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Homeless Champion, White Bird Founder

Robert Dritz ’67

Eugene’s homeless community lost a tireless advocate with the death of Bob, who was one of the earliest administrators of White Bird Clinic, an agency now synonymous with crisis counseling and medical, dental, and drug and alcohol treatment for people living in poverty or on the streets.

“When Bob came to White Bird, it was a struggling, hippie-era free clinic with a deliberately anarchic management structure and less than a dozen employees, and was often forced to choose which of its creditors to pay and which creditors to stall,” remembers David Zeiss ’67.

Today White Bird is an essential part of Eugene’s social-service system, operating out of buildings it owns at six addresses in central Eugene, with more than 130 employees and real financial security.

“Bob led White Bird through all this growth without changing the deliberately anarchic management structure,” Zeiss said. “He rigorously insisted on keeping White Bird a staff-run workers’ collective. All management decisions are still made by consensus of the staff, and the salary structure remains unusually flat. Bob, and his successors in management, have never taken more hourly pay than a janitor or data-entry clerk.”

In addition to serving people on the streets of Eugene, White Bird also provides medical  and crisis intervention services for rock concerts and similar events. In 1998, Bob secured the contract to provide services for Renn Fayre, which was his favorite event till he retired in 2007. White Bird remains a fixture at Renn Fayre.

Bob was born in Bronxville, New York, the big brother of three sisters. He suffered from asthma as a child, a condition that often kept him inside, and friends say this is what developed his lifelong love of books. He studied literature at Reed and wrote a thesis on the fiction of Samuel Beckett. After college, he taught English for a time, and then in the late ’70s eschewed work in California finance to seek his real purpose. He found it at Eugene’s White Bird Clinic, a fledgling nonprofit agency dedicated to helping the poor, sick, and disenfranchised.

Bob’s longtime companion, Germaine Louise Fuller ’67, passed away in 1994. Cori Taggart met Bob on a tour for new White Bird volunteers in 1979. The future crisis counselor remembered his round glasses and the twinkle in his eye. “He kind of gave us a wave as we walked through and I said to myself, ‘That is a very interesting-looking man,’” she said. Later, the two became intimate partners and remained close thereafter.

At White Bird, Bob quickly went from bookkeeper to program coordinator. Taggart recalled that once when there was a threat to cut crisis funding in Eugene, Bob showed up at the meeting with a phone book. When it was his turn to speak, he said, “I want to speak to the importance of this crisis line to our community.” He opened the phone book and there on the first page, with all the other emergency numbers, was White Bird Crisis. The funding was restored. He was not interested in the trappings of leadership and developed an equitable pay structure at White Bird that kept administration square in the middle.

Bob was humble in his attitude and his dress, usually coming to work in jeans and a tee shirt. Taggart remembers Bob walking into meetings of county commissioners and important people rifling through their expensive leather briefcases. “When Bob opened his mouth,” she said, “they started to listen.” Friends and colleagues also recount Bob’s wry sense of humor. After creating White Bird’s mobile crisis unit, he decided on the acronym CAHOOTS, for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets.

Bob retired in 2007, after 25 years of service. In January, he developed a blood infection; Cori Taggart was with him when he decided to stop treatment. Sitting at his bedside, she thanked him for everything. “He looked at me and nodded,” Taggart recalled, “and he said, ‘I gave it my all.’ And he did.”

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2017

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