Monroe Sweetland: His eyesight dimmed, but his vision was clear.

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Monroe_sweetlandOn Sunday, Monroe Sweetland passed away. He was 96.

As Congressman Earl Blumenauer told the Oregonian, "He is probably -- as much as anyone -- the father of the modern Democratic Party of Oregon."

In his later years, Sweetland was fond of saying, "My eyesight may be dim, but my vision is clear." And it was true. He never gave up fighting for progressive change in Oregon - running in 1998 for the State Senate, and serving as a delegate to the 2000 Democratic Convention.

In 1948, he became Oregon's national committeman to the Democratic Party. At the time, ours was a one-party state controlled by Republicans. He won a seat in the Oregon House in 1952, and a seat in the Senate in 1954. In 1956 and 1960, he ran unsuccessfully for Secretary of State.

While he lost his statewide campaigns, he led a 1956 resurgence in which Democrats won control of the House, the Senate, the Governor's office, both US Senate seats, and three of four US House seats.

He was - as Phil Keisling wrote in 1998 - part of "a generation of great Oregon leaders like Richard Neuberger, Tom McCall, and Wayne Morse." When visiting Oregon, President John Kennedy made sure to visit the Sweetland home to say hello.

As a legislator, he was a founding father of Portland State University and won passage of a civil rights bill that had failed 17 previous times. As an activist, he shepherded the Bilingual Education Act. As US Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) said on the Senate floor in 2004, "Without his efforts, it would not have passed."

Monroe Sweetland will be deeply missed. From the Oregonian:

A memorial service will be from 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 30 in the ballroom of PSU's Smith Memorial Student Union, Room 355, 1825 S.W. Broadway, Portland.

His family asks that remembrances be contributions to the Monroe Sweetland Scholarship at PSU. Checks, payable to the PSU Foundation, can be mailed to P.O. Box 243, Portland, OR 97207, with Sweetland Scholarship written on the memo line. [Editor's note: Gifts can also be made online. Be sure to designate it for the Sweetland Scholarship.]

Use this space to share your memories of Monroe Sweetland.

  • (Show?)

    On a personal note... I first met Monroe ten years ago - almost exactly ten years ago - when I worked on Darlene Hooley's first congressional campaign. He'd come by once a week, always with a a friendly smile and a joke, a fistful of clippings from local papers in Clackamas County, and suggestions for how Darlene might make inroads with Clackamas County voters.

    I saw him most recently a couple of months ago at the City Club - where he was a regular - and he was peppering me with questions about the governor's race, the Minnis/Brading race, and others.

    He may have been 96, but his focus was always on the future.

    Monroe Sweetland was extraordinary. I'm going to miss him.

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    Nice remembrance--thanks, Kari.

  • Pat Malach (unverified)

    I also was a big fan of Monroe Sweetland from my days working at the Clackamas Review/Oregon City News (right about the time Darlene Hooley first ran for Congress). Monroe would come by regularly with his driver/reader to talk about things going on in Milwaukie and Clackamas County, and to offer advice (always appreciated). Monroe's body may have been running out of steam, but his mind and passion for a better Oregon never did. Oregon has lost a very, very decent man and a treasure of historical knowledge. He will be missed!!

  • LT (unverified)

    Pat, that sounds like a great description of the many I was honored to meet a few times. I think the first time I heard the name was in the 1980s, and he was always described as the founder of the modern Democratic Party.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    I used to see Monroe a lot at City Club, too, always surrounded by a lot of other movers and shakers. Don't forget, he was the guy who got Wayne Morse to become a Democrat.

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    Not only was Monroe a solid Democrat - he was also sweet and kind, and truly a good man. I feel blessed to have had the chance to spend some time with him.

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    I'm a bit of a history buff, and I visited several times with Monroe so I could hear his stories about building the Democratic Party in the 1940s and 1950s. Once, during a three-hour session at a restaurant in Milwaukee, he pulled a small flyer from 1950 out of his his coat pocket. It was from Howard Latourette, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate against Wayne Morse in 1950. That flyer, which was dropped from airplanes in some parts of Oregon, accused Morse, Sweetland and Harry Bridges of being communists. That campaign was pretty much the last gasp of the reactionary faction of the Oregon Democrats. Four years later, Dick Neuberger beat Sen. Guy Cordon, and a few months after that, Morse became a Democrat. Much of that was due to the work that Sweetland and others, such as Howard Morgan, did. Every Democrat should be grateful to him. The stories were great, and I will always remember him as a pioneer and a visionary, and as someone who kept going even though the odds were against him. I hold the seat on the DNC that he once held. He and I chatted several times about the DNC then and now. In general, he did a very good job keeping tabs on things. I will never have the impact that he had, but then again, neither will anyone else.

  • Jefferson Smith (unverified)

    If there were 100 Monroe Sweetlands, Oregon Democracy might be fixed. I suppose we each have our Monroe stories -- and perhaps this is as good a place as any to post them.

    When we recognize people who pass, it prompts consideration of the purpose of such a practice -- and I see at least two here. First, odd reward. A life spent in the public interest has few tangible rewards...minor immortality might be one of them. Second, teaching. Passings are chances to learn from the lives of others. A lesson from Monroe's life: Eternal vigilance attenting to the details of democracy. He was constantly thinking about how to engage more people in the process. One retirement home, one union, one young leader, one apartment complex, one neighborhood at a time. And always with an eye on the public interest and an eye to the less lucky.

    He asked me to breakfast just a few months ago. We ate at the cafeteria at his retirement manor. The topic: how we could organize senior citizen homes.

    His passing is so sad. (Incidentally, among the most minor of his otherwise major distinctions -- he also holds the title as the oldest Oregonian ever to go on a Bus trip.)

    I had started to think he might be immortal. Frankly, I was hoping. Perhaps my words here are largely irrelevant, and maybe merely an outlet for my almost purposeless emoting. But where else. And when else.

    And for whom else.

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    If there were 100 Monroe Sweetlands, Oregon Democracy might be fixed.

    Yes. That's about it.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    I too first met Monroe 10 years ago.

    He would come to the legislature to visit and was, of course, given the "courtesies of the senate" which meant he was allowed on the floor during a senate session where he could mingle and talk with all of the state senators on the floor.

    I was struck with the warm and close relationship between him and then Senator Verne Duncan, republican from Clackamas County.

    Verne Duncan was and is exactly the same kind of public servant as was Monroe. Thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate and very, very kind.

    Many of us in the senate at that time (both democrats and republicans)were deeply moved by these two politicians, one democrat and one republican, and vowed we too should be able to interact like that.

    Monroe represented the best of what public servants should aspire to be.

    As others have said here, I will greatly miss his warm company at the many venues I would see him in.

  • (Show?)

    I was struck with the warm and close relationship between him and then Senator Verne Duncan, republican from Clackamas County.

    Folks should know that in Monroe's comeback campaign in 1998, he ran against Senator Duncan for his seat. It was an impressive campaign, pitting two men who had run for statewide office (Sweetland unsuccessfully for Secretary of State, Duncan successfully for Superintendent of Public Instruction) and yet it was done with comity and grace.

  • Brian Newman (unverified)

    When I ran for city council in Milwaukie, Monroe gave me my first endorsement and was the first signature on my nominating petition. I was nervous and new to politics, but Monroe was very encouraging which helped me believe in myself as a candidate. He would call about once every few weeks with advice and questions, always asking me how I planned to reach out to senior voters. I knew that he was a former State Senator and newspaper publisher, but I didn't really know until years later that he had such a major impact on building the Democratic party. He was such a humble man.

    The last time I saw Monroe was in July when I hosted a house party for Lynn Peterson. Monroe showed up sporting his ACLU baseball cap and asked Lynn a lot of questions about how to make Clackamas County government more accessible to the citizens. Despite his impaired eyesight, he had such a twinkle in those old blue eyes.

    I will sincerely miss him. Right now, he his probably up in heaven registering new voters.

  • Ned Hopkins (unverified)

    I first met Monroe in 1968. To me, then, he was merely one of five colleagues in the National Education Association’s West Coast (Burlingame, California) Office.

    Only four years later, when I found myself communications director of New York City’s teachers union, did I begin to realize that Monroe was something bigger than just another NEA representative. On almost my first day in New York, the union president, the late Albert Shanker, asked me if I had ever met Monroe Sweetland.

    “Monroe?," I asked, somewhat puzzled. "Sure. He had the office next to mine.”

    Shanker then told me that Monroe was one of his heroes, largely for Monroe’s activities as a labor organizer in New York State in the 1930s. (Like most of the New York union leadership, Shanker was a social democrat.) Al was, to my amazement, more impressed that I knew Monroe Sweetland than that I had helped engineer the merger of the New York State NEA and AFL-CIO/American Federation of Teachers affiliates.

    I learned much more about Monroe in the years that followed, both after my return to the NEA and from reading and from a mutual friend, Reynaldo Martinez, another former NEA colleague and later chief-of-staff to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

    Though he never held high office, Monroe Sweetland had a greater impact on our nation and our society than many people who did. He was among few political leaders who had the courage to condemn the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II; and he was instrumental both in the enactment of the 18-year-old vote amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in the development of bilingual education to assist the children of immigrants to become proficient in the language of their new country.

    And unlike most of those whose influence was greater, Monroe's influence was all good. A host of us will remember, honor, and thank him all our lives.

  • (Show?)

    BTW, I've just posted the entire text of Senator Harry Reid's 2004 speech about Monroe Sweetland over at

  • Dean Alterman (unverified)

    I owe my life to Monroe Sweetland, for my parents met each other at a fundraiser or organizing meeting for his 1956 campaign. I met Mr. Sweetland a few years ago and told him, and his face lit up.

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    Monroe Sweetland was also a personal hero for me.

    Monroe ran for the State Senate in our district in 1998 only because two right-wingers filed against Verne Duncan in the Republican primary. Monroe wanted to make sure that there was a Democratic alternative if Verne lost the primary.

    I remember moderating a neighborhood association candidate forum that fall with Monroe and Verne. On issue after issue, they worked hard to discern and identify common ground. Even when they disagreed, it was done with respect and admiration. Verne even drove Monroe to and from the debate!

    When I first ran for School Board in March of 1999, Monroe generously offered his endorsement and his prominent yard for a lawn sign. He also gave me wonderful campaign and policy advice.

    When I ran for the Legislature in 2002, Monroe was there for me again, appearing in my walk piece (and being recognized in that piece by people all over Clackamas County throughout the campaign). He was and is beloved throughout my district.

    I remember wonderful discussions with him throughout these years -- at Democratic gatherings, in his apartment, during car rides -- where he was always more lucid and creative than I. He was always concerned about how to better engage and involve people in the political process generally and the Democratic party specifically.

    When I last spoke with him two weeks ago, his voice was nearly gone, but he still wanted to talk about politics and public policy.

    Monroe also had a deep and abiding faith. He was fighting for "family values" long before the religious right ever came along.

    I had the great honor to introduce Monroe on the floor of the Oregeon House during the past two legislative sessions, exactly 50 years after his first election to the House. He gave great reassurance to today's House Democrats that 27 seats was nothing to complain about, since he had served in the minority of either 9 or 11 Democrats and they had built that small number into the majority.

    Now that Monroe has transitioned to heaven, he won't be able to cast his ballot in Oregon this fall. Let us all take it upon ourselves to work extra hard to win elections this year as a tribute to Monroe.

    His vision remains strong....and his eyesight has been restored!

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    I sent this to the Clackamas Democrats last week:

    "Monroe Mark Sweetland passed away last night, September 10. He died peacefully with his daughters Barbara and Rebecca at his side. There will be a memorial service on September 30th, 3 to 5 PM in Smith Hall at Portland State University.

    He was one-of-a-kind, a man who never lost optimism in the face of defeat and never wasted a minute celebrating victory. He fit several lifetimes worth of activism into a life just short of a century. If you knew Monroe you likely expected, as I did, that he would live forever. I am certain that his inspiration will continue to live on in us as we work to make the world a better place."

    Monroe was a remarkable person. I've never seen such a combination of knowledge and optimism, as lots of the former usually reduces the latter. An illustrative tale follows.

    I went to visit Monroe a few weeks before his death, after he moved from Willamette View to Oatfield Estates. Although his energy level was low and his voice weak, his instructions to me were clear:

    "Fill out a voter registration form for me to sign. When you drop it off at the elections office, find out if we have a committee person in this precinct, because I'm sure there are many unregistered Democrats in this old folks home."

    I explained to the elections employee why Monroe's signature was so feeble, as it was illegible. I'll never miss an opportunity to vote for the rest of my life. That's a promise.

  • Matt Chambers (unverified)

    Monroe was one of the greats, both politically and as one of the sweetest people you could hope to meet. One of the things that I like to mention about him was, even though he was once a "big shot" in Oregon and national politics, he was never "above" all of the little tasks so important to our democracy and to the Democrats. So many such people seem to disappear or only work in high positions, but Monroe constantly had those voter registration cards folded in his vest pocket, ready to talk to a waitress, the guy on the bus, the store clerk. He could have said, "I'm in my nineties, I'm almost completely blind, and I've worked at it all my life -- I'm retired now," but he never did. Monroe just cared too much -- about people, issues, and civics.

    At one time, I remember hearing that Monroe was the third largest individual donor to the Democratic Party of Oregon, and he sent encouraging checks to just about everyone. People would sometimes ask me (really!), "Is Monroe really wealthy?" But, no, Monroe just lived simply and spent his money on the people and issues he cared about. His one real luxury was probably the Friday city club luncheon -- he just couldn't resist the issues and the chance to talk to (other) influential people about them. Of course, he usually took the bus and Max, and finding his way with his cane.

    I remember how just anyone could drop by his place unannounced on McLoughlin or at Willamette View and he would get up and always be so welcoming. If you were lucky and it was the right time of year, you would go away with some wonderful figs from his tree.

    Like others have said, Monroe's optimism and drive were so inspiring. I remember hearing about how he and Howard Morgan met up in some tent on some Pacific island during WWII (Monroe was then a director of relief operations for the Red Cross), staying up late talking about political ideas for Oregon after the war. The are often called, of course, the "Fathers of the modern Democratic Party of Oregon," helping to make it into the majority party. Even when things seemed dark, hopeless, and defeated, Monroe was thinking and caring about the future.

    Did you hear about his first big political adventure (at least, that I know of)? Monroe was about twelve years old, living then in Constantine, Michigan, and he heard that the local party equivalent of the Democratic Party wasn't going to field candidates for various positions, perhaps feeling defeated after a recent national election. Well, Monroe thought that that was a shame and, with a friend ("an accomplice," he called him) they bought about 30 or so penny postcards and addressed them to various people, writing in block letters to help disguise their youth, and with such details as the party name, a firehouse meeting location and time, and the purpose of nominating candidates (I believe), and the words "ALL OUT". They then positioned themselves and waited for the results. People arrived and, although not finding who organized it, some decided to run after all. Something like three or four of five ended up winning. Sometime later a story in a newspaper caused the friend's father or mother to say "that sounds like something your friend Monroe would do" and the boy giggle and the whole story came out. Monroe remembered being called in from play and thinking, from his mom's voice, that he had really done something and was going to get it, but it was a reporter from a paper there to take his picture and write the story. (I have, somewhere, photocopies of a story that is perhaps done a little after the first, and possibly with a different headline. Monroe remembered the first as, “And a child shall lead them…” I always meant to track the old stories done. Monroe deserves a book, really, and I always felt terrible about not being organized enough to get all of the details down and help it happen.)

    Hopefully, we can also continue to support the scholarship fund named after him at PSU. Monroe deserves a building named after him, but, these days, those tend to go to the wealthiest and not the most deserving and caring. Monroe wouldn’t have cared, of course, just wanting to see that the good things that needed to be done got done, but I would still like to see it and wish more people knew about his contributions.

    Thanks for letting me ramble a bit,

    Matt Chambers

  • (Show?)

    Dave, and Tom, and Matt...

    Thank you. His was an extraordinary life.

  • Richard Blandini (unverified)

    I would like to thank you all for the wonderful comments and remembrances of Monroe in this forum. My wife, Allison, is Monroe's grand daughter. Our family is saddened by this loss, but seeing this outpour of gratitude and respect has helped us to see the legacy that Monroe has left and though we will never see him again, we will always see the fruits borne of his dedication and resolve. Your recognition here, as well as those who have visited and called, has helped us to celebrate Monroe’s life and remember his successes rather than dwell on our loss. We hope to see many of Monroe’s friends and colleagues at his Memorial at PSU on September 30th and again, thank you for the kind words.

  • Gene Lambird (unverified)

    Monroe was a good man. I believe his favorite person in politics may have been Hubert Humphrey, who was known as "the happy warrior," as Monroe was very similar in nature. In the 30+ years I knew him, I never saw Monroe get angry, or heard him get angry for more than a second. However, he was a man of conviction and determination. From his conscientious objector status in WW2 which got him assigned to the Red Cross in the South Pacific, to the day of his passing, he was a man of peace and action. May he rest in peace, and prayers of solace be said for his family, especially his granddaughter Kate as she is away attending college. Kate went back East with Monroe's blessing. His last selfless request to her was for her to not worry about him, but rather to focus on her schooling. Her doing so gave him great comfort in his last days, but also showed his never-tiring interest in the education and progressive development of others.

  • Teri Mills (unverified)

    Monroe Sweetlund will be remembered as one of the most loyal, dedicated, hard working and courageous Oregon Democrats. We can all learn from his example. When I first became involved in Governor Howard Dean's bid for president, Monroe was one of the first individuals that I called. He was very enthusiastic about joining the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party and helped to arrange house parties at Willamette View Manor. He never let his age interfer with showing up at events either. On a magical night in November, 2003, he showed up at Montgomery Park to cheer Howard Dean on. And when Democracy for Oregon held their first summit at PSU's Smith Hall, there was Monroe, educating himself on activism, to show support and to demonstrate his love of life-long learning. This month the Democratic Party lost another great leader, Governor Ann Richards of Texas. It is my hope that Monroe and Ann will be arranging the first meet-up in heaven that we will all some day attend.

  • Franco Lucardi (unverified)

    I am Franco from Argentina and I had the honor of meeting and talking and discussing about politics with Monroe.

  • Verne Duncan (unverified)

    I am posting the comments I made at Monroe's Memorial Service:

    SENATOR MARK MONROE SWEETLAND MEMORIAL SERVICE Remarks by Verne Duncan September 30, 2006

    It is an honor to be joining in this tribute today to a great statesman, The Honorable Senator Mark Monroe Sweetland.

    One of the great privileges in my lifetime has been the opportunity to get to know this icon.

    I can say, as can many in this audience today —He was a mentor to me and he was my friend. I continued to learn from this great man--- right up to and during his last days. What a distinguished public servant and what a distinguished gentleman he was! He was a walking history book.

    Monroe and I had a special friendship--- and my guess is that each of you today can say the same thing, because you, too, had a special friendship with Monroe. He was the kind of individual who had a special relationship with all he knew. Monroe and I had this “bantering” relationship—probably because we had those “R” and “D” symbols behind our names. He would always say that he was “an unabashed liberal.” I would say that I am an “unabashed moderate.” Even then it was amazing just how much in agreement we would be--- particularly in the area of education.

    Monroe loved education. He was so proud of his work in helping to establish Portland State University, his work in creating the Bilingual Education Act, and his concern for education at all levels and for all people. He was a true educator. I think he even looked upon his role as a newspaper publisher as an opportunity to “educate.” There is an old saying that those “who dare to educate, must never cease to learn” and Monroe, even after losing his eyesight, kept up on the issues by having readers. By the way, those readers couldn’t help but learn, too, as they spent that time with Monroe, while he was continuing to learn.

    As you all know—Monroe and I had a little political campaign a few years back. We had more fun. I would pick him up for all of our campaign events. It would really confuse everyone for us to be doing everything together, but they didn’t realize that we had been friends long before that campaign and that Donna and I often went out to dinner with Monroe and Gale. I told Monroe that I helped add at least 5 years to his life by giving “the old war horse” a chance to race again. He loved the campaign! I kidded him that I thought in the end he really voted for me because, after all, he was one of those who had written Governor Kitzhaber suggesting he appoint me to the Senate. I have to tell you, though, that I would have hated to have had to take him on when he was 30 years younger. One editorial referred to our campaign as the model campaign in the State.

    Have you ever “goggled” Monroe? There are 20,600 entries. His passing has appeared in almost every paper in Oregon and even the Seattle papers.
    If you’ll check the Truman library documents on line you will see that the President’s Daily Calendar lists, The Honorable Monroe Sweetland as a guest at 3:30 pm on August 3, 1949. There are other entries of Monroe’s visits to the President. His old friend, the late Jebby Davison, in an oral history on line, pointed out that during the Truman days all the key Oregon elected officials were Republicans and Monroe became the key contact in the state for President Truman. We all know he was the confidant of many national leaders (President Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey and many others.

    Just days before his death, Reynaldo and I were visiting him and he was sharing with us his concerns about some educational issues that yet needed to be done. His thought process and the clarity with which he spoke were of such that he could have been giving a political speech on the platform. He was still thinking of ways to make this a better society right to the very end. What a way to go!!.

    I’m convinced that when Monroe realized that he couldn’t get to City Club any more, he decided it was time to go. (He might have liked to get in one more election.)

    The outpouring of love and respect has been a well-deserved tribute to one who was the “epitome” of a statesman. His impact has been so great on so many. One of my favorite of Monroe’s sayings was, “My eyesight may be dimmed, but my vision is clear.” In fact that was the slogan he used in his campaign against me. There can be no more fitting tribute to his memory than we pledge to continue to learn and grow while keeping our “vision clear.

    Monroe loved his family and his friends, particularly if you were a Democrat--- he made the rest of us work at it a bit.

    Monroe Sweetland has left a great legacy to his family, to his community, to our great State and to the many bi-lingual young people of this nation.

    I loved the man--- I am going to miss those phone calls, those visits and our lunches and dinners out. So good-bye, good Senator, until we meet again. I know we’ll pick up where we left off.

    Donna joins me in extending our deepest sympathy to you, Barbara, Rebecca, Lauren, Allison, Kate, Raphael and the rest of the members of his beloved family. You took such good care of him.

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