Welcome Matt Groening Back to a Closer Springfield

We always knew. Matt Groening finally has confirmed for everyone else that “The Simpsons” home town is indeed our Springfield.

I met Groening once. It was my son Nathan’s birthday. Groening doodled a greeting for him. We framed it. Two decades later, it still hangs on my son’s wall.

For nearly a quarter of a century, the creator of television’s favorite animated sitcom has refused to identify which of America’s three dozen Springfields served as his inspiration. Until this week.

He may have believed that most residents of Springfield, Oregon don’t read Smithsonian Magazine and he may be right. But others saw the magazine interview and repeated the disclosure. Keeping a secret in our Internet-connected world is about as easy as keeping a secret inside Moe’s Tavern. Not very easy.

Groening also admitted a desire — maybe even a plan — to return to his home state of Oregon after his television career ends. “The only reason to live in Los Angeles … is if you have something to do with the entertainment industry,” he told interviewer Claudia De La Roca. “Everything you can experience in Los Angeles, you can have a much better version of in Portland—including, very basically, the air you breathe.”

This favored son won’t be returning any time soon, but we can start making plans.

Here’s a good way to begin. Create a Matt Groening endowment at the University of Oregon, dedicated to providing full tuition scholarships to the top graduates at each of Springfield’s high schools. Maybe Groening himself will feel an urge to contribute.

Why would Groening and other University of Oregon donors want to underwrite scholarships for Springfield graduates? (Here I will need to employ the sort of non sequitur-segue that Groening’s show does so well.) Could that make sense in multiple ways? Did you say “senses”? That reminds me of what I learned from the census.

The 2011 United States Census counted Americans over 25 who have at least a Bachelor’s degree. Oregon’s population is 28.6 percent college graduates, slightly higher than the national average of 27.9 percent.

Eugene has one of the state’s highest percentage of college graduates, with 40.2 percent. Springfield is near the bottom with only 15.3 percent.

Have you ever wondered why Eugene and Springfield, which are joined at the centerline of I-5, can feel so far apart? The gap between our two cities never has been geographic. As the census shows so clearly, the two communities remain divided by a demographic distance. You can walk to two institutions of higher education from downtown Springfield in less than an hour, yet fewer than one in six do.

If we can change that, the entire region will benefit.

Both Lane Community College and the University of Oregon have been franticly building capacity to keep up with enrollment demand. Lane Transit District’s EmX joins Springfield to those campuses in new ways. Eugene is also bursting at its UGB-seams, but the city wants to grow up without growing out (too much.)

If we can raise the number of college graduates living in Springfield by a percent each year, we can smooth all these growing pains.

More importantly, we’ll close the chasm between the communities. An X-prize of free tuition will attract good students and demanding parents to Springfield. More professors and other professionals will feel at home there. Developers proposing to build a six-story student housing project might start looking toward the east, into Glenwood or downtown Springfield.

Eugene will always be the college town, with its coffee-and-book-store vibe. And Springfield will continue being more pragmatic and less pretentious. I’m not hoping that either town will change its essential character. But if we could become closer neighbors, everyone will benefit from the wider range of choices.

Graduating more Springfield high schoolers from the University of Oregon would make a measurable and almost immediate impact on our metropolitan area.

If we’re lucky, Groening’s career in animation — literally “giving new life” — will continue for another decade or two, and by the time he returns to his native state, the real Springfield and its neighbor Eugene will have learned better how to animate each other.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.