Eugene’s Competing Slogans

Published Friday, June 27, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Pass the Hult Center’s north side and see writ large Eugene’s competing monikers. Stretched across the curved corner of the building, a huge banner welcomes Olympic Trials visitors to “Tracktown, USA.” Closer to the street, the Hult’s marquis welcomes Oregon Bach Festival visitors to “The World’s Greatest City for the Arts and Outdoors.”

“Track Town, USA” was coined by a sports writer for The Register-Guard in the 1960s. Nobody knows for sure who or when it was exactly. Retired sports editor Blaine Newnham says the name was already in the city’s lexicon when he arrived in 1971.

The longer-but-official slogan was crafted by Robb Hankins, who came here from Texas to revive the Hult Center as the city’s Cultural Services Director, then left after two years for a smaller town in Ohio.

Letters to the editor in this and other newspapers are rife with complaints about both nicknames for Eugene. The centrality of sport — even a boutique sport like track and field — is thought by some to diminish the core competencies of a liberal arts university and the town that hosts its students.

Claiming for ourselves the mantle of “world’s greatest” anything rubs others the wrong way — pretentious on our best day and dishonest on our worst.

So which is it? What is our claim to fame?

I have applauded Hankins’s contribution, arguing that the key word in his slogan is also the shortest: “and.” What other community can claim both the inner life of artistic expression and the outward adventure available in every direction? It’s easier to be Number One if you create a category with few competitors. Hankins shrewdly recognized a unique combination, and he was right to push for its adoption.

But that was before Vin Lananna hit the ground running. As the University of Oregon’s Director of Track and Field and Associate Athletic Director, he has reached out to the community in ways reminiscent of Bill Bowerman. The reinvestment in Hayward Field may be the centerpiece, but the effects ripple in every direction — completely full hotels, overtime hours for street cleaners, a sharpshooter station atop Agate Hall, banners and flowers on lampposts, … Need I go on? Even the parking meters near Hayward Field have gotten special Duck-green wrappings around their silver posts.

Here we are, two laps around the issue and both competitors are still running strong.

English majors know that no test question need be answered, if instead it can be rephrased. Every either/or question can be answered with “both” or “neither.” So let’s take advantage of our abundant supply of English majors and make a run at the slogan question.

Joe Valasek wrote a letter to the editor in January, 2007, suggesting an improvement to the Hankins slogan. Drop the word “city,” which amplifies the pretension of its modifying phrase “world’s greatest.” Substitute “community” in its place, which focuses more on the people than the infrastructure.

The fact is we’re not yet a city, and many residents wouldn’t want us to become one. We’re all in each other’s business here. We’ll walk an extra four blocks to not pay for parking. We whisper to each other in the grocery store, because you never know who may be listening. Illicit lovers don’t hold hands while crossing the street. We’re all one community.

Roll it off your own tongue and see if it doesn’t remove any distaste you may have had: “World’s Greatest Community for the Arts and Outdoors.”

As for “Track Town, USA,” can we make room for a subtitle beneath it? Consider our people who care none for sport, but feel pride about this place nevertheless. Give them a sop and stretch the slogan: “Track Town, USA, not Anytown, USA.”

Two fine slogans for one special place. No winner will be declared anytime soon. We’ll continue arguing about which is better. Like Steve Prefontaine and hundreds of runners before and after him, there’s nothing we love more than running in circles.

The University of Oregon’s athletic department is bringing competitive cheerleading to Eugene. Except it’s already here.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) cheerleads for the community and various non-profit organizations. He’s a former president of the City Club of Eugene. If you recall who first coined “Track Town, USA,” he’d like to hear from you. He blogs every week right here.