September 24, 2019

Wyden Floor Remarks in Remembrance of Mary Gautreaux

As Prepared for Delivery

Madam President, scores and scores of my friends and neighbors at home in Oregon have been grieving since they learned the sad news about the passing of a remarkable woman, Mary Gautreaux, who died at her home this weekend.

Mary Gautreaux was an astounding bundle of energy and passion. She had an incandescent smile, a huge heart for people who didn’t have any power or clout, and the ability to make just about everybody she met more optimistic about the policies and opportunities for the days ahead.

Mary came to our office back in the 1990s after working in the U.S. Forest Service planting trees and fighting fires. I can tell you no resume or job title could have ever captured who Mary was or how hard she worked to protect the qualities that make Oregon different – the very special place she was proud to call home.

Mary Gautreaux, simply stated, was an all-star Oregonian. She loved her family and her co-workers with fierce loyalty.

All of Mary's friends and neighbors knew up close and personal what an indomitable force she was.

And it didn’t matter where you went in the state – from Portland to Burns, everywhere in between. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, the left, the right, mayors, county officials. Everybody liked being with Mary, they liked working with Mary. They admired her professionalism and they were so impressed that she always wanted to involve everybody. She always wanted everybody to believe they were special, that they counted. And that’s something we’ll always remember.

My office saw her as an anchor, as I did personally. For the better part of two decades, she and I traveled to hundreds of town halls and community meetings in every nook and cranny of Oregon. And Mary and I always shared a kind of special joke. At one of those meetings, somebody would invariably ask me something that I didn’t know a lot about, and I would always say the same thing. I would say, “Folks, I want you to know, I’m really digging into that issue. But Mary Gautreaux is one of the leading authorities on the subject.” And she’d be rolling her eyes, and then I’d say, “Well, feel free to call Mary nights and weekends. She’s always available for people.” And, my sense is she got a kick out of it the first hundred times I did that. It was a special kind of bond, you know, we had, and that was vintage Mary Gautreaux.

But the fact is, she really did make herself available: always. Any time, any day, she was always ready to pick up the phone and travel the state to solve a problem.

If I were to talk about all the accomplishments, all of the results she produced for the people of Oregon, we’d be here until New Year’s Eve 2020.

But, I do want to talk about a few that stand out for their exceptional breadth and impact.

Mary Gautreaux was an early advocate of re-opening the Willamette River for the benefit of everybody in Portland. She knew it had the potential to be a treasure for the community. She was out there swimming every chance she could get and loved every time she could get out into the Willamette. She recognized that not everybody had her physical abilities. So as was always her way, when Mary recognized a problem that needed fixing, she got to work.

So, she pushed locally, with the City and with community activists, to get a ladder installed at a popular swim spot. As a result of this kind of effort, and frankly, her imagination, I don’t know that finding ladders is always in the job description, she just figured out how more people could have the opportunity to get in and out of the Willamette safely, and take a swim in one of the country’s most impressive urban rivers.

The whole metropolitan area in my hometown has her to thank for other important achievements. We have exceptional drinking water. Mary was instrumental in the creation of Portland's Bull Run water reserve being still, I believe, the only urban water source closed to people, entirely, for its protection. Everybody in Oregon as they learn about this, because Mary never sought any publicity for herself, really has to thank Mary Gautreaux for that effort.

And she really went to bat for rural Oregonians. She recognized, because I lived in southeast Portland and she lived in northeast, we loved Portland, but we didn’t have the job of representing the State of Portland. Our job is to get into every nook and cranny of our state and particularly when so many rural communities are so hard-hit. Mary would be there helping tiny airports get bigger; helping veterans who couldn’t get over icy roads to get health care in urban areas; she’d help with food pantries and rural hospitals. She did everything to make sure that in those small communities, they would understand that they counted. 

Sometimes people would point out to her: a lot of those communities had more cows than people. And I always thought to myself, I probably didn’t have the cows with me half the time either. That wasn’t Mary’s count of public service. Mary’s was to make sure nobody was left behind.

One of Mary’s recent accomplishments for rural Oregon is also going to be treasured for a long time: the designation of the Frank Moore Wild Steelhead Management Area. Frank Moore and Mary had a wonderful bond. Frank is a World War Two hero. After the war he came home to the Umpqua River, and he has guided generations of fishers on the river for years and years. Now he’s 96-years-old, and Mary made a decision a couple years ago that she was concerned Frank wouldn’t get the recognition he deserved while he was alive. So Mary basically just pushed and pushed and pushed in order to make sure that legislation I just mentioned would get done.

And what a wonderful party we had for Frank Moore, because if there’s something Mary Gautreaux loved, it was a good party. You’ll hear more about that in a moment.

On the national level, in southern Oregon, Mary's work on the designation of the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument created original unique wilderness protections, unique protections for ranchers and environmental folks, something that was going to be a model for generations to come. 

She was the key to the creation of the Badlands Wilderness. And I remember, Madam President, when Mary Gautreaux pulled it off, people said because of Mary, it was a good day for the Badlands.

And in eastern Oregon, Mary's work on the East Moraines in the Wallowas was significant.

She helped Oregonians everywhere, and she always tried to look ahead. Mary was one of the first who recognized in our state that recreation would be a powerful economic engine for years to come. Billions of dollars coming to the state. Jobs for everyone from kayakers, to guides, to craft brewers. A huge economic multiplier.

So what did we get out of it? We also got a chance to have a new focus on recreation. We’ve seen created Oregon's Office of Recreation, born out of Mary’s tireless work organizing people all over the state to highlight the Seven Wonders of Oregon. 

Madam President, I’m here to say tonight that Mary Gautreaux, for lots of us, was the Eighth Wonder of Oregon.

Now, all of these achievements are part of her enduring legacy in our state, places that people will visit. Ranchers, environmentalists, people who, before Mary showed up, might have hardly talked to each other, let alone work together. She figured out a way to find common ground and achieve the things I have just described.

I want to talk about my travels throughout Oregon with Mary – the laughs we shared on long car rides, bouncing around ideas, and occasionally a passionate debate on something important to Mary.

She always recognized, like Patton, that an army marches on its stomach. She stocked our car with apples and oranges and every manner of snack, some healthy and some perhaps not so healthy, as we drove around Oregon.

When Mary Gautreaux saw hungry folks as we made our way through the state of Oregon, what she did essentially along the way is make sure the car  got a whole lot lighter because she gave so much healthy food to folks who were hurting.

No task seemed trivial or thankless. But, I’ll tell you, when you rode around in a car with her – and you know, most of the time in government, people are talking about bills or amendments or polls and the like – Mary was always talking about how it was possible to help more people at the next stop.

She would always say to a person or two, “Give me your phone number. I want to stay in touch. I want to check in.” Because that’s the way she was. And sometimes she would ask them to give her a name or two of somebody else they were worried about that had fallen on hard times – and Mary would reach out to them.

Another memory I want to share is still a bit raw, and the Senate may know how it’s going to play out in the months ahead. A few months ago, while she lay in her hospital bed, coming to terms with the fresh diagnosis of terminal cancer, she learned a group of young doctors at Oregon Health and Science University had been in training to do a rotation in Ontario, Oregon. It’s a city of 11,000 people, the gateway to the Owyhee Canyonlands – spectacular high-desert landscapes that were near and dear to Mary’s heart. But it seemed these young doctors never got to go outside. So Mary said, “We better do something for all these young doctors.” She immediately began asking for their supervisor so she could help these young doctors get out into the landscape.

I do want to let people know that there’s going to be an opportunity to enjoy that landscape, work in that landscape particularly in traditional industries like agriculture, to a great extent because of  what Mary inspires in Malheur County. She dedicated her last days talking to anyone and everyone that she thought could come together and help stabilize this small community in eastern Oregon.

And Madam President, I want people to picture it because Nancy and I went to Mary’s home in northeast Portland in these last difficult weeks. And one of the things that finally made us smile is her whole bed and the hospice folks nearby, her whole room was built around the maps of the Owyhee where she was looking at places various uses would be appropriate, how to protect the beauty of this extraordinary part of Oregon.

You would talk to her about the beauty, she would always say the first time she saw it, it brought tears to her eyes. And she so wanted to help the ranchers and folks in that area. She was dedicated to preserving this part of the world. And, Madam President, it was Mary Gautreaux's dying wish that we could make this possible.

And, many of my colleagues have seen me waiting on the floor of the Senate over the last few hours. Our chair, Senator Murkowski, has had a busy schedule today. When I chaired the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, we worked very close together. Lisa Murkowski has a big heart, too. She’s always interested in trying to bring people together. And I told Chair Murkowski that very shortly I was going to be introducing legislation to recognize Mary's extraordinary work in Malheur County. We were going to have a community board, a community board to empower the ranchers and the small businesses and the families that have been there for years and wanted to know that there was a future. We wanted to call it the Mary Gautreaux Malheur County Community Empowerment for Owyhee Act, or the Mary Gautreaux Malheur County C.E.O. Act.

So, Madam President, and colleagues, here, stay tuned because you are going to hear me talk more about Mary's extraordinary efforts in this regard.

In the meantime, this weekend, we're going to do what Mary Gautreaux wanted us to do. We talked to her about it. We said, Mary, we want to make sure that we tell Oregon or, in this case, the country, about your life and your accomplishments and, Madam President, how much we loved her. And the way we're going to show her how much we loved her, this weekend, we're going to do what she wanted. We are going to have one heck of a giant party, in her neighborhood, at her home in northeast Portland. We're bringing together friends and family.

She has so many of them. I'm looking down this row, Madam President. I guess we broke most of the rules of the Senate because we are only supposed to have a couple of people here, and as far as I can tell, the people I'm honored to represent in the United States Senate, there are more than four million of them, half of them would have showed up and sat with the folks in that row if they could have.

So this weekend, we're going to have a chance to tell each other stories. We're going to have a chance to talk about all the people Mary helped. I'm working now, because Mary loved bright colors, to make sure that her home and everybody there really sees that what she wanted was a lot of color, and a lot of passion, and a lot of friends, and a lot of people talking about what a special place Oregon is. And that all these young people, who have done so much, are building on her approach for bringing people together, her values of caring, standing up for people who didn't have very much and were outside the power circle of Washington.

So this is a hard talk to give, but it's sure easy to always remember what a wonderful person Mary Gautreaux was, how she represented the very best our state has been able to offer.

I told her privately, right before she died – Mary, we love you. We'll always be thinking of you.