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Kenneth Tollenaar ’50

Admired for his knowledgeable, level-headed, and pragmatic approach to issues, Ken poured his time and energy into his community. His public service career included 20 years as director of the University of Oregon Bureau of Governmental Research and Service, 7 years as executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties, and service as acting dean of the community service and public affairs program at the University of Oregon.

He was born in Portland to Roy and Alda Tollenaar, who moved to a farm in Newberg when Ken was in the eighth grade. After Pearl Harbor, Ken volunteered for the navy (despite being color-blind) and served in the U.S. Navy Construction Battalions. After his service he read a book called Peace or Anarchy by Cord Meyer, which discussed the need for a world federal government.

“I can’t say I did much more reading in those years, but I kind of carried that book in the back of my head,” Ken remembered. “I thought maybe there’s something beyond being a CPA.”

He began studying at Willamette University, but had overlooked an admission requirement for mandatory chapel attendance.

“I was 21 or 22 years old and figured I could come to terms with my spiritualism in a different way, so I didn’t go to chapel,” he said. “The dean of students called me in and said, ‘We can’t tolerate this. Have you ever thought about going to Reed?’”

Ken contrasted his relationship with Reed professors with the scene in the movie The Paper Chase where on the last day of school a student gets on the elevator with his professor and says, “I just want you to know how much I’ve appreciated your class, how much I admire you, and how much you’ve meant to me.” The professor replies, “Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Nothing like that ever happened at Reed,” Ken said. “In fact, professors would take the initiative to single you out. I’ll never forget when Prof. Charles Bagg [history 1946–74] stopped me out in front of the library and said, ‘You have a good analytical mind.’”

During his junior year he became engaged to Jean Scott ’51 and found himself in need of a summer job. While he was taking his junior quals, Prof. Charles McKinley [political science 1918–60] approached him and said, “Come and see me. I’ve got a job for you.” He put Ken onto a paid summer internship with the personnel director of the City of Portland.

Ken wrote his thesis, Political Policy of the American Federation of Labor, with his adviser, Prof. Maure Goldschmidt [political science 1935–81]. He recalled that Goldschmidt nodded off while reading his thesis draft. The thesis examined the sociological history of the AFL, analyzing decision making, the lobbying program, electoral activity, and other aspects of the subject. It led to his being named to the Multnomah County Central Labor Council as a representative of the local musicians union. Ken helped put himself through college by playing jazz in clubs and with dance bands.

He credited Reed with teaching him to think critically, communicate clearly, and act responsibly. “Reed’s impact on my life was profound,” he said. “It also opened the door to intellectual and cultural opportunities it would take far more than one lifetime to pursue.”

After graduating, he worked for the Civil Service Board until beginning a master’s program in public administration at the University of Minnesota. The experience of going from Reed to graduate school was devastating.

“It took me until Christmas to realize that students were to shut up and listen to what the professor says,” he said. “Just the reverse of what it was at Reed.”

His postgraduate career began as a management assistant with the State Department in Washington, D.C., but it proved to be an unhappy year, as the department had become a target of Senator Joe McCarthy. Ken took an opportunity to return to Oregon as a research assistant for the Bureau of Municipal [later Governmental] Research and Service, assigned to the Portland office for five years. He took a break for a year and a half to serve as executive secretary for a legislative interim committee on local government. Local government became the substitute for the labor movement he had been so interested in during his years at Reed.

“It was a way for individuals to relate to something outside of their individual, narrow interests,” he said, “a way for people to feel they have some impact on their world.”

For seven years, he worked as executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties, lobbying issues of interest to counties, but he welcomed the opportunity to return to an academic environment, and stayed with the bureau (with some time-outs) for the remainder of his career. After retiring as director of the bureau in 1988, he continued to consult with the bureau and with Oregon State University, which had started up a small program of governmental research and education. Ken became active in civil affairs, serving on the Eugene Planning Commission and accepting an appointment to the city council. He received numerous awards during his career, including the Lane Council of Governments Outstanding Elected Official, and the Eugene City Club’s Turtle Award (for “sticking his neck out” in community affairs).

He and Jean later divorced, and in 1970 he married Priscilla Botkin Card, who predeceased him. His five children survive: David Tollenaar, Paul Tollenaar, Alison Kelly, Laura Tollenaar, and Megan Pierce.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2017

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