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Lessons from Dave Frohnmayer

A FEW YEARS AGO, Dave Frohnmayer and I were speaking at Northwest Christian University on the subject of leadership when he shared an adage with students that I’ve never forgotten.

“Tell me,” he said, “and I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.”

Now that he’s gone — he died March 9 from prostate cancer at 74 — I realize that that’s how Frohnmayer lived his life:

Showing. Involving. Partnering with people to some greater end, be it making a great university greater, spearheading a cure for the Fanconi anemia disease that claimed two of his five children or helping a freshman student in his leadership class understand the world better.

Showing. Involving. Partnering with people as opposed to the more common political ploys of finger-wagging, show-boating or sound-biting.

We live in a world where style often trumps substance, where tweets have supplanted face-to-face communication, where a public official’s proud personal personna today lies tattered in the shame unearthed by a newspaper investigation the next.

The box score will show that Frohnmayer’s 15 years as president of the University of Oregon represented nearly twice the current average stay for those in that position. His two successors managed only five — between them.

But Frohnmayer’s legacy is more than his resiliency and determinedness against the odds: it’s the reminder that nice guys don’t always finish last.

Dave was Fred MacMurray on “My Three Sons,” the protective father who watched over his state, his university, his family; a guy who drove a minivan as part of his unabashedly Old School approach; an unassuming guy who could just as easily have been a UO reference librarian.

And yet he was also a time-and-a-place guy — and when he felt something he loved was in danger, he could leave the Clark Kent personna in the phone booth. As state attorney general, he sued the Rajneeshee cult in 1983 on religion-and-state grounds for its takeover of Antelope in north-central Oregon — no small risk given that cult leaders later plotted to kill him and a handful of other government officials.

He was always quick with an op-ed piece when someone disparaged the UO.

And he took me to the woodshed once after taking exception to a column I wrote about UO athletics and money. But he did so with a style leavened with grace: he bought me a hot chocolate at the Oakway Starbucks and politely set me straight.

I’ve always thought character reveals itself the farther we get from the public eye and, in that respect, the behind-the-scenes Frohnmayer reminded me of another UO president who the two of us greatly admired: Robert Clark, president of the school from 1969 to 1975.

Years after he retired, Clark attended a book talk I gave at the Congregational Church; when looking for him so I could say goodbye, I found the former college president in the kitchen, doing the post-lunch dishes.

If it involved helping people, Frohnmayer was happy to get his hands in the dishwater, too.

Never mind that he and wife Lynn were honored in Atlanta in front of 20,000 scientists and physicians from around the world for their work with the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund. Dave loved teaching his freshman leadership class.

He would happily be a guinea pig, routinely coming to my journalism classes at the UO and allowing my students to interview him.

When driving to Salem with UO’s student body president, to lobby a cause, Dave would insist they stop at Pioneer Villa Restaurant at the Brownsville exit to get vanilla sugar-frosted cookies with speckles.

My favorite moment with the man: because of our common love for Oregon’s wilderness, I invited him to introduce me before a book event on Cascade Summer at Gerlinger Hall.

He was a busy guy; he could have mailed it in. Instead, he clearly spent time on his intro and talked of how in the decade before my family began camping at the west end of Cultus Lake, his family and the Bowerman’s had done the same. Never mind that the event drew about 12 people, I left feeling as if blessed by the pope himself.

Just recently, he had agreed to introduce me before my Nov. 6 “Evening With Bob Welch & Friends: My Oregon” event at the Hult. Instead, we’ll dedicate the show to him and his love for this state.

Since his passing, I keep finding myself in disbelief, as if Oregon and Eugene and the UO are someone incomplete without him. I remember the beautiful words of his 27-year-old daughter, Amy, who has has Fanconi anemia but lives a vibrant life in Bend.

“There are moments, especially when early fall days turn leaves fiery red, apples come into season, and the early morning chill calls for scarves and warm drinks, when I’m simply compelled to stop and breathe in the awe of being alive,” she wrote.

In honor of her father, we should be compelled to do the same, thankful that Dave didn’t just tell us or show us.

He involved us, as fellow heirs to the Oregon he loved so much.

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