Famous and notable PSU alumni

What do a New York Times notable author, a Dancing with the Stars competitor, a Grammy-nominated singer and actress, and inventor of the Nike logo have in common? They all attended Portland State University before launching their careers. We’ve written about PSU alumni before, but never have you seen a list this extensively researched.

David James Duncan

David James Duncan is a Portland novelist known for two notable works: The River Why and The Brothers K. Born in 1952, Duncan garnered a lot of attention as a writer, including a Pacific Northwest Booksellers award and an American Library Association Best Books Award. His 1983 novel The River Why, a coming of age story, was adapted into a film starring William Hurt and Amber Heard. The Brothers K, with narratives from multiple points of view, received the most praise, including a New York Times Notable Book mention. Both novels were bestsellers. Duncan’s other works include River Teeth, a collection of short stories, and his memoir My Story As Told By Water.

Mark Dacascos

Cradle 2 the Grave and Hawaii Five-0 actor Mark Dacascos attended PSU before being discovered by Chris Lee while walking around San Francisco’s Chinatown. Dacascos trained as a martial artist before fusing his discipline with acting and often plays roles involving karate and martial arts. Following his big break playing a martial arts teacher in Only The Strong, Dacascos went on to become The Chairman on the Iron Chef, landed a recurring role on the CBS series Hawaii Five-0, and competed on season nine of Dancing with the Stars.

Courtney Love

Sons of Anarchy actress Courtney Love is notorious for much more than her acting career. The singer, guitarist, and designer rose to prominence after forming the band Hole in 1989Love helped write and create a manga series titled Princess Ai, a loose adaptation of her own life, and eventually moved toward film and television, with roles in movies such as Trapped and Man on the Moon and television series such as Empire and Sons of Anarchy. Our older readers will remember Love for having been married to Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Kurt Cobain. 

Carolyn Davidson

After starting as a journalism major at PSU, Davidson decided to take a design course as an elective. She eventually changed her major, and in 1971 she was approached by Nike founder and co-owner Phil Knight, who was at that time an accounting professor at PSU. Knight asked Davidson to create a logo for Blue Ribbon Sports, Nike’s precursor. She presented him with four designs; one of them is the familiar logo used today. Knight paid Davidson 35 dollars for her work; three years after the launch and success of Nike, Knight invited Davidson to lunch and presented her with a diamond ring engraved with her popular logo, along with 500 shares of Nike stock. Davidson remained with the company until retiring in Portland, Oregon in 2000.

Beauty Queens and All Star Athletes

Numerous high-achieving beauty queen practiced their pageant wave when they got their PSU diplomas, including Katie Harman (Miss America 2002), Caroline McGowan (Miss Oregon 2011), Aku Wallace (Miss Oregon USA 2015) and Jessica Carlson (Miss Oregon USA 2005). Likewise, all-star athletes like DeShawn Shead (Super Bowl XLVIII Champion), Clint Didier (Super Bowl XVII, XXII Champion), Tony Curtis (Dallas Cowboys) Bree Schaaf (2010 Winter Olympics American bobsledder), and Julius Thomas (Jacksonville Jaguars) all spent time in the Stott Center.

Playboy Bunnies

Holly Madison is perhaps the most famous exotic model in the legendary pictorial publication, but others include Sara Jean Underwood, who co-hosted G4’s Attack of the Show!, and Kari Ann Peniche.

Kari Ann Peniche

As a Playboy Playmate and disgraced beauty queen, Kari Ann Peniche’s brand is Hot Mess: she was engaged to Aaron Carter for six days, was on three of Dr. Drew Pinsky’s rehab-themed VH1 shows, and had a line of bikinis in Portland Fashion Week called “Strung Out” because it was the 2000s and people still sucked at talking about addiction.

Paul Popham

Paul Popham was a Vietnam War veteran and LGBTQ rights activist who founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, one of the earliest nonprofits to assist HIV patients during the AIDS Crisis, was chairman of the AIDS Action Council in Washington D.C., and is the basis of Bruce Niles in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the first play written about the AIDS Crisis. Popham died from AIDS in 1987.

Fariborz Maseeh

The namesake of PSU’s College of Engineering & Computer Science and Department of Mathematics and Statistics is an Iranian-American scientist considered a pioneer in the field of micro-electro mechanical systems (MEMS), technology similar to, but distinct from, molecular nanotechnology.

Jennifer Lyon

Jennifer Lyon competed on Survivor‘s tenth season and died from metastasized breast cancer in 2010. She is the show’s first alumnus to pass away.

Jack Ely

Jack Ely is best known for singing the Kingsmen’s version of the classic song “Louie Louie.” He was forced out of the group before the song became a hit, and went to court to receive a share of the song’s proceeds. He released a Christian rock album in 2012 and died in 2015 from a disease believed to be skin cancer.

Steve Gaynor

Steve Gaynor was the lead designer on the video game Bio Shock 2, senior level designer on BioShock Infinite and formed an independent video game studio, The Fullbright Company, in 2012. Gaynor also writes about feminism, atheism and video game culture.

Anne Hughes

Anne Hughes is an influential patron of the arts. She owned an important gallery in 1970’s Portland, served on the Portland Saturday Market’s first board of directors, and was arrested alongside 51 other people in the Quayle Riot of 1990.

Casten Nemra

The seventh President of the Marshall Islands held power for 17 days in January 2016, and was succeeded by incumbent Hilda Heine after a vote of no confidence. He is PSU’s only alumni to serve as a head of state.

Terence Knox

Terence Knox is an actor best known for his work on St. Elsewhere, a dark 1980’s medical comedy named 20/50 in TV Guide‘s 2002 roundup of 50 Best TV Shows.

Phil Knight

The Nike co-founder studied here, then for a time working as an accounting professor.


Andrew D. Jankowski contributed to the online-exclusive version of this article.