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My View: Atiyeh's humanity evident in his actions

In spring 2009, former Oregon Gov. Victor Atiyeh was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations. I congratulated him at the time on receiving this unique award and reminded him of the importance of his ongoing work in celebration of our diversity here in Oregon.

Long before he became governor, as state Sen. Atiyeh, he had worked with members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the only federally recognized tribes at the time, to create what has now become a statewide “One-Voice” celebrating the many bands and tribes of Native Americans who live here. Thanks to his leadership and work, Oregon has had a Legislative Commission on Indian Services since 1975.

Many people believed such an entity couldn’t happen; those who were part of that process then trusted him and so, of course, they worked together. He has been celebrated many times for that work.

My last visit with Gov. Atiyeh was in late June at the annual Pi-Ume-Sha Treaty ceremonies observed by members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, held at Kah-Nee-Ta, at what was probably also his last public appearance. With his beloved wife, Dolores, at his side, he joined all of us present in remembrance and celebration for nearly four hours. As we had done for many years, we gave thanks to our Creator for the many blessings we share as Oregonians.

That kind of participation and devotion was a hallmark of Vic Atiyeh — his respect for diversity was honest and integral to his being. More than any other governor I have had the privilege and opportunity to work with, he truly valued every Oregonian, and he took the time and made every effort to do his best on their behalf.

His kind of “hands-on” management of functions and activities during his two terms in office was not because of any lack of trust in his managers, but rather from his desire to share his personal sense of ensuring the very best outcomes that could be — for everyone. He knew every one of the managers personally and the shared respect among them was very evident. In the bleakest budget times in the early 1980s, his salary was cut, as were salaries of every member of his team, because that was one way to stretch funds.

When incidents of racial harassment began to occur in an Oregon wracked by increasing hard times in the state’s economy, he was appalled at the cruelty and disharmony they brought to the surface, not just because he was governor but because such actions were alien to his senses.

He researched events and responses in other states to eventually design and support legislation that represented the high standards he felt must be upheld in a decent society and which continue to serve us today. The Commission on Hispanic Affairs and the Commission on Black Affairs also were created by legislation during those years to provide additional opportunities and to ensure a place for everyone with equal voices at our shared table.

For more than 40 years, Atiyeh remained a beloved and valued mentor to me. Many of his words of wisdom have been repeated and highlighted over these past weeks as we all wished to recall and savor our times with him and the counsel and wisdom he shared with us.

He and I each shared our personal representation and celebration of diversity here in Oregon, and perhaps that brought us a special understanding of its importance. That national award he received in 2009 honored him as one “whose influence and achievements inspire and touch the lives of people everywhere,” and I often expressed to him my wish that I might always transmit the respectful values that I learned from him.

In his honor, I look forward to continuing my work along that same high road he always took, seeking to attain the lofty goals I set for myself as one who strives to exemplify the standards set by my mentor, Victor Atiyeh.

State Sen. Jackie Winters, a Salem Republican, began an extensive career in state service in 1969 that included working for then-state Sen. Vic Atiyeh. Winters was named state ombudsman by Atiyeh in 1979 and later represented the Salem area as a state representative from 1999 to 2002. She has been in the state Senate since 2002.