The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

Sort Interviews by Affiliation or Theme

Mike Beilstein Oral History Interview

July 7, 2016 – 1:00p.m.

Video: “A Scientist and Activist on the Corvallis City Council” . July 7, 2016

Location: Valley Library, Oregon State University.
Interviewer:  Chris Petersen

2:17:16 - Abstract | Biography | Download Transcript (PDF)


Chris Petersen: OK, today is July 7th, 2016 and we're in the Valley Library with Mike Beilstein. Mike is an alum and a former staff member, retired from OSU, and also a member of the Corvallis city council. And we'll talk about all of those things and more, but I would like to begin by trying to develop a more thorough biographical sketch of your life. You were born in Illinois, is that correct?

Mike Beilstein: Yeah, I was born in Normal, Illinois. I guess we have the slogan in my family that we're all far from Normal.

CP: What was your family background?

MB: Well, my father worked in a dairy in Normal, Illinois and I had nine siblings, so ten children altogether – five boys and five girls. I had two older brothers, the rest are all younger than me. When I was twelve, my father bought a dairy farm in Wisconsin, so we moved to Wisconsin. Normal is a college town a lot like Corvallis, so it's dominated by a university, but there's a big city next to it – Bloomington, Illinois. But basically I was growing up in a town a lot like Corvallis and then, when I was twelve, kind of yanked out of that and moved into this kind of isolated, rural environment. There was a village of about 500 that was maybe ten miles from our farm. But basically we were out on this farm; it was very isolated.

But anyway, we only lived there a year. My dad made some bad investments and his health was bad and we went broke, so then here we've got this family of ten kids and my dad's sick and broke. So we came out to Oregon because my mother's sister and her parents were living here in Salem, so they helped us out for a few years. I went to high school in Salem and my last two years of high school I got involved in this program called Upward Bound. It was a program to help disadvantaged kids have some experience of university life to try to get like ghetto kids from Portland, bring them to Corvallis for I think it was a six- or eight-week program in the summer. So I did that after my junior and senior year going to South Salem High School. So it exposed me to a lot of people from Portland because most of the Upward Bound kids were from Portland. And it got me used to Corvallis and the university campus.

So when I did graduate from high school, South Salem, without thinking I just went to OSU because I knew the campus, knew the dormitories, the cafeterias, the lecture halls and stuff. I came here as a Chemistry student and I guess this probably where we want some of the history of Corvallis, I don't know, it probably depends on the questions for that. But anyway, I did my four years, I graduated in Biochemistry/Biophysics. It was the first year that was offered as an undergraduate major, so there were twelve of us in that class.

And then I went in the Peace Corps from there; I was in Lesotho in southern Africa. I taught high school there for two-and-a-half years. I came back and lived on the East Coast, first in Washington, D.C., then Richmond, Virginia and Baltimore. So that area right around Washington, D.C. for another two-and-a-half years. And so after being gone from Corvallis for five years, I came back here.

I was looking for a job anywhere in Oregon. My parents were in Salem and most of my siblings were still around Oregon. So I got a job in Corvallis in the Agricultural Chemistry department as a research assistant, and then I kind of did that for the next thirty years. I wasn't always in Agricultural Chemistry; I also worked in Animal Science and the School of Pharmacy and Crop and Soil Science. So I did about thirty years as a research assistant at OSU and then, I guess 2007 was the last time I worked, so nine years ago, approximately, I retired. I really love retirement.


I was first elected to the Corvallis city council in 1998 as part of the Living Wage Campaign, and then I was off the city council for a while after that and still working. And then in 2006, I ran for city council again and I've been on the city council since 2007. So a total of six terms. And I really enjoy the city council work. Well, I guess it's changed over time, but I liked it from the start because of the collegiality, the idea of this coven, this group, of nine elected officials plus the mayor – ten elected officials – working together to do their best to make a better place for people to live. And then having the input from citizens – in general, citizens – but especially our advisory boards, and then the work of the city stuff. It's just seemed like where I belonged; it was the stuff I wanted to do, to be part of that team of local leaders.

I still get that sense of it, though things are getting more frustrating over time. And I certainly don't want to do it forever. I'd like to give somebody else a chance to have that seat on the city council. I guess I've always been uncertain about whether I'll run in the next term. It kind of depends on if somebody comes along that I trust to take over. I'll be happy to quit and let them. But I might stay on the council another two or three or six terms also. That's a pretty complete biography. [laughs]

CP: We're not quite done though. So we'll drill into all of these different chapters of your life in greater depth. I'd like to go back to your childhood a bit and ask you about things that you were interested in as a boy growing up.

MB: I worked as a chemist all my career and it was sometime – I remember it was before I could read, so like five or four years old – I had two older brothers and my oldest brother would have been about nine then, and he was talking about careers and he said when I grew up, I was going to be a chemist. And it stuck with me, I thought, "oh yeah, that's what I am." So it's interesting that that prediction or prognostication made it, when I was four or five years old, it turned out to be correct. And I still love to identify as a chemist. I remember I nagged my parents to get me, it was probably a Gilbert chemistry set, although I don't remember. I got some kind of chemistry set before I could read. The only thing that was useful in it was sulfur. You could take this yellow sulfur and burn it and make a horrible smell. [laughs] So I remember that. And as I was learning to read, at the same time I was playing with this chemistry set. So I guess that was something that I was interested in.

I remember, probably when I was four or five years old, we got a community swimming pool put in. It wasn't exactly in our neighborhood but it was like a mile-and-a-half bike ride, so I spent all those summers from about seven years old to twelve, before we moved, biking over to this community swimming pool. The gang of kids that I hung out with would all go together, plus my siblings – my siblings were a substantial gang with that many people.

We played baseball and football kind of as community sports with kids. And my folks had a big front yard that was – big to me now – it was maybe forty or fifty yards set back quite a ways from the street, but it was just a big lawn, so that was one of our main playing areas for playing football and baseball. There was also, just a few houses down, was the local elementary school that had a lot more space. I think I did, at least one year before we moved, I don't think it was called Pop Warner but some kind of junior football. I remember the name of our team was the Might Mites, which I had no idea what a mite was as a kid. So I enjoyed that.


At elementary school, I remember every day, if the weather was ok, they would have like the entire school in the half hour or hour before school started, and during lunchtime, they'd play soccer. It wasn't like real soccer but it would be teams of like a hundred kids on each side chasing one ball. [laughs] And so we'd do that before school and at lunch. I think I was in kind of a special cohort because it was kind of divided by grades, so it was fifth graders against sixth graders, and I remember as fifth grader, we would beat the sixth graders. So I always though we must be an especially intelligent or capable cohort that one year. It seemed like me and my friends were all pretty cool compared to these kids who were a year older. [laughs]

This was Illinois, so in the winter we had snow, heavy snow. And with my siblings and my dad, we'd build igloos in our front yard since we had a big field with a lot of snow on it. We had a creek running behind us that was kind of a storm water drainage ditch, and our parents never approved of it but we liked to go explore in that drainage ditch, catch crawdads and stuff. Play with fireworks. I never thought that much about time spent growing up as I am right now, so I'm dredging up lots of stuff that I wouldn't have thought if you didn't ask. [laughs]

CP: Where do you think the impulse towards science came from? Was that just always within, you think?

MB: I don't know. It was the Sputnik era, so in general there was this idea that we all had to become scientists. That was part of it. I can remember some characters I saw on television who were scientists or chemists, but like I say, this is something – when I was five years old, we didn't have a television yet, so that wasn't due to that influence. But I paid attention to that because I knew I was a scientist. [laughs] So I'd pay attention to those characters.

I guess there was kind of the magic aspect of it. If you understand how things work on the microscopic scale – if you understand how the interior things work in biology – well, then you can manipulate them in ways that you couldn't without that knowledge. So that kind of arcane special knowledge aspect I think appealed to me. Although maybe I'm making that all up because it sounds reasonable now as an adult. Yeah, I'm not sure. In school, teachers always kind of accepted that that was my interest and I had kind of a natural ability. I have a son, he's twenty-nine years old now, but I notice in him, he's got that same ability; this knack to always be the teacher's pet. He can ingratiate himself to people, make them like him, and I always could do that. So my science teachers in high school always thought, "boy, that Mike is sure smart." [laughs] "He's going to be something someday." Little do they know... [laughs]

CP: Were current events or politics important to the family?


MB: Not especially. I think my folks were generally both a little bit liberal and bit conservative, like everyone. I remember, growing up in Normal, Illinois – Normal is kind of right next to Bloomington, Illinois, which I mentioned earlier. Bloomington, Illinois is the hometown of Adlai Stevenson and there's a Bloomington newspaper called The Pantagraph, which the Stevenson family owned that newspaper. So there definitely was a strong kind of social pressure – and this is the first election I can remember, '56, and I would have been five years old. I asked my dad who he was going to vote for President, because it was Eisenhower and Stevenson, and he said, "well, I'm going to vote for Eisenhower but don't tell anybody because I might lose my job." But I'd say overall, my parents, my family were not especially political, but I can remember that one political incident from the first presidential election I can remember.

My siblings, some of them now, they're all in their fifties and sixties – I think my oldest brother is seventy – so of those ten siblings, some of them are just absolute redneck ignoramuses. They don't care about it, they don't understand anything, and that's fine with them. So they'd probably be Trump supporters right now in this election, just out of ignorance. And I have one sister who is a complete Tea-bagger. I can't understand it, but all this Obama birther stuff, and Obama is a Muslim and he's trying to implement Sharia law in the United States. So one sister is nuts that way. And the rest are just, I'd say, generally liberal/progressive, with a few outliers. [laughs] I guess I'm the outlier kind of on the leftist end.

I think probably it was before I paid much attention to social change or politics, it was probably in high school, but it was a very dim understanding of things. But I was going to high school in Salem and I'd recently seen some stuff about Berkeley in the '60s, and this stuff was going on while I was in high school, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. Who was that heiress that was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army?

CP: Patty Hearst.

MB: Patty Hearst. That was all while I was in high school. This stuff was going on, so I was kind of dimly aware of that. I remember in high school we had an assembly once where an SDS organizer from Oregon State University came to talk there, and everybody thought that was pretty radical because SDS, even then, had the reputation of being anarchist anti-war people.

I guess it would have been '68, so it would have been my senior year in high school, I volunteered for the Nelson Rockefeller presidential campaign. I went around in Salem trying to promote Nelson Rockefeller, who I knew almost nothing about. He was a liberal and that was kind of the extent of it. But I guess there was some attractive girl in that Young Republicans Club or something. So as far as political activity, probably campaigning for Nelson Rockefeller who, I guess I later thought of him as really a demon but with a smiley liberal face. Did I answer your question? [laughs]

CP: Yeah, certainly. So we've touched upon your initial exposure to OSU, I'd be interested to know more about that early phase of transitioning into life in Corvallis and being a college student.


MB: Well, by my senior year in high school in Salem, I had started taking LSD and smoking marijuana regularly, and I think I was an early adopter in that. I think in my high school class of maybe 400 students that there were maybe ten or twelve who were doing drugs. And when I say drugs, I mean marijuana and the psychedelics like LSD or mescaline, things like that. So we were kind of an exclusive group in that. So I came to OSU already starting into that culture of drug use, so there was an awful lot of marijuana and LSD in my freshman year.

CP: So that culture was well-developed here at OSU?

MB: Yeah, I can't say it was a majority culture, that's for sure. [laughs] So it was still somewhat exclusive. But I found those people and hung out with them. It maybe influenced my academic progress; I didn't do real well as a freshman. I passed classes and stuff; I didn't fail anything. I had mostly A's and B's, but occasional C's, so I was a fairly good student but not outstand.

One thing about Chemistry here and Physics, I found that my high school training at South Salem High School had pretty much covered everything. So to do the freshman chemistry – and physics, I think I did as a sophomore – it really was just a matter of reviewing stuff that I already knew from high school. So that kind of gave me an edge which, considering my lifestyle, the drinking and taking drugs, I think otherwise I might not have made it academically. But because I had such a strong background, I could diffuse my time and not have to worry too much about studying.

I guess you're interested in kind of the sociology of what was going on. So there was a bit of a drug culture. Most of the people I hung out with, most of them were from Oregon but there seemed to be a higher percentage of California people because people from Los Angeles and San Francisco would have been more amenable to that drug culture; very few people in Oregon would have experienced it. I guess my whole career at OSU, I worked as a work-study employment as part of my financial aid package. I had very little interest in sports. I think I never went to an OSU football game all the time I was here. I went two or three times to a basketball game.

I had this one bad experience at a basketball game. I was this long-haired hippy and I decided I wasn't going to stand for the national anthem; I sat. And some guy behind me started kicking me, he said, "stand up. Stand up." And I just kind of ignored him. And then once the national anthem was over, he kind of grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me out into the hallway and was going to beat me up, but he was stopped by some security people there. I was with friends and this friend said, "well, I don't think it's a good idea not to stand up for the national anthem. I mean, sure our country's doing some bad stuff in Vietnam, but you've got to still respect what it stands for." [laughs] But anyways, it was traumatic but I didn't get beat up, I just got dragged out into the hallway. [laughs] And then I just went back and watched the game after that. And I don't know if it was a reasonable protest or not. I wasn't much interested in sports so it didn't bother me if I got beat up at basketball games – I didn't go anyway. [laughs]


CP: I want to talk more about campus climate – we'll circle back to your academic progression here in a second. But we've talked to people about this particular period of time – you were at OSU during a very tumultuous era in American history – and we've had some conflicting perspectives on the campus at that point in time, if it was fairly sheltered from what was going on in the rest of the country or if it was starting to shift. What is your memory of that time period?

MB: I'm pretty sure it was the academic year before I was at OSU, it would have been '68 – I guess it would have been '68-'69 – I'm pretty sure it was that year that there was this black boycott.

CP: Yeah, the Black Student Union walk-out.

MB: Yeah, so that happened before I was here, but it was immediately before I was here. So part of that was that there were no African American students at OSU; any black students that were here were from Africa. So that, I think, probably persisted my whole four years that I was here, and I was only dimly aware of that. I think it was the year before I came here also, there was a murder in a dormitory – I think it was in Sackett Hall, and I lived in Sackett Hall when I came here. So I was hearing this stuff. Not that I was a regular newspaper reader as a high school senior, but those were big enough stories that even I would hear about it, in Corvallis.

I remember as a freshman here, there was – I'm trying to remember what they called it – there was this national boycott, like all students were supposed to boycott classes for one day. They didn't call it a boycott; I'm trying to remember what the phrase was for it. Maybe you've heard of it, so you can fill me in. But anyway, it was very high participation in classes I was at, so most of my classes didn't meet. I remember the Chemistry professor I had at that time, his name was Freeman and he's still around Corvallis. I'm not sure I remember his first name.

CP: Peter.

MB: Peter Freeman, yeah. I remember he said to the class the day before the boycott, he said, "well, I know this boycott is happening, I'm going to be here to teach class. Whether you should come to class or not, I can't tell you, you have to make your own decision about that. I'll be here lecturing and maybe next year I might participate myself if we do this again next year." So that was his attitude, that he was not really opposed but then kind of cautiously supportive. I probably got him in trouble now. [laughs] I just remember he was the one professor that I remember commenting on it.

I do think there was a very high participation. I remember, this was kind of silly, there was an occupation of the Memorial Union that maybe lasted a week. The Memorial Union is a student-owned and run building, so for the students to occupy their own building, it's not like they occupied the administration building or something. So I remember that. So during the occupation it was open twenty-four hours a day, and people were sleeping there, and there were kind of constant workshops going on about the war and stuff like that. I've heard about student activism at other campuses. It's kind of like we had kind of a shadow of that in Corvallis. But even the level of activity, you would never expect that level of activity at Oregon State University today. But in those days, I would have considered that very pale compared to what was happening at other university campuses.


I had a few friends who were veterans and they were all anti-war. They were people who had been to Vietnam, come back. I didn't personally know anybody who went into the military and got killed during the war. I'm sure there are a bunch of people who did know people who got killed. But not very many of my friends went in, so the people I knew who went to Vietnam were veterans who came to OSU after they left the military. And they were one-hundred percent anti-war. I'm trying to remember if I knew anybody who was pro-war. That might be just the segment of the population that I saw at OSU, not necessarily that they weren't here. It's just that, amongst my friends, I wouldn't have known them.

CP: Do I assume correctly that this was an important period for you in developing your own world view? From somebody who it sounds like was basically apolitical or fairly disinterested to somebody who was much more engaged?

MB: I wouldn't say that really. [laughs] I'd go to these sit-ins, I went to the MU when it was occupied, I participated in the boycott because who wouldn't want a day off from classes, you know? But it was all kind of peripheral to me; it was happening there but I wasn't part of it.

I did have kind of a social justice view of the world, which is probably why I went in the Peace Corps when I graduated. It was partly because it was the easiest job to get. I mean, it was actually a struggle to get into the Peace Corps, but I had people advising me how to do it. I did a few job interviews; I even interviewed for the Marine Corps as a pilot but because I wore glasses they said I couldn't be a pilot, so I said, "forget that." [laughs] I had a few job interviews but the Peace Corps, I kind of made up my mind that that was what I was going to do. I assumed I'd go to Latin America but I'd accept any assignment and I got sent to South Africa to the country of Lesotho.

I had friends in Eugene who were much more politically savvy. They considered themselves Marxists. One of those people is still a very good friend. He lives in Washington, D.C. – well, West Virginia, close to Harper's Ferry – and works for immigration, does asylum interviews around the world. And he was at U of O and I would see quite a bit of him. He was definitely an intellectual leftist. I probably bought a copy of Marx's Das Kapital, but I would have never read it when I was in college. Still haven't read it, though I will someday.

Anyway, that friend, he graduated the same year as me in '73. He moved to Washington, D.C. and he became active with this leftist group that was called the U.S. Labor Party and he did organizing with them in the Washington, D.C. area, which is partly why I went to Washington, D.C. when I came back from the Peace Corps. And we would correspond a bit and he would send me reading material to look at when I was in South Africa. So I made something of a political advance then.

When I did come back from South Africa, I was hanging out with this friend on the East Coast and became very much in this U.S. Labor Party group. And they were kind of a cult and it was kind of abusive towards its members. I did that for a couple years and eventually I just couldn't take it. That was part of the reason why I came back to Oregon. I decided – so this was leftist politics but it was kind of radical leftist politics – and I got a little bit of an education. I'd say before I was part of this U.S. Labor Party group, if you would say President Roosevelt, I wouldn't have known the difference between Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt. That was how ignorant I was of American history. So I'd say I got quite a bit of education from that, so it wasn't a bad experience, but personally it wasn't very satisfying either.


So when I came back to Oregon, I just said, "well, I'm just going to be concerned with work. I want to work and I don't want these distractions." And I did that, and I think I lived like that for quite a while. When I started working in Agricultural Chemistry, I was working in the field of selenium nutrition, trace mineral nutrition, and a lot was happening in trace mineral nutrition at the time. So it was an exciting time to be working in it and I really kind of just dug into that work. And I would work, typically, seven days a week, twelve hours a day. I had no life, except eating and sleeping, outside of work. That's maybe an exaggeration but I was really dedicated to the work and that's really all that I cared about. And I kind of kept in that mode for over ten years – that's '78, so it would have been the early '90s before I started to break out of that. I got married, I had a son, and then I just started spending a lot more time with my son, and I opened up to other activities.

And then, kind of the turning point when I really became politically active was 1992 with the Gulf War. I remember very clearly, it was on a Sunday and it's before the United States had started bombing Baghdad. So tension was building and there seemed like all sorts of other ways it could go rather than a war, and there were negotiations going on to get Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait and pay reparations for the damage they'd done. So this was not definitely going to war. And there was a substantial peace movement in the United States.

It was on a Sunday and I left church – First Presbyterian Church, just across from Central Park – and there was a big anti-war rally going on in Central Park; I'd say at least 1,000 people. And I remember the Congressman from I think the 4th District was there and I'm trying to remember if that was Kopetski or maybe it was even DeFazio back then. But whoever it was, I remember it was the Congressman who was holding the microphone as one speaker after another came up and spoke. So I thought the fact that our Congressman would be there, I thought, "this shows that there is some strength behind this anti-war movement; this thousand people turning up in Corvallis." So I was kind of enthused by that and I said, "yeah, there's no reason, we don't have to go to war, this is crazy." And the next day, the bombing started. [laughs] I just felt this anger and frustration that this was the will of all these people, that we stay out of this violence, and yet we have leaders someplace who are saying, "no, no. Violence is fun, let's go do it."

And that was kind of really the turning point for me. It was maybe a good time to start this activism-type stuff, because I'd had enough of work. And I needed to spend time away from work, because I had to take care of my son. So pretty soon after that, this group that you remember, the OSU Faculty, Staff and Students for Peace started, and I got involved with that. I don't how long it went. It was very active for maybe four or five months. We met weekly and it dwindled, the participation. So we would have regular weekly meetings with forty people there and then it got to be four people and then it was just me. So eventually it just disappeared. There have been reincarnations of that; there might even be one going on now for all I know. There have been different organizations – there was WRENCH and the Occupy Reading Group is still going on. It's kind of that same concept of leftists getting together. But that was really kind of the turning point for me, so from '92 on, I just started participating in all these labor and environmental and peace activist activity groups. That experience of this giant peace rally followed the next day by the United States starting bombing, that really kind of turned the corner for me.


CP: Let's double-back to undergraduate again. I'm interested in talking a bit about your academic progression. You mentioned Biochemistry was a brand new program when you entered into it. How did you identify that as what you wanted to do?

MB: Well, it's kind of embarrassing and maybe it's not true – so that way I don't mind saying it – I think it was general knowledge that the most difficult academic areas at OSU were Biochemistry/Biophysics and the other one was Electrical Engineering. For academically challenging, those were considered the top. And some point, foolishly, I decided that I wanted to take that challenge – I was in the Chemistry field anyway and this option of a Biochemistry/Biophysics major came up, so I was eager to do that.

The final decision though, really came about because I had this analytical chemistry class which I just couldn't handle. It was all creating chemical apparatus – electronic machines like oscilloscopes – and I just couldn't understand the electronics of it. So I got about three weeks into the course, but it was required: if I wanted to graduate in Chemistry, I had to. And then I saw, well, Biochemistry and Biophysics, this is not required. I don't have to do the analytical chemistry. So I dropped that course and changed my major to Biochemistry/Biophysics and that's how I ended up in the first Biochemistry/Biophysics group. I might have ended up graduating in Chemistry anyway and taken a Biochemistry class except for that analytical chemistry course, which was just too hard for me.

CP: You developed a relationship with a scientist, Don Reed, who became – I don't know if he was at that point, but he definitely became a very accomplished scientist. Can you tell me about the work that you did with him and your memories of him?

MB: Yeah. I don't know if I can remember the science very well. We were looking at drugs that were used to treat Hodgkin's Disease and cancers of the lymph. Our research projects involved the metabolism of these drugs, so were taking known metabolites and injecting them into animals and seeing how they handled them to try to work out the biological effect of these drugs and also how they were metabolically handled. And a lot of this was involved with liver enzymes, the P450s, the cytochromes. Those are responsible for a lot of drug metabolism. And that was what Don Reed, I guess, had his reputation for was a clear understanding of drug metabolism and the oxidated pathways that a lot of drugs took. And then the biological effects, the changes that occurred in the cytochrome system that occurred in response to the drugs. So exposure to a drug would then change the way that the liver would respond to a different drug, that sort of thing.


Yeah, so he had a very good reputation. I remember that once – I worked at Johns Hopkin University for a while and I was looking for a job there and I interviewed with several people, and a lot of people were interested in me because I had worked with Don Reed and I had one published paper which I was tacked on a very last author out of seven or something. [laughs] So it gave me some credibility; like a recommendation from Don Reed.

I interviewed with this guy named Jack Helton – and I might have the name wrong because this was a long time ago and I never got to know him very well, really the only time I ever met him was this interview. And he said that he'd been at a national conference where Don Reed had presented some very exciting results. The nature of scientific publications, very often maybe a year or two years before you actually publish data, you'll present it at these meetings in an informal way and you'll publish it as an abstract in which you have just a brief summary of the work but without details. And he said he was at a conference where Don Reed published this research – and if he told me even what the area was, I don't remember – but that as a result of that he, Jack Helton and other scientists, had really taken what Don Reed had reported at this conference and they had started their own research and published before Don Reed could get the publication out. And as a result, they got NIH research money which legitimately Don Reed had earned. And he felt guilty about that and he said, "well, if you ever see Don Reed again, tell him that I'm sorry about that. I really feel I cheated you." And so I did see, when I came back to OSU, I did see Don Reed and I told him about that and he said, "oh, that was nothing. That happens all the time. Don't worry about it." I felt kind of special that this guy would entrust that to me, someone clear across the country in Baltimore.

And Don Reed was/is a very nice person. I don't see him anymore. He could have died in the last month and I wouldn't know because I'd probably only see him once a year or less. I'd see him when I'd go to the funeral for someone else who died in Biochemistry. [laughs] But yeah, I appreciated working for him. He seemed intelligent and compassionate and diligent; just the ideal university professor. Thinking about him and the other people I worked with as an undergraduate and when I first came back to OSU in '78, I think there's a really substantial change in university culture. It has to do with kind of accountability and ambition. Being university faculty at one time meant that you had this relaxed environment where you had your lab and do experiments, and you'd spend time gabbing and drinking coffee, and you'd have time to think great thoughts. And you had definitely talented people doing that and they would do very productive things, but they had a lot of freedom. The idea of if you were into fly fishing in the winter and you wanted to take off or go fishing first and come in a three o'clock in the afternoon, well nobody thought anything of it.

I think everything became more regulated and corporate and controlled, and then also very much more competitive. It's like the collegial spirit of sharing knowledge with your colleagues; instead it became hiding your knowledge from your colleagues so that you could benefit from it and other people wouldn't. And of course the introduction of casual faculty, so the university no longer has the responsibility of providing a livelihood for people who are doing work here. And the replacement of civil service custodians with contract. So everything has just become more competitive, more channelized, less life-friendly.


I could find other reasons, but I think that really contributed to my desire to get out when I did. By the time I retired in 2007, I could barely drag myself to work. I came because I needed a paycheck. I also spent ten to fifteen years, when I first started working, thinking, "how lucky I am to be paid to do this, to live this life that I really love and yet I get a paycheck for it too." That's how I felt when I started. But by the last ten years or so, I worked because I had to and if I did anything productive, it was by accident. [laughs]

CP: One last question about this period of your life and it's about Corvallis. Especially as one who is so in tune now with the nature of this city, what are your memories of Corvallis a place in the late '60s and early '70s.

MB: Well, of course everything was smaller. I'm living in a house by Corvallis High School that probably at that time was considered out in the country, about fifteen blocks from here. [laughs] I lived on 4th street in my sophomore year and there was a place down on 2nd street that I would go sometimes, it was Al Utt's News Agency and Grocery Store, and it was also a restaurant. And Al, I guess at one time he was a newspaper distributor for Corvallis. And it was this kind of shack on the river. And if you'd go there to eat, they had a few booths, and you'd sit down and you'd order, and they'd go take stuff off the shelves in the grocery store and go back in the kitchen and prepare it and bring it back. [laughs] So that was kind of an interesting thing, like "Jim the Fixr," this story about Jim the Fixer in the paper recently. His name wasn't really Jim it turns out. [laughs] I remember going to Jim the Fixer's to get bicycles or even to get bicycles repaired. That was still active here.

I guess there was a lot more university periphery. Now everything is – well, Reser Stadium, I'm trying to remember what it was called before Reser Stadium.

CP: Parker Stadium.

MB: Parker Stadium. I mean, that was there but it was not this giant monstrosity that it is now.

CP: It was, politically, a much more conservative place back then as well, if I understand correctly.

MB: Corvallis, yeah, I guess. It's interesting, Tony Van Vliet was a Republican representative from this district and the idea of electing a Republican representative, it wouldn't happen. You might know, I ran for County Commissioner in 2000 and that time, before that election, that was the last time a Republican was on the County Commission. I'm trying to remember; his name was Bob something. So the idea of Republicans actually, regularly electing representatives. But of course, Republicans were very different then – Tony Van Vliet is a great liberal and a supporter of higher education, but that was a different era.

I think it was about the time that I came here as a student, I think it was '72 was the first year that they changed the city council structure. As a student, I didn't really care much about city government, but they changed it – they went to two-year terms instead of four-year terms, and I heard at the time that part of that was actually to get student representation on the city council; a student who's here for only four years would never be on the city council, even though they made up, even then, a majority of our population. Or maybe not a majority, but more than a third of the population has always been students in Corvallis. But at that time, they went from four-year to two-year council terms. And the first year that I was allowed to vote in any election – the Presidential election of '72, and of course I voted for Nixon, [laughs] because he got us out of the war.


CP: I'll make sure it's noted that that was sarcasm in the transcript.

MB: As far as the politics of the town, I don't know. I'd like to get this included because – if you're running out of time, then I won't – but I'd say that right now, I think Corvallis is somewhat facing a crisis but maybe it's the crisis they've always faced. But I think people don't have the idea that this is a college town; they expect or they think that it's something different. So as a result, I don't think we're doing a good job for ourselves, for the town, and we're not doing a good job for the university. All my life in Corvallis, we've had a housing crisis in Corvallis. Now, it got a lot worse when the university increased by twenty-five percent over three years and then people became very aware of that, and we haven't recovered from that. I think in general, very few students would commute from outside the city if they didn't have to, and yet we have about a quarter of OSU students that commute to go to school here. And we have two-thirds of the people who work here commute, and that's actually the same in Salem or Albany too, they have a very high commute rate.

But I think we definitely are not providing housing that's needed for people and that's part of not recognizing that we are a university town. A university town should be providing housing for students. Of course, the university has not done its part on that as well; they have a lower student resident on campus ratio than almost any other university, except ones that are pure commuter universities. So the university has not done a good job but the city has not recognized that, if we want to make this a good town, we have to provide services needed for a university. And the main thing is, we're not providing adequate housing. So the city government and the citizens really have to support the idea that we're going to have massive student housing or we're going to continue to have a housing crisis.

Anyway, I wanted to get that in because it's something that I'm very concerned with right now. Of course, when somebody's looking at this, twenty years from now, they'll say, "well, what was he worried about right then at that instance?" And that's what I'm most concerned about right now, this idea that citizens of Corvallis have to recognize that this is a college town and that it's a good thing to be a college town, and we should embrace that and do a better job of it.

CP: Yeah, above anything else, land use seems to be the perennial issue in this community.

MB: Yeah. And a lot of that land use controversy comes with a very anti-student, anti-university flavor. And I can understand people's resentment – they feel like they've been abused by the university, and they have. But you're not going ease that abuse by opposing the things which are going to relieve what the problems are.

CP: Let's talk a bit about the Peace Corps. It sounds like the Peace Corps emerged as one of multiple options for having a job after you graduated from college.

MB: Well, it was pretty much the only option. [laughs] But no, I felt for a long time – and maybe it's far enough in the past now – that that was the best time in my life, was being in the Peace Corps. I really enjoyed it. I was a high school teacher. I had no teaching credentials; I had no training as an instructor or anything here. But we arrived there and we had like three weeks training and orientation where we got language instruction. It was during the summer break for the schools there – I arrived there in June – so their public schools were on vacation. However, students volunteered to come in and create classrooms which we would teach in. So it was nice for the kids, it helped them review, but it gave us this chance to have some experience actually teaching classes, laboratory classes and stuff, before we were sent out.


I went in a group, I think it might have been two dozen, twenty-five or so, Peace Corps volunteers. I turned out three of us were from Oregon State University, although I didn't know the other two until we arrived there. One was this girl who didn't last, she left by the time we finished the training. The other was Mark Melbye, who's retired now, but he was an Extension specialist in Linn and Benton county and lives in Lebanon now. Actually, I think he lives in Lebanon but he also has a home in Bend, so maybe he spends more time in Bend. But Mark Melbye and I became very good friends there and we had both been to OSU but didn't know each other. We were in the same graduating class and I think he was in Soil Science as an undergraduate and I was in Biochemistry/Biophysics.

For everyone who kind of comes from exactly the same background as I do, [laughs] for a lot of people anyway, in their early twenties, that liberation, being on your own, being responsible for developing and creating stuff, I think it – and then a lot of social life as a young person, drinking, partying and hiking and camping – I was just kind of set free to do that in Lesotho.

CP: In a very different culture. This is a land-locked country in South Africa during the era of apartheid.

MB: Yeah. I can say a bit about apartheid. Of course, Lesotho was seen by the United States government as a Frontline state – Frontlines were those states that were facing South Africa and formed this unified bloc of anti-apartheid countries. So we had, like at the high school I worked out, we had South African refugees; we had one white teacher, a South African, who was married to a black woman, who couldn't have been married to a black woman in South Africa. And then we had several Xhosa from Xhosaland who were kind of exiled and couldn't go back to South Africa. So we did have some experience with that anti-apartheid resistance in Lesotho.

Where I was located, we were just like fifteen miles to the border and then across to a small, rural town about the size of Philomath; it was called Ficksburg. And teachers and stuff that I was working with, they would regularly go across the border to shop there in Ficksburg because they had grocery stores, they had fast food restaurants – what you would expect in a small town in a rural area. But I couldn't go across the border because the South African government was not especially friendly to Peace Corps volunteers. So when I arrived there, you'd get a single-use visa for one visit to go and you'd have to apply for it and it'd take about a month to get it. So while the teachers that I worked with would be driving there weekly to go shopping, I couldn't. And that changed while I was there, so later I was able to get a multi-entry visa and cross the border just like my co-workers. But by that time I was pretty much set in my ways and didn't do it that much.

I did have a few trips to Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, which is kind of the biggest city that was close to us, and I went to Johannesburg once. I had a friend, also an OSU graduate – a friend of Mark Melbye's – came. His parents had paid for him to have this world vacation; he could go anywhere he wanted. So he traveled around the world but he stopped there in Lesotho for about six months and stayed there with Mark, and then he later got a job in Johannesburg as quality control in a chicken factory. So I went to visit him once when he was in Johannesburg.


Aside from those trips to Bloemfontein and Johannesburg, I pretty much stayed in Lesotho the two-and-a-half years I was there. I kind of hiked all around Lesotho. We were on the western side of the country and there's a river there, the Orange River, kind of near the boundary. And from there, to the east, it rose up in the Drakensburg Mountains and then the peak of the Drakensburg Mountains, at the bottom was where Natal Province in South Africa started. And that was a very isolated area; there are a few towns there, there's a pass through the Drakensburg Mountains called Sani Pass, and I visited there. It has all these dozens of switchbacks going up to the top of the pass. And from the top of that, looking down on it, it's just forest as far as you can see. And at the bottom, Natal Province. I did go down into Natal Province once there from Sani Pass, on one of these old rickety buses going up and back the switchbacks up to the pass.

Lesotho at that time, because of the poor roads – there were only roads on the west side of the country, the east side it was kind of tracks. They would have these really big trucks that could go on it, but you couldn't drive an automobile. But people fly a lot, so there was this organization called Flying Doctors, and these doctors would fly to remote areas in the mountains and provide services. I'm not sure how they were financed, if it was a charity or something, or church-sponsored by somebody. But I knew quite a few of these Flying Doctors and several of them died while I was there; it was kind of a common thing that these small planes would get caught in a storm in the mountains and crash, and people would die.

Once I took a flight from Mokhotlong, which is one of the capitals in this mountain region, back to Maseru, the capital, and on this flight, it wasn't like a Piper Cub, it was a larger plane that had about twelve...well, there were not seats, there were people in the back that were sitting on the floor, and then me and the pilot were in the front. And I mentioned to him that we would be going approximately over this famous waterfall, Maletsunyane Falls, it's the highest single-drop waterfall in Africa at 600 feet or something. And I said, "well, can you point that out to me when we go over it?" And he said, "sure." And so as we approached Maletsunyane Falls, he took the plane down in the valley below the falls and then kind of flew right up into the falls and then pulled up at the last moment. And the people in the back of the plane were screaming, "we're gonna die! We're gonna die!" [laughs] A very exhilarating experience, but we didn't die. We came through. I also hiked Maletsunyane Falls. To go there overland is pretty much you had to hike. Again, there weren't really roads there.

There was an attitude towards the Peace Corps volunteers – it was a British colony that had its independence for a short time when I was there, I think it was '66 when they got their independence and I was there in '73. And there had been a coup in 1970, so they didn't have a popular government. They had a government that kind of took over when they lost – the original government, they lost the first election and they said, "well forget it, we're staying in power." But there was an attitude towards white people there – they knew about apartheid in South Africa, they knew that we were foreigners and we were anti-apartheid and that we were there to help. We were Peace Corps volunteers, of course we're there to help.

But there was this kind of deference given to white people because of apartheid in South Africa. So we had both that kind of cultural bias of saying "this is the boss," but at the same time this idea of "these are people who have come here to help us." So you had both of those things going on and it was very common for people – they use this word morena, which means boss, like bwana or something – and it was very common to be addressed as morena by people there, which is kind of unfortunate because they were saying, like, "well, thanks boss." You know, "you're the man, you're the guy in charge here." It gave you a kind of safety, like everybody respected you, but then you didn't really deserve it too. It was kind of a hangover of the apartheid experience, which was across the border.


Lesotho at that time, we heard like eighty percent of their adult male workforce was employed in mines in South Africa, so that was kind of the traditional – well, it was a tradition by the time that we got there was that the way that people would support themselves was that men would go off to work in the mines and they might be gone for a year, two years or three years, sending remittances back to their families. So there were a lot of unaccompanied women there; a lot of women whose husbands were away. And every town would have this recruiting station and it was kind of the same architecture so you would recognize it. It was a red sandstone building with a red metal roof on it, so you'd see that in the town; like every small town would have one of those, where they recruit people to go work in the mines. So it was a very dependent culture in that, even though they were anti-apartheid, they had to go to South Africa to work.

I heard while I was there that Volkswagen had this plan to build six plants in South Africa, and they were going to locate one in Lesotho which would have created great employment opportunities there, but since Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana were all part of this trading bloc with South Africa, South Africa had veto power over the location of those Volkswagen plants. So none of them went into Lesotho or into any of the other BLS countries – Botswana or Swaziland.

When I talked to South Africans who came to Lesotho, of course all these South Africans who came to Lesotho were generally anti-apartheid and I think liberal South Africans were all anti-apartheid at that time. And I'd see South African newspapers and editorials and stuff, and I got the impression that apartheid was about on its way out. Of course, this was '73 to '75 and it turns out it wasn't on its way out then. [laughs] Things got very militarized and a lot worse after that. Like I remember reading newspaper editorials about petty apartheid. Petty apartheid was like, if people were shopping in the same store, if you're black to go to one checker to pay and if you're white, you go to all the other checkers. It was kind of stupid apartheid that really didn't – the official line on apartheid was that it was to maintain cultural traditions. But simply requiring people to use a different stairway in a building or to go to a different checker in a grocery store, that didn't serve the purpose of apartheid, it was just stupid and discriminatory.

So I was reading that in editorials in the South African papers when I was there. So I really had the idea that it was about on its way out. What happened though was they militarized it, they put tighter controls on who could live in the townships like Soweto. So basically every resident of Soweto became illegal so the police had justification for arresting anybody on the spot. They created what they called Bantustans, they were supposedly independent countries which were, of course, created and entirely controlled by South Africa in lands that were not valuable so they could say, "well, we can deport you to this other country which has responsibility for you, because you're here illegally." So all that came after I was there and it got much worse for a while. I can't remember the exact year that they came to this agreement and the African National Congress came to power. But like I say, it got much worse before it got better.


You want to know anything more about Lesotho and apartheid in South Africa?

CP: Well, you finished up in South Africa and we talked about, briefly, you were in Maryland for a couple of years. It sounds like it was not an especially happy experience.

MB: Yeah. I came back and because of my friend Paul Grussendorf who I went to high school with – actually, we weren't that good of friends in high school but I got to know him after we graduated when he was going to school at U of O and I was here. He was living in Washington, D.C. so I came back and kind of hung out there for a while. I looked for jobs in Washington, D.C. and didn't get anything; I don't know why. And then I moved to Richmond, Virginia and I worked there for a year. All this time I was working, I was also doing this work with this group the United States Labor Party which, as I say, it was kind of a cult. I mean, I don't regret that but I wasn't especially happy. It was like they expected us to be out on the street protesting or handing out pamphlets or selling newspapers or doing door-to-door canvassing. And this was your whole life and if you didn't do it you weren't loyal, you weren't a good communist soldier. So it was exhausting and it allowed for no social life outside of that group.

But I had to work and I didn't have especially good jobs. It was biochemistry in any case, in both Richmond and Baltimore, but they weren't especially good jobs. It wasn't progressing anywhere, it was kind of a miserable lifestyle, and after two-and-a-half years, I just couldn't take it anymore. My friend Paul Grussendorf kind of recruited me into that, but he bugged out sooner than me. [laughs] He ended up going to Germany and I guess at that time he had ambitions to be a television/video producer, so he worked for film crews in Germany. He had done some of that in Washington, D.C. as well. Ultimately he went to law school after this experience and became a lawyer. He actually went to Howard University, which is like the black Harvard. So he was an unusual white student to go to Howard. After he got his degree he worked in immigration law, taught at George Washington University, and then became an immigration judge, and then later worked in doing asylum interviews which is what he's still doing now.

But he's kind of the guy that recruited me into this. He's kind of expressed some regret for recruiting me into that. [laughs] But it's all life experience and I think I did get a fairly good political education out of that. But it also left me, at the end of that, totally uninterested in politics or activism at all. [laughs] It had some variable effects that, even though it turned me off from it quite a bit, it also provided me, I guess, a good political history, a good understanding of imperialism and how it works. And I could really reflect on that imperialism from my experience in South Africa and see what the effects of that are on people on the ground, where you have whole nations living in poverty with no economic opportunity. That's something which would have been – I couldn't have imagined it so clearly if I had not experienced it. So that experience in Lesotho and the kind of training I got from this leftist group on the East Coast, it shaped me but it also scared me from being involved in that for a while.


But today, I guess I'm a pretty strong activist. I'm active with the Green Party, I'm in a couple leftist discussion groups, intellectual groups, and I make an annual trip to Cuba to protest the U.S. trade and travel ban. A lot of climate activism stuff. So I think I'm pretty thorough and happy in that now. When I left work, I guess there was an opening for me to do a lot of stuff and I've been able to pursue those things that I want, including municipal government in Corvallis.

CP: So in 1978 you came back to OSU and this was in the laboratory of Philip Whanger.

MB: How'd you get all this information? [laughs]

CP: I'm an archivist.

MB: Yeah, I worked for Phil Whanger. Phil Whanger's a funny guy. I'd say he's very nice and personable but he's an intellectual lightweight and he maintains a hillbilly persona. He's from West Virginia so he still talks with an accent. His writing is pretty abysmal. [laughs] It would include things like, "from this you can see the reason why it is that," a lot of extra verbiage in there that might make sense in conversation but in written language... We developed in the lab this term, we called it "earmilk." We did a lot of nutrition work and a lot of our nutrition work was maternal nutrition, so we used the word "breast milk" a lot. And we'd say, "why do you talk about breast milk when you talk about human milk?" You know, you don't talk about "udder milk" when you talk about milk from cows or goats or something, why do you say "breast milk?" That's just what we're used to saying but for a scientific journal you're going to say breast milk? Which is really this kind of colloquial term. You should say "milk," because where else do you get milk except from the breast. So "breast" was kind of unnecessary. But we talked about the way that Phil wrote, that he wrote with a lot of "earmilk" in it; phrases that had no meaning that were just inserted because it was from his style of conversation.

But he was a really nice guy and very popular in the field. When I was working in selenium nutrition, I had the sense that there were maybe five to a dozen significant laboratories around the world that were working on selenium nutrition at the time, so we knew all those people kind of intimately as a like a brotherhood, and we would get together at international conferences. And it was clear to me that within that community, Phil Whanger was very highly respected, even though his scientific work was somewhat questionable and maybe not too productive or useful. But anyway, I still love him, he's a nice guy who lives in Sequim, Washington now. His daughter moved to Fresno and she's got some grandkids, so he spends the winter in Fresno and then to Sequim, Washington for the summer because he can't stand the heat in Fresno and his wife can't stand it. But yeah, he's a big bean pole of a guy; he's six-foot four or something. Dopey persona and stuff, but very well liked and, professionally, well respected.

CP: Was the selenium nutrition the primary focus of your work for this early period at least?

MB: Yeah, I'll just say a bit about selenium nutrition – maybe you've heard about this at Oregon State.

CP: There's been a lot of work done on it here.

MB: Yeah. Anyway, selenium is a trace mineral but it's an essential nutrient, but it's an essential trace nutrient. So people didn't even recognize it as a nutrient for a long time. It's difficult, even in an experimental animal, to produce a deficiency, and that's kind of the definition of an essential nutrient – if you feed a diet that's lacking this, the animal gets sick or dies. But the Willamette Valley's soil is naturally low in selenium and there are some other areas, like the southern island of New Zealand is also a low selenium area; much lower than it is here. And then there are some areas in China – China, geographically, is so big you can find everything there, but there happen to be some areas that are extremely low selenium.


So there are scientists working internationally on this topic of selenium nutrition, and Oregon State became one of the centers of selenium research because of local deficiency problems with cattle and with sheep especially. I don't know if it's clearly documented in cattle and horses, but people claim that they've seen selenium deficiency in cattle and horses. In sheep, it's very clear that there's a disease called white muscle disease and it usually occurs in lambs in their early weeks before they're weaned. And it involves kind of stiff muscles; they walk funny, like they can't bend their legs, and there's cardiac damage along with the muscle problems. Some farms, and it's variable between farms, but there were farms that in a year would lose half their lambs to white muscle disease. And it turned out that that was treatable with selenium and vitamin E. So selenium and vitamin E were very closely linked in research. You could relieve selenium deficiencies with vitamin E or, vice-versa, you could relieve vitamin E deficiencies with selenium.

So there was a lot of interest in that and it turned out that – so this was just kind of a veterinary health issue and in China they actually had human selenium deficiency, it's called Keshan disease. So we collaborated with people around the world but especially in the southern island of New Zealand and in China. But just from this health issue, you need to eat it. OK, so you have selenium in your diet.

But then, scientifically, it became even more interesting because it turned out that selenium in animals is incorporated into an amino acid which is called selenocysteine. It's kind of the equivalent – if you're not a biochemist, you don't know about the sulfur amino acids – but cysteine is a sulfur amino acid that has sulfur and selenocysteine is like cysteine that has selenium substituted for sulfur. In proteins, there's a lot of modifications of amino acids where say like a hydroxyl group is removed and replaced with the ketone or something like that. Or a sugar molecule is attached to an amino acid. So there's a lot of modifications like that occur in proteins. But in this case, it wasn't a post-synthesis modification, but actually the selenocysteine was incorporated in the normal protein synthesis like any other amino acid. So it's a very rare amino acid; maybe compared to sulfur, maybe it's one-thousandth the amount of sulfur amino acids is selenium amino acids, but they're specifically incorporated. But it's rare in proteins; I think there might be only like twelve selenium-containing proteins in animals and humans, out of 10,000 proteins. And almost every one of those others would have sulfur amino acids but here's one that has selenium in it and it's specific. So it's a very rare amino acid and yet it's incorporated by the standard protein synthesis process.

So I don't know if this means anything to you, Chris [laughs] but it's basically it's like there are twenty known amino acids that are incorporated into proteins and now we discover there's a twenty-first amino acid. So then, as people – there's this researcher at UC-Davis, Al Tappel, who was the first one to become convinced of this, and this was during the time when I was working and starting out in the field. And everybody said Al Tappel was crazy, because we know there are only twenty amino acids that go into proteins and to theorize that there's a twenty-first that goes in just wasn't believable. But it turned out he was right.


And then understanding the mechanism for it – I'll say this for the benefit of people who know a bit about biochemistry, but maybe a lot of people won't understand it. But in protein synthesis, there's a series – in the RNA that codes for the proteins – there's a series of three amino acid combinations, each of those triads specifies a specific amino acid. There's triads of bases in the RNA, the messenger RNA, that codes for a specific amino acid. And so there were three of those triads of those bases which were considered termination codons. So they would come at the end of a sequence of proteins, meaning this is where you stop, so that's the end of the protein synthesis. So the protein is made of this chain of amino acids and it's reading the messenger RNA, it comes to the stop codon and it stops.

It turned out that one of the stop codons also functioned as a codon for selenocysteine. And so it actually, depending on the circumstance of the RNA that it was in, sometimes it would work as a stop codon, it would end the synthesis of the protein. In other cases, it would signal the incorporation of selenocysteine and the synthesis would continue beyond that to whatever; the next codon would be incorporated after that. So scientifically, this was a real earthquake, it turned things over quite a bit. Where we thought we had a theory of protein synthesis and genes encoded for proteins, it had this addendum which was never expected. So scientifically, it was very exciting to be part of that at the time, as well as the nutritional aspect of it. When I started at OSU, selenium was still listed as a carcinogen, so you could not get a supplement that had selenium in it. Even where we had known selenium deficiency, you couldn't add selenium to feed for animals at the time, this was back in '78, '80. So the local farmers would buy wheat that was produced in South Dakota from areas that were toxic levels of selenium. [laughs] And then they would mix that wheat in with their feed here to prevent deficiency in their sheep. And they also had a veterinary product for injection called Bo-Se that had selenium and vitamin E, so if you could afford it you'd have a veterinarian come around and inoculate every one of your newborn sheep with this Bo-Se to prevent white muscle disease.

I guess the other aspect of it was this international collaboration, that we got to work with people in New Zealand and China. And we generally, at some point, we regularly had people from China working in our lab. I can't remember if we ever sent anyone over to work in labs in Beijing. I visited there once during an international conference, and Phil certainly visited there regularly.

CP: Was this a topic that spanned your career or were there any topical shifts at some point?

MB: No, it kind of ended after a while. And that was part of the reason why I was dissatisfied in the latter part of working; Phil Whanger was about fifteen years older than me, so he wasn't going to continue working until the end of my career. So at some point, he started shutting down his lab and not applying for so many grants. Our work was always grant-supported, generally NIH grants. And so he started kind of rationalizing his lab, fewer people working there and less lab space.

Then I got a job in Animal Science just because I needed to go someplace else, and I worked with Neil Forsberg. I don't know if you've ever heard of him, but he was working in muscle physiology, so that was kind of an area, since I'd been doing this work on selenium and muscles, it was appropriate. We had done collaborative work. I think that was another thing, Phil Whanger, we did a lot of collaborative work. It wasn't just our lab but we were always working with people in Animal Science or Nuclear Engineering or Chemical Engineering, and people in the biological sciences. So we really had a lot of broad collaboration, so I knew Neil Forsberg for quite a while because we had done collaborative work with him.


I worked with him and it was kind of moving into a new area of research that I wasn't familiar with, so it was kind of like all this valuable understanding that I had of selenium nutrition suddenly wasn't that valuable anymore. It was kind of back to basics. One thing that happened is, another kind of revolution that occurred, was that everything went to genetics in the time I was working. So when I started working with Phil Whanger, it was kind of like nutrition research meant you feed them and weigh them. [laughs] That's it. You make up this special diet and you see if the animal survives on it or gains weight or dies. It was more than that, but it was pretty primitive. Then everything went to genetics. Everything went to finding a gene for a protein and then trying to isolate new genes and using immunological techniques to isolate proteins, and genes for that matter. It was a lot of new technology that came into science, and I learned all that in Phil Whanger's lab. When I say Phil Whanger was an intellectual lightweight, he was kind of always the last person to understand this stuff while we were developing these new techniques that kept us up with modern nutritional science in his lab.

So I had that background, so I had a lot of skills coming into Neil Forsberg's lab. And it might have turned out different, but at some point Forsberg got this offer to go to Oman, to this university in Muscat, Oman, but it was a two-year commitment. So typically, people might take a sabbatical for one year, but to be gone for two years, it was the kind of leave that the university really doesn't support. They agreed to it finally – he probably had to make some concessions too – but he went for two years. And at the time he left, he had five graduate students in his lab, plus me, and so it was like I was supposed to supervise these five graduate students. And that was about the time that I decided to be on the Corvallis city council too, so it was not a very good situation. And of those graduate students, I think two of them left and went to the medical school in Portland and they finished their Ph.D.'s there. None of them actually just dropped out and quit, but they didn't really progress very well with just me supervising them and with Neil Forsberg gone.

Neil felt some loyalty to me because we were personal friends. And I proposed an idea for a research project which he ended up getting a million dollar grant for and so he felt – he actually wrote the proposal but I had kind of given him the key idea that brought it about. I can't say we never had a strained personal relationship, it wasn't perfect, and overall it wasn't healthy. It was kind of like his lab was falling apart while I was in charge of it.

So at a convenient time, I left there and I looked for another job and then I got – well actually what I did, that was the year I ran for County Commissioner. I just thought, "well, I can use this as an excuse, I'm going to run for County Commissioner, I'm going to get out of this lab," so I took a half year off where I was just concentrating on that campaign. That was a significant campaign. I don't know if you remember any of it, if you were living around here, you might have known about it vaguely. But I had been on the city council for two years and I thought, "well, this might be possible to be elected County Commissioner," so I decided to take a half year off and did that.


And of course, I lost the election, and then I was looking for another laboratory job and I worked in Pharmacy for Mark Leid. I was never really comfortable there either. As far as these kind of modern biological or biochemical techniques, I really learned a lot there in Mark Leid's lab. But it was towards the end of my career and I never really got much benefit from it. So I was there for a couple years and at the end of a grant cycle – I could count on a grant running out sometime in the future always, and then I'd have a chance to move on.

So at that time I took a job in Crop and Soil Science. It was really kind of a dumbass job and it was a relief to me because it was just a matter of going to work and doing the job. It was wheat quality analysis, so it was for part of the breeding program. They keep working on new varieties of wheat and release them to farmer, and that's done in Crop Science here. So it was just wheat quality analysis – kind of simple straight-forward analysis – and I'd do hundreds of samples. And I guess the more complex stuff involved product analysis where we'd take flour produced from wheat and make a standard sugar cookie or a standard noodle, and then test the physical properties of those. So it was simple, I could go to work, I didn't have to worry about it. So I kind of finished up my last two years, and it was only part-time too. But that way I was able to stay there until I could retire. That was the whole arc of my career. So by the time I was done, I was done.

Forsberg, I mentioned, he developed this supplement for ruminant animals. It's not clear how it works, it's somewhat of an anti-fungal or fungus inhibitor, but they find that by giving it, in improves the productivity by two or three percent in ruminant animals. So like you get a dairy cow and you give it the supplement and you get a two or three percent increase in milk production, well, its valuable. It's like a billion-dollar market for that and he developed this I think with a graduate student at OSU, and set up a company to market it. So suddenly, or in a short time, he had an income in the tens of millions of dollars per year, and he said, "well, screw the university." So he quit Animal Science pretty soon thereafter and ultimately there was some kind of hostile takeover of his company, but he got paid out pretty well and just enjoys the good life.

I probably shouldn't talk so much about other people. [laughs]

CP: Let's talk about public service. So your first term on the city council was in '98.

MB: Yeah, well I ran in '98, so the term started in January '99.

CP: How did you make the decision to finally go for it and run for office?

MB: Well, it was probably irrational but at the time, I was the chair of this Living Wage Campaign in Corvallis. Actually, Bill Glassmire, who's on the city council now, we were co-chairs. I went to lots of union and activist meetings, but at the SEIU office I heard that there was this meeting about living wage, and I didn't know what they meant by living wage except, of course, better wages or living wages. I went to this meeting to find out what it was about and there were a dozen or so people there, and some activists there from Salem with Jobs with Justice, and they talked about living wage. The concept of the living wage is for government employers who contract out work, then they cannot contract it out at lower wages than what they're paying their unionized employees, that's the idea. So for any work that a government agency contracts out, they are required that the employer is paying a living wage. And so typically you'll set a floor wage that contractors can't go below. And in this case, when we did it, it was $9.00 an hour, which was considered a substantial improvement. I think the minimum wage at that time was around $6.00. And we had city employees who were working as bus drivers who were getting minimum wage, so that was the kind of thing we wanted to address.


So anyway, at this meeting we heard a discussion of what they meant by a living wage in other cities. Baltimore at that time had a living wage, and a few other cities. So at the end of this discussion or explanation, this organizer with Jobs with Justice said, "you know, we could do a campaign but we have to have somebody in Corvallis who wants to be responsible, who wants to chair the campaign." So I said, "well, I guess I could do that if Bill Glassmire would co-chair with me." And Bill said, "well, ok." So we did it. We had a good group of activists and some of them are still around. Rich Daniels was one of the people who was really active in it. Most of those people are not around anymore, but we really had a lot of support from this Jobs with Justice staff person who lived in Monmouth. I think she was paid for like quarter-time to do organizing, so she was a paid organizer but the rest of us were volunteers. But she really put a lot of hours into it considering what she was paid for.

So we thought, "well, we can either get the city council to pass a living wage ordinance, which is a possibility, or we do it by initiative." And at the same time that the ATU – the Allied Transit Union or Associated Transit Union – ATU was organizing bus drivers in Corvallis. So they had kind of a parallel campaign, like a Justice for Bus Drivers Campaign, which the coordination didn't work out very well. They did an initiative specifically about transit workers – minimum floor wages for transit workers – and they put that on the ballot without consulting with us. It could have been all a part of the living wage ordinance. So we were kind of at a disadvantage that they had done this, and they had done it successfully. But we continued with the Living Wage Campaign, which would have covered other contracted workers, and there was still a very good feeling about the Justice for Transit Workers Campaign, so it didn't really hurt us but it would have saved us a lot of work if we could have done it as one campaign. So there were two initiative campaigns in a short time, like six months apart, and they both succeeded.

But coming up to that living wage initiative, there were city council elections coming up, so I thought, "well, it wouldn't hurt to have an inside person to do that." And the city councilor in my ward, Mary Christian, announced that she wasn't running again. And nobody else stepped forward to do it so I thought, "well, I can be on the city council so if we want this ordinance passed in Corvallis, it would be better to have someone on the city council to keep an eye on it."

CP: So that was unopposed, that first time?

MB: Yeah. Well, it was funny, I was unopposed – I think some people came forward as write-in candidates to run against me, but a write-in candidate running against somebody whose name is on the ballot never really has a chance. So I was unopposed. But during that time, four times the Gazette-Times ran an editorial saying, "won't somebody please run. Save us from this radical." I was very pleased by that, that the Gazette-Times would really go out of their way, not just once but multiple times, trying to get somebody to run against me. So I came in with a good reputation, you know, if the Gazette-Times was against me.


CP: In subsequent elections, have you had much in the way of opposition?

MB: Not much. I think, was it four years ago, this guy Kenny Davidson ran. He didn't really have anything to say, he didn't have any community experience, so there was really nothing good to say for him. I don't know, if he'd talked with me before he'd decided to run, I might have decided to let him do it. But he didn't; after I filed then he filed. He ran somewhat of a campaign, he had lawn signs, but he didn't do door-to-door canvassing. And of course, he didn't have the benefit of being an incumbent. I think I've got fairly good name recognition in the city and in my ward.

CP: Has that been a component of your electoral campaign strategy, such as you've needed one, is going door-to-door? Or are you doing that anyway even though you're not opposed?

MB: Yeah, I've done that every election; I try to go to every door in my ward, it's about 2,000 residences. I print up 2,000 flyers and run out when I've just got a few blocks to go.

CP: What section of the city do you represent?

MB: It's the area around Corvallis High School, Ward 5. Actually, it's changed because we redistricted – every ten years you redistrict – so in 2012 we set the current boundaries. Basically now it goes from Monroe to Grant street, and then it goes from 9th to 29th. So it's pretty compact. It used to be kind of spread out, like I used to go all the way to the river and 2nd street north of downtown, and then it went to 33rd street, but it didn't go all the way over to Monroe, it ended at Harrison. I like the boundaries right now because it's very compact and it's easily identifiable, the ward. Although I miss some of those people that I had that were kind of in the extremities of my ward in the past, but I like having clear boundaries, it's nicer that way and easier to canvass. I don't have to walk all the way from 2nd street to 33rd, just from 9th to 29th.

CP: Can you talk a bit about the workload that is required of councilmembers? It's substantial, from what I understand.

MB: Yeah. I was told when I was first going to do it that it's equal to a half-time job. Of course, different jobs might involve different amounts of work. And I think, for me, it's gotten a lot easier partly because of experience; I know what I'm doing. And we meet twice a month and we get a packet of materials for that meeting, and then we have other meetings besides the main council meetings, but just the packet for the council meetings, they've become much more efficient producing those packets, so what we get is maybe a lot less information but it's more useful.

We typically have been getting packets recently that are between 150 and 200 pages. And you don't have to read all of that really carefully. Now we get it on Wednesday for a meeting the next Monday, so we've got five days or so to review the materials and get ready for the meeting. So just reading that, you can anticipate it's going to maybe take – well, I used to say five to eight hours, but now it's one to three hours, just because I got more efficient at figuring out what I have to read. But it's substantial and some of it is going to require some investigations beyond what is in the packet, so you're going to have to look at a little bit more stuff. I'd still say it's about equivalent to a half-time job, but maybe it's an easier half-time job than it used to be.


And besides the council meetings, we used to have a standing committee structure where we would have three standing committees with three councilors on each standing committee. And along with each council meeting, during that week of the council meeting on Monday, we would have these standing committee meetings during the week, so you'd be responsible to go to one of those. I was always in Human Services and I think that's the best. The others were Administrative Services and Urban Services. Urban Services would cover kind of physical infrastructure, Administrative would cover budgets and stuff like that, and Social Services would cover library and parks – the direct provision of services to people.

But we've eliminated that structure. Now we have, instead of those standing committees, we have a full council meeting called a work session where we can't make a decision but we receive reports and stuff. And sometimes actions will come out of that which will then best sent to the next council meeting, but we can't take any action at these work sessions. So typically, the council meetings, it's still hard to predict how long they're going to go, but we start now at 6:30 and we've gone as late as 11:30. We've had meetings before where we've gone over six hours total. Like, we have an executive session closed to the public before the meeting, and then we have the meeting, and then we have a public hearing, and we have another executive session afterwards. So we've had meetings that go six hours total, but more typically between two and three hours for the council meeting, including the public hearings. But it's not unusual that a public hearing that I think is going to take an hour takes three hours. It just depends on both the amount of public interest and then the argumentativeness of the councilors.

So there's a lot of time spent in meetings. We've eliminated the standing committees but now we have just – it's less staff time, I guess, for these work sessions. So you've got the council meeting plus the work sessions, twice a month. And then we have advisory boards and other organizations that we have liaisons with, so councilors are liaisons to these. I do all the police-related stuff, so we have the Willamette Criminal Justice Council which is the administrative oversight for parole and probation and corrections, and it includes people from all the law enforcement groups and the local governments in Benton County. So I'm on the Willamette Criminal Justice Council and they'll meet monthly for a couple hours. Those meetings can go three hours because they have both a lay meeting – people who are not in law enforcement, just like elected officials – and then a separate one that includes the lay plus police officials. Two meetings that can be longer. I'm on the library board as well.

Oh, other police things, there's a Community Police Review Board; that's something I feel pretty good about. It's kind of an oversight – if people have complaints about the police and they take their complaints to the police and the police respond and they're not satisfied, then they can go to this board that's outside of the Police Department to review it. And since it was set up, it really doesn't function; it doesn't do anything. And I think that's partly because people, knowing that they have that option, maybe makes the police do a better job of investigating complaints so that people are satisfied. And then people also know, well, I think it's important to have it available even if they never hear a case. So that's a nice one to be on, because there's no work.


But then they also have what used to be called the Community Policing Forum and then we renamed it to the Community Policing Advisory Committee. That's one that meets regularly and has broad community representation. The idea is to do outreach to the public, to get input from the public to the police. So I do those three police things, the library board, and then I'm also on the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. So those are liaisons where I'm not responsible for making decisions but I'm responsible for being there and letting them know what the council's doing and vice-versa. So those meetings, typically each of those will meet monthly, so it's about five extra meetings I've got besides the council meetings.

And then we've got these projects going on right now, so I'm chair of the Housing Development Task Force, which is three councilors and we did have three citizen members but one moved away and we didn't replace him. But five of us then, and we're supposed to look at options for ending the housing crisis; how do we do things better in Corvallis as far as housing people? So I chair that. We met twice monthly when we started and now we're down to meeting about every other month. So there's all those. There's not too much responsibility outside of those meetings although, like I made a habit of meeting twice a month outside the council meetings with the City Manager and with the Mayor, no agenda, just to talk about how things are going; it's more philosophical discussions. So I do that twice a month. And then there's some kind of public outreach, like there's ribbon cuttings and stuff like that. I try to be there to represent the city council as much as I can. And then we do Government Comment Corner at the library and I sign up for those about six times a year.

I'm just listing all these things we do. But as far as the amount of time it takes, I'd say it's still about equal to a half-time job. So I'd say I'm half retired. [laughs]

CP: Well, I have a couple of concluding questions.

MB: Ah, we're getting to the end. How much time; we've been here two hours. Wow. Aren't you getting tired of this, Chris. [laughs]

CP: The first question I have is, you've touched on this a little bit, but I'm very interested to know what it was like for you as a city council member to observe the massive growth and expansion at OSU that's occurred over the last ten or so years. And I'd be interested as well to hear a bit about the process of working with the university as a city council member.

MB: Yeah, I might have a lot to say. For one thing, you know the area I told you I represent, it includes – the worst-affected part of the city by the growth of the university, I believe, is the area around Chintimini Park and the Catholic Church, that area there, that we've had a lot of very dense student housing go in there. Some people complain about the architecture, some people complain about the parking, a lot of people complain about the noise and the kind of violent, irresponsible behavior of drunken college students. So that neighborhood definitely has been badly affected. And part of it is, long before I was on the city council, twenty or twenty-five years ago, the decision was made that that was going to be a high density area which, as a service to the university, would be housing. It's very close to the university so people can walk to campus, they don't need automobiles, so they had lower parking requirements, and it was zoned for high density apartment building-type development. But it was an area that was almost entirely single family homes, so it was zoned for that sort of development but people had been living there for a long time and assumed that, "well, it's always going to be like this. It's always going to be single family homes."


And so then as this change occurred, developers would buy two homes, scrape them off and put in a bunch of apartment buildings. It really upset people there. And this is the area that I'm supposedly representing and what I can tell these people except, "well, you know, this was the plan. I'm sorry you didn't know about it." [laughs] You probably read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "well, we let you know about this major throughway that was going through your home, and if you just read those letters." [laughs] So people were unaware, they weren't expecting it, and then they got hit with it and they feel that their neighborhoods were ruined. We've had people who have said that they've moved from that area because they can't stand the changes in lifestyle there.

That bothered me a lot but, at the same time, I think it's appropriate. The people who made that decision that that was going to be high density residential to house students close to the university, I think make the right decision. So I try to be sympathetic to these people and try to help. The one thing where I think we have made some progress in easing the problems in that neighborhood is to increase the amount of policing we do there. I'm not sure when it was, but we hired – about two years ago – we hired three police with the specific responsibility of community liaison and working on quality of life issues, to kind of tamp down the noisy parties and drunken behavior. And I've heard from residents around there that that has helped. And now the university finally said that they are going to pay for three more police officers with the specific duties of this kind of quality of life policing.

So we've made some progress but despite – I say that that area, that's what it was always designated for, it was going to be high density student housing – at the same time, I also feel that the university does whatever they want to do and they don't really have to pay attention to the city government or the citizens. It's just the power; that's the way the power is here. If they don't like something the city does, they can go to the legislature and are likely going to be listened to. And we as the City of Corvallis, we have to provide services for the university but we don't get any property tax, and that really bothers me. It's not the university's fault, it's Ballot Measure 5 and 50, but we are in this decline in resources – not just us, but every government agency has to live with this decline in resources – and then we're given this burden that we have to provide these extra services for the university, for which we're not being compensated. You can estimate, say for fire services, you can look at the number of calls that are on campus or for university buildings, of the total, and on that basis you could say that we are not being compensated for $1.5 million per year of services that we're providing. So how can we afford to provide this? Well people who do pay property taxes have to see a reduction in their services for us to be able to provide that service here.

That disparity in power, it bothers me. And the university, they can control enrollment. I mean, they decided to increase their enrollment and they decided to start this INTO program to bring lots of fairly wealthy foreign students to come into Corvallis. There's no consultation with the city about that. So I was very skeptical about, four years ago, we started this Collaboration Corvallis project which, as you know, is to have closer relationships with the university. I was not enthusiastic about it; I was skeptical. I think it's done some good but I thought that the relationship is always a matter of the university is going to do what they want and they don't have to listen to us if they don't like what we say. So that's bothered me, and that expansion of the university was very stressful for people who I represent. I couldn't do anything about it, partly because I agreed with what was being done to them. [laughs] This is the way it has to go.


I think that some places, like the university participating in transit, I think that's great. And this offer, which I guess is going to come into existence in this next fiscal year, of them paying for police officers, I think those are the appropriate things to do and just need to be done at a much higher level. There's this practice that they do in some communities, it's called Payment in Lieu of Taxes, PILOT. That's where we're not going to get property taxes from university or state institutions, however, in recognition that we have to provide services to them, they will make a voluntary payment. Because we can't compel them to pay anything, but they would make this voluntary payment. It seems like Ed Ray should be open to that, because he talks about, "you know, I saw in Ohio how we did things, it really ruined the community and we're not going to repeat that here." Well, they are repeating it here. So it just seems that Ed Ray – well, the university should be more sincere about that, about actually caring about the quality of the community they're in.

And I'm not saying they haven't done anything. I'm just saying that compared to the magnitude of the financial deficit the city is suffering because of having to provide these services, comparing that to what the university could do, I just don't think they are doing enough. It's all your fault, Chris. [laughs]

CP: My apologies. Last question for you is just for you to comment or share your thoughts or your hopes or your priorities for Corvallis moving forward.

MB: Well, I would really love to solve the housing problem and I talked with you about that earlier because I didn't know if we were going to come around. But I think that idea of citizens and city government of Corvallis – and the university for that matter – recognizing that this is a college town, that that's our main business, if we want to be a good place, we've got to do a good job of doing that. And that means solving the housing problem.

I think climate change is the biggest issue around. Obviously the city of Corvallis – I did this calculation that we're one-one hundredth of one percent of the entire world population, so how can what we do have any effect on the rest of it? But I think what we can do, we can establish a model where we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, where we try to model how other communities could be. I don't really trust our ability to do that when you consider how out of balance we are with the world. If you consider that we could easily cut our resource consumption by ten percent, maybe twenty percent if we really tried. But when you're talking about, well, we really need to cut our consumption by eighty percent, that's not really within the realm of being believable. How can we do that? But at least in that direction, there's a great push to get more photovoltaics in Corvallis and the university is definitely part of that, and the city government as well. So that's a little bit of the solution but it's not very much.

But I think the main thing is we have to end the automobile culture. We have to find ways for people to live satisfying lives without having private automobiles. I'm in a tough spot as far as a policymaker, because people want parking, they want more parking. But I know what we really need is we need to make parking very difficult and expensive. The university is kind of helping that. [laughs] What they've done is they've made it very attractive for people to park off campus, so all these neighborhoods around the university have become the university's parking lots. But owning a car and operating a car, we need to make it expensive and inconvenient. I don't know if we've got the sentiment in the public to do that. Certainly we don't have it in the city government; I would have a hard time selling that to most of the city council. Maybe they could accept it theoretically, but when it came down to the details of it...


We've actually put in greater requirements for parking in the apartment buildings – this was a couple of years ago – specifically to respond to citizens in my ward who are distressed by what was happening with parking in their neighborhoods when those townhouse complexes went in without adequate parking on site. And I think part of that is we make parking too convenient for people. I would like a system where anybody who parks on a city street pays for it; like a city-wide parking district. If you want to park in Corvallis, you've got to go to a meter where you put money in or you've got to have a permit. So I think if we can make parking and driving expensive and inconvenient, maybe that's the best progress we can make towards reducing our carbon footprint and our damage to the environment. And I'd really like to see Corvallis be a leader in that. But whether people accept it, I don't know. I guess at some point they have to – you accept it or climate change kills us. Of course, it's going to kill a whole lot of other people before it gets to us; we don't have to respond to it until it's way too late to do anything.

Are we done, Chris? Or close to it?

CP: Yeah. On that note, we'll conclude. [laughs]

Thank you, Mike. I appreciate this a lot.



Download Transcript (PDF)

Return to Main Page