Forest Grove native found his life love packing fruit on citys industrial strip

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Former Forest Grove resident Warren Schlegel (sitting)  met Ed Miller in a cannery on Forest Groves industrial strip back in 1967, where they processed strawberries for Flavor Land USA. They crossed paths coincidentally several years later and have been together ever since.Warren Schlegel didn’t even know he was gay back in 1967, when he was an 18-year-old working in Forest Grove at the Sunset Packing cannery along with Ed Miller, also 18.

Schlegel had just graduated from Forest Grove High School and was spending his summer days manning a machine that sliced strawberries and mixed them with sugar.

Miller also ended up at the cannery, capping Flavor Land USA containers of strawberries after they left Schlegel’s tank. The Davis, Calif., native had just completed his first year of college at Willamette University in Salem.

At the time, neither guessed that the other was gay.

While the two became friends, they never expected to see each other after they left the cannery, let alone star in a nationally publicized video decades later highlighting their long-lasting relationship.

“I never thought I’d be sleeping with a 64-year-old man,” they both like to joke. Now that they’re both 64, it’s no longer a shocking notion.

Tangled path to ‘partner’-ship

When the summer of 1967 ended, Schlegel and Miller made no attempt to keep in touch. Schlegel went off to the University of Oregon to study art education. At one point, Miller transferred to the U of O, where the two ran into each other at campus lectures or foreign films. But then Miller transferred again, this time to the University of Wisconsin, to study community service and public education.

Neither of them returned to the cannery. Schlegel spent his summers working for his dad at Tualatin Valley Plumbing and Heating instead.

Then Miller came back to Oregon to take a job as a day-care director in Coos Bay. On one of his rare days off, he hitched a ride to Eugene to visit a friend. He was eating lunch outside the student union when he looked up and saw Schlegel walking out of the cafe with a tray, looking for a place to sit.

Miller felt like he’d been hit by a bomb.

By that time, they both knew they were gay and Schlegel had come out to his family. His mom had immediately sent him to the “family shrink” to make sure he was OK, he said, but she soon accepted his sexuality when the psychologist told her there was “nothing wrong with Warren.”

It was more of a struggle for Miller’s family when he brought Schlegel back to California one Thanksgiving after graduating from college.

He had come out to his sister by then but not his parents, who had divorced while he was in college.

“I’m not surprised,” said his dad, who was already estranged from Miller and never met Schlegel.

His mother, too, was uncomfortable with it, Miller said. But she came around — especially after meeting Schlegel. “She just loved Warren,” he said.

It was the same with Schlegel’s mother, Mary.

“She liked me almost from the beginning,” Miller said, telling him that “If you love somebody, that’s all that should matter.”

After Schlegel’s father died, his mother grew closer to Miller. The two even went on a 21-day cruise together — from Florida through the Panama Canal and up to Astoria — while Schlegel stayed behind at his job.

From activism to refuge

The rest of society wasn’t quite as accepting.

Though they met with little direct prejudice, the couple did get odd looks now and then — when they checked into hotels together, for example.

And when they decided to buy a home in Portland, it took a long time to find a lender who would put the mortgage in both their names.

Schlegel’s grandmother noticed the discrimination and told them, “You boys got to go get wills together,” Miller said.

Miller’s cowboy grandfather used the term “partner” to describe Schlegel, so the pair adopted the now-ubiquitous term long before society picked it up.

The couple believes it helped that they each grew up in relatively liberal college towns. But they knew the rest of the world wasn’t as open to gay people.

Every time anti-gay activist Anita Bryant (who later became a gay-rights supporter) appeared on television in the early 1970s, “Warren would stand up and yell at her until his face was red and the veins in his neck would be throbbing,” remembers Miller, who suggested Schlegel channel his frustration constructively.

Schlegel volunteered to do graphic design work for Right to Privacy, the precursor to Basic Rights Oregon. He designed the organization’s logo, posters, T-shirts and COURTESY PHOTO - Warren Schlegel (left) and Ed Miller were recently drafted to tell their 42-year love story as part of a campaign to promote marriage for same-sex couples.

The couple also marched in Portland’s first gay pride parade. “All 40 of us,” Miller said of the annual event that now draws thousands of marchers and spectators.

“If there were any nasty reactions from onlookers,” Miller said, “we didn’t hear them over our own chanting of ‘What do we want?’ ‘Gay rights!’ ‘When do we want them?’ ‘Now!’”

The two also worked to pass laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. But they dropped out of activism in the early 1990s after they’d lost more than 70 percent of their friends to AIDS. The memories were too overwhelming and painful.

During a day trip to the coastal city of Nehalem, they got the idea to move there. They bought some logged property on a ridge and ended up building a near copy of the 1937 concrete home built by famed architect Bernard Maybeck. In July 1997, they moved in.

What do they want? Marriage!

Last summer, Schlegel and Miller contacted former Oregon governor Barbara Roberts, whom they’d met and befriended through their long-ago political connections.

Roberts, a strong gay-rights supporter, immediately remembered the couple and accepted their invitation to speak at their home for a fundraiser supporting the Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) campaign for marriage equality in North Tillamook County.

Word of their personal story traveled to BRO’s Portland officials, who wanted to showcase Miller and Schlegel in a video promoting marriage equality.

Their first trip into the limelight became a nationwide hit. Originally shown on the BRO sister site, Oregon United for Marriage, the video was picked up by “The Advocate,” a national LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) magazine and by The Huffington Post. It’s available on YouTube by searching for “Ed and Warren, 42 years, Oregon.”

Schlegel and Miller were recently honored in Portland at a BRO celebration dinner, which featured the video that made them poster boys for marriage equality. Guests descended on them afterward, asking how they stayed together so long.

“You choose your fights ... don’t worry about the past,” Miller said. And always remember, “It could be worse.”

After November, they hope it will be better, with family and friends at a small civil service and with the words, “I do.”

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