It’s time we named something after Don Bishoff. He gave Eugene and Lane County a distinctive voice for nearly four decades. Those of us who remember and appreciate his contribution aren’t getting any younger.
Bishoff came to Eugene almost a half-century ago, spent a full working life at The Register-Guard, then retired in 1999 to pursue his love of politics more directly.
He started as a cub reporter, writing obituaries like anyone else who started a career in print journalism in the 1950s. The Register-Guard hired him as a beat reporter. He chased whatever story came over the police scanner. He moved up to an assistant city editor position, then got moved over to the opinion pages, before landing as the newspaper’s regular columnist.
Bishoff began opining about civic affairs in 1962. Readers loved it. The Register-Guard contained Bishoff’s opinions more days than not throughout the last quarter of the 20th century.
Lane County residents couldn’t escape the musings of Don Bishoff, not that anyone really tried. Bishoff hosted a radio show on KAVE and then KUGN. He was the voice of the region, unelected and unreplaceable. Occasionally mistaken, but always unmistakable.
He could ask questions that didn’t have ready answers. He sometimes entertained us, but more often showed us how entertaining we were. He launched mini-crusades that made us all better. The American Civil Liberties Union gave him an award for standing and writing against hate speech. He made a difference.
He cast his jaundiced eye on anything he deemed a threat to “the little guy.” The Eugene City Council was a reliable target. He took seriously Chicagoan Finley Peter Dunne’s adage that journalists ought to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” For the record, here’s the original quote (with spellings updated) from around 1900:
“The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead and roasts them afterward.”
Bishoff confirmed and exerted the newspaper’s awesome power, but carefully. He refused almost every invitation to speak from a podium, but he was quick to grab a bullhorn at any organized labor demonstration.
Since retiring from the newspaper, he has been a legislative aide for Bill Morrisette. Now he toils for the greater good in the background, and happily so. When his work schedule allows, he and his wife Mary Beth take off for parts unknown in their modest RV.
His preference for road trips should not surprise. Many of us remember Bishoff’s regular tirades against air travel. Has any human lost more luggage in a single lifetime? Probably so, but Lane County readers could revel in Bishoff’s predictable misfortunes for decades, and that somehow made our own difficulties a little easier to bear.
Everybody over 50 has Bishoff stories, favorite columns he wrote, escapades he uncovered and made plain. But those stories aren’t getting any younger. Neither is he and neither are we. Bishoff dedicated himself to the most temporary of media for most of his productive life. Newspaper writing has been likened to painting watercolors on toilet paper. It captures the moment, but nothing more.
How will we help others remember the man and his contribution to this place? Tugman Park is named after William Tugman, the first fabled editor of this newspaper’s Baker family heritage. Alton Baker Park, of course, was named after the newspaperman who hired Tugman.
So there’s precedent. What would befit the Bishoff name for future generations? I asked him. He didn’t hesitate. He wants a public bathroom to be named in his honor. It recalls a series of columns he wrote about the dearth of relief available for regular people.
It’s rare that I can claim to have preceded Bishoff, but I did manage to have the Eugene Library’s first-floor men’s room named after the newspaper I published. “The Comic News Reading Room” is an only-in-Eugene story Bishoff would have loved to tell, but as an accolade, it’s too small for his place among us.
I have my own opinion. I think every traffic circle should be called “a bish” — commemorating all the runarounds that Bishoff chronicled for all those years. If it’s true that what goes around, comes around, it’s time Bishoff got his due.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) co-hosts a Christmas party begun by Don Bishoff in 1960. Kahle grew up reading Chicago newspapers, long after Dunne died but where his influence is still felt.