The college that would not die

Sixty years ago, Oregon’s largest university got an inauspicious start as the tiny Vanport Extension Center, situated precariously in Vanport City, a small town completely surrounded and protected by a series of dikes.

From these humble beginnings, Portland State has become a legitimate and very large university that is integral to the city from which it borrows its name. To celebrate PSU’s 60th anniversary, the Alumni Association is presenting the lecture series “Through the Years” to celebrate the birth of Oregon’s only urban university.

The series kicked off last week and still has three more lectures, featured for the next three Thursdays at noon in the Smith Memorial Student Union. Oregonian writer and historian John Terry will give a lecture this Thursday on PSU’s transition to the Park Blocks followed by a look at PSU from the 1960s to 1990s presented by PSU Provost Emeritus Michael Reardon. Current president Dan Bernstine and Vice President Lindsay Desrochers will examine PSU’s future in the final lecture on May 4.

“It’s important for students to understand Portland State’s history,” said Pat Squire, director of the PSU Alumni Association. “If students know more about where this school came from and what we’ve been through, they can have a clearer picture of our present and future.”

To understand Portland State is to understand the meager resources the institution had when it was first founded a year after World War Two ended. Appropriately located in a city specifically founded to house World War Two ship builders, the Vanport Center was designed for war veterans who wanted to utilize the newly signed GI Bill.

Just two years after the first classes met on June 18, 1946, the Vanport Center would be completely annihilated when a 500-foot section of dike holding back the Columbia River failed, flooding the entire city in 10 feet of water and killing 15 people.

While the Center itself was unsalvageable, the concept for the school and much of its records were saved. Faculty members and students including Vanport founder Stephen Epler and John Cramer loaded transcripts and other school records onto vehicles and drove to the safety of nearby Jefferson High School as floodwaters consumed Vanport City.

Just five days after the flood, Epler was busy securing new space for the extension center, finally settling on Grant High School for the summer term. The center would then move to another temporary home at the Oregon Shipyard Corporation building in St. Johns until landing in the South Park Blocks at the old Lincoln High School building in 1952.

By this time the institution had changed its name to the Portland State Extension Center, though students had taken to calling it simply Portland State College. By persevering through the Vanport flood disaster and continuing to function as a place of higher learning despite multiple relocations, Portland State became known as “the college that would not die.”

In 1955 the institution hired John Cramer as the first president and officially changed its name to Portland State College as it transitioned into a 4-year, degree-granting institution. By 1961 the college established graduate programs and in 1968 doctoral programs were first introduced.

Portland State grew exponentially in the 14 years between the college’s arrival on the Park Blocks until it gained university status in 1969. The college built or acquired 26 buildings in that span, including Cramer Hall and the Smith Memorial Student Union, originally known as State Hall and the Student Center building. Neuberger Hall, named in honor of state senator Richard Neuberger, was completed in 1968.

Governor Tom McCall signed the bill that granted Portland State university status in 1969. Just a year later, the university established itself as a bastion of liberal thought when it was one of 400 colleges that participated in an infamous protest of the Vietnam war.

The protest, often thought to be the most significant in university history, started when hundreds of students went on strike on May 6, 1970 in response to the killings of four Kent State students two days earlier and the decision to send US troops into Cambodia.

The campus shut down completely for four days. Protesters occupied the Park Blocks, picketing and soliciting support from faculty and other students. A strike committee manned headquarters on the fourth floor of the Smith Building to organize and oversee the protesting student body.

The campus was reopened on Monday, May 11 by the university president George B. Wolfe, causing a violent conflict to escalate that eventually left approximately 30 students and four police officers with injuries. Words turned to physical violence when strikers and police officers disagreed over the removal of a hospital tent situated in the Park Blocks.

Though they had already started the process of dismantling barricades, protesters argued that the permit for the tent had not expired. Thousands watched as police beat strikers who refused to remove the tent with batons.

Despite the violent outburst the strike did little damage to the university or the student body in the long term. In fact, many aspects of the university thrived in the 1970s, especially PSU’s athletic programs. Freeman Williams was a NCAA Division I national scoring leader for the Vikings in the ’70s, and quarterback Neil Lomax set 90 NCAA records in his career, including a game in which he threw seven touchdowns in a single quarter.

PSU would not gain major national recognition again until 1994 when the school introduced the University Studies program. The program is a non-traditional approach to fulfilling general education requirements that includes required interdisciplinary classes for freshman and sophomores and a community-learning based class for seniors.

“This anniversary is a milestone,” Squire said. “We’re celebrating six decades of education as well as important history. PSU has seen so much in its lifetime – from World War Two through the civil rights movements and Vietnam – and now we’ve entered a new millennium.”

Student body president Erin Devaney said that ASPSU has not planned any events to celebrate the anniversary but that it is important for students to be informed about the occasion.

“Portland State has such a rich and unique history,” Devaney said. “The university has a strong connection with the city of Portland.”

In addition to the lectures in April, the PSU Alumni Association plans to hold a number of additional events to celebrate PSU’s sixty-year mark. An award ceremony will be held on May 11 to recognize PSU alumni and outstanding citizens who have contributed to the university’s achievements.

A “Vanport Reunion” is set for June 10 as a historical look at the city from 1956 to 1959. These events will all be held at Smith Memorial Union and all students are encouraged to attend.



A Portland State Timeline
In 1948, the Vanport Extension Center was flooded when a dike failed, forcing the center to eventually relocate to downtown Portland.In 1955, Portland State Extension Center changed its name to Portland State College in recognition of its new status as a four-year degree granting institution.Portland State became a university when Governor Tom McCall signed the bill in 1969. On May 6, 1970, the PSU campus was locked down by a student strike protesting the Vietnam War and the killing of four Kent State students. Violent conflict erupted on May 11, as students and police clashed over the removal of a hospital tent.Portland State introduced the University Studies program in 1994, garnering the school national attention.