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Gretchen Hult Pierce Led Us Here

July 23rd, 2021 by dk

Hippie icon Chez Ray Sewell had seen it all, touring and cooking for the Grateful Dead, starting and ending half a dozen local restaurants, being a fixture at the Oregon Country Fair for decades. So it was completely fitting that the WOW Hall hosted on Oct. 20, 2018 the First Annual Ray Sewell Wake, featuring members of the Chautauqua Circus and the still-alive but infirm Ray Sewell.

Sewell died a little more than a month later so he never made it to the Second Annual Ray Sewell Wake. But he blazed a trail for others to follow. Why not say all the nice things you can about somebody’s life before they leave us? Really, why not?

Gretchen Hult Pierce didn’t travel in the same circles as Sewell, but she’s gotten similar treatment from her friends and admirers since she entered hospice care. The Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce gathered testimonials from their First Citizen award winners to praise one of their own.

Dozens or hundreds have kept their vigils for Gretchen more privately. A WOW Hall tribute may not be in the offing, but I know she read the newspaper daily. I’m writing this midweek. Hospice nurses are not sure she’ll make it to Friday morning but she’s defied expectations like that before.

She told me once that she appreciates my willingness to make sweeping statements because she can quickly determine whether she agrees with me or not. “It’s a real time-saver,” she quipped, half smiling.

So here’s one that I hope she hears before she leaves us. Gretchen has done more than anyone else to make Eugene the small city it has become. She demanded integrity and efficiency. If she ruffled a few feathers, she accepted it as a real time-saver. She often said out loud what others wished they could.

I served with Gretchen on Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey’s commission for economic development in the late 1990s. City staff made a presentation at our first meeting. They asked if anyone had any questions. Gretchen did. “What exactly is our scope of work and how will our success be measured?” If she didn’t get a straight answer, she didn’t return for the second meeting.

Gretchen was always hard-driving and no-nonsense. She might prefer direct and honest, if only to save the hyphens. She came from the timber/development sector of our leadership, but with two important differences. She built a career for herself outside of Oregon before family obligations pulled her back. And she’s a woman.

Eugene has a heritage of strong women who made things happen. Like Carolyn Chambers, Ruth Bascom, and Ruby Brockett, Gretchen took charge. She leaves behind her a longer list. Among them: Jean Tate, Liz Cawood, Kitty Piercy, Jeanne Staton, Ginevra Ralph, Jenny Ulum, Anne Marie Levis, Sue Prichard, Ann Marie Mehlum, Sarah Medary, Bev Smith.… The list is long.

Everyone reading this should be grateful for all that Gretchen has done, hopefully before she’s done doing it. What exactly was her scope of work and how will her success be measured? Look around you.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at Gretchen passed peacefully just after midnight on the day this essay appeared in the newspaper. Her friends read her an earlier draft two nights earlier.

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