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Enriching Oregon History: One Woman at a Time

May 16, 2017

Co-author of The Only Woman in the Room, Pat McCord Amacher joins us today to follow up on Gail Wells' reflections on the challenges they met while attempting to immortalize Oregon lawyer and politician, Norma Paulus. Amacher offers the perspective of a non-native Oregonian while sharing the strategies she and Gail Wells used to document, present, and preserve the extraordinary life and achievements of Paulus.


Unlike Gail Wells, who had enjoyed a lifelong submersion in Oregon history, I'm not from around here. When she told me about the Norma Paulus project in 2013, I had made a little progress toward shrinking the massive gaps in my spotty knowledge of the state by writing a biography with Gail of an Oregon timber family. I realized after researching the family's sawmilling history that I seemed to be evolving as an Oregonian, no longer merely a Midwestern transplant, among multitudes of others from "back East," who raised her kids here and learned about the Oregon Trail from their elementary-school curriculum. I finally felt settled. This epiphany both surprised and pleased me, adding greatly to the pleasure I gleaned from working with Gail, a fine writer as well as an informed citizen. When Gail offered me the chance to work with her again, on Norma's book, I viewed the forging of another building block in my cultural literacy as one of the job's loveliest perks.

So we began, slowly at first. After reading the oral histories taken with Norma by Linda Brody and Clark Hansen, Gail and I set about building the context for the story Norma told. We were allowed free access to her voluminous archived papers at Willamette University, and accepted eagerly, perusing boxes of documents and minutiae, from news clippings to greeting cards to notes passed on the floor of the House, while the hours flew by. Each time we had a library day, Gail and I marveled at how we loved the task, and not only for the color and confirmation the precious boxes afforded to the narrative. Norma's papers provided a veritable parade of illustrations for her oral history that greatly enriched it, inching us ever closer to a grasp on the complex portrait we were hoping to create.

We enjoyed a similar experience on our "field trips" to the Oregon Historical Society, where we plundered the Norma Paulus Papers, scribbling notes and ordering photocopies of the widely-varied clippings and correspondence gathered there. Another dimension of Norma's story was disclosed throughout the extensive audiotapes from Russell Sadler's interviews, both one-on-one with Norma and with a number of key players from her chronology. Then we talked to the players and her family members themselves, when we could, revealing yet another layer of our subject and sharpening its clarity. Lastly, we conducted good old-fashioned research with secondary resources, a task all the more rewarding as the final step in the construction of Norma's story-- her book. Holding it in my hands now, I feel Norma Paulus has given me a wondrous gift, and one I never dreamed of when I arrived in my strange new home: the opportunity to study Oregon history virtually at the knee of a great Oregonian, who lived it and spent most of her life creating it. I could have found no finer guide to follow.

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