Committee. He also was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity while at the university and remained involved with the organization throughout his life.
In 1979, Atiyeh was among a group of eight distinguished Oregon residents awarded the UO’s first-ever Pioneer Award. In 2002, Atiyeh received the university’s Distinguished Service Award.
Atiyeh was Oregon’s 32nd governor, serving from 1979 to 1987. Born in Portland to a family of Syrian immigrants in 1923, he was the nation’s first Arab-American governor.
Before becoming governor, he served three terms in the Oregon House and four in the senate, rising to the role of senate minority leader. He lost to Gov. Bob Straub in the 1974 gubernatorial election but went on to defeat Straub in 1978.
The deep recession of the early 1980s was Atiyeh’s greatest challenge. Unemployment reached 12 percent during the downturn even as residents were clamoring for tax reductions, particularly in the spiraling property tax.
Frohnmayer said Atiyeh handled the crisis with a signature composure.
“He projected that aura of calm and measured response in the face of crisis that many leaders today might emulate,” he said. “He was the right guy for the job in a very, very tough time.”
Other leaders who worked with Atiyeh offered similar words of praise, including Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was elected to the state legislature the same year Atiyeh was elected governor.
"I am deeply saddened by the passing of Governor Vic Atiyeh — a great Oregonian, an historic governor, and a remarkable human being,” Kitzhaber said in a statement. “He led Oregon out of the recession of the early 1980s with a strategy embraced by both parties, and went on to make international trade a cornerstone of Oregon’s economy. He will be greatly missed, yet his steady leadership, gentle spirit, and love for our state lives on in the many contributions he made to Oregon."
―By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications