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Barbara Roberts focuses on themes of public life over decades; 'my passion is still strong for those causes'

PMG PHOTO: PETER WONG - Former Gov. Barbara Roberts signs a copy of "A Voice for Equity," a collection of her speeches, mostly after her term as governor from 1991 to 1995. She discussed the book at an April 16 appearance at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland. She plans other appearances this summer.When many older people downsize their housing, it results in a lot of trash or recycling.

For Barbara Roberts, it resulted in another book.

"A Voice for Equity," published by NewSage Press of Tillamook, consists of 22 of her speeches — all but two made after her term as Oregon's 34th governor from 1991 to 1995. She spoke about the book at an appearance at the Oregon Historical Society and in a recent interview.

Roberts, who turned age 85 in December, plans more in-person appearances later this year.

"At age 85 — and believe me, I've never said that before — my passion is still strong for those causes that colored my life," Roberts said to laughter at the Oregon Historical Society gathering.

She now has been out of the governorship 27 years — as long as Republican Vic Atiyeh, who ended his two terms in 1987 and died in 2014, and Democrat Walter Pierce, who ended his term in 1927 and died in 1954. (Pierce later served 10 years in the U.S. House.)

Roberts has previous books. One was "Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology," first published in 2002 and revised in 2016. It is part personal memoir and part practical guide to death and grieving. The other in 2011 was her autobiography, "Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman's March to the Governorship," one of just a handful of memoirs by the first women elected governors of their states.

Before her election as governor in 1990, Roberts had a long record in public office: Parkrose School Board, 10 years; Mount Hood Community College board, four years; Multnomah County commissioner, one year; Oregon House, four years, two of them as the first woman to be majority leader, and Oregon secretary of state, six years. (Years after she was governor, she was an appointee to the Metro Council and served two years.)

She also spent three years after her governorship as director of a program for state and local government executives at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and five more years as associate director of leadership development at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, where she was a founder of the Center for Women's Leadership.

Roberts' official papers are housed at the Oregon State Archives in Salem. She was secretary of state when the Legislature authorized the building in 1989, and governor when it opened in 1991. Her personal papers are in special collections at Portland State University.

Decluttering leads to book

PMG PHOTO: PETER WONG - 'A Voice for Equity' is a new book by former Gov. Barbara Roberts. It consists of her speeches, most after her term as governor from 1991 to 1995. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic more than two years ago, Roberts was moving out of her condo in Portland's Sellwood neighborhood to a senior community in Lake Oswego.

"I began cleaning out my files and boxes. I had hundreds of speeches I had given over 40 years. I knew I needed to dispense with some of them; some of them had no real long-term value," she said in an interview.

"That's when I started thinking about the content of the speeches and dividing them into categories. I needed to narrow them down and either donate them to my papers at Portland State or recycle them. I decided I would pick the most interesting of those speeches and publish them. I found there was a pattern to them.

"This book was important to show that we should speak out, take stands and make a positive difference where we can on issues that matter to the culture, to citizens and to Oregon."

Some of her topics were the same issues she rose to prominence on. Among them: People with disabilities — she was an advocate for the educational rights of her son, Mike Sanders, when she first came to the Capitol in 1971 — plus the rights of women and the nature of Oregon's people, government and environment.

Two other sections focus on Roberts' speeches on behalf of the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people, and the aid-in-dying movement known as "death with dignity."

The only speech from her governorship that Roberts included in the book was her 1992 talk to the Eugene Rotary Club. The talk laid out her case against a constitutional amendment that would have labeled same-sex relationships as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse." Voters defeated it, 56.5% to 43.5%.

When she took office in 1985 as the first Democrat elected secretary of state in 110 years, Roberts invited the Portland Gay Men's Chorus to sing at her swearing-in — and took offense when the master of ceremonies sought to omit the word "gay" from the introduction.

Roberts said she spoke up for their rights, although she is not a lesbian and has no gay relatives.

A personal connection

PMG PHOTO: PETER WONG - The official portrait of former Gov. Barbara Roberts, painted by Aimee Erickson, hangs outside the House chamber at the Oregon Capitol in Salem. It will be put into storage when the main Capitol undergoes seismic reinforcement starting in June. Work is scheduled for completion in January 2025.She does have a personal connection to the aid-in-dying movement.

Her second husband was state Sen. Frank Roberts — they married in 1974 — and he tried to get a legislative committee to consider such a bill three times in his later years.

He finally got such a hearing in 1991, although the bill went nowhere. The committee chairman said his priority was legislation for advance health-care directives, but that bill passed only in Frank Roberts' final session in 1993. Frank Roberts died of cancer on Oct. 31, 1993, shortly after he resigned from the Senate. He was 77.

Oregon voters finally passed it as a ballot measure in 1994, while Barbara Roberts was still governor, with a 51% majority. The Legislature sent it back in 1997, but voters passed it again with a 60% majority. It requires someone to be at least age 18, within six months of dying of a terminal illness, and made aware of alternatives. (Oregon agreed earlier this year to remove a residency requirement in response to a federal lawsuit.)

"When he became ill, he was unable to work on it," Barbara Roberts said. "When it passed on the ballot, and when the Legislature put it back on the ballot, it was so frustrating. He had given five years of his life trying to get it through the Legislature. He always said if this gets on the ballot, the people of Oregon will pass it. He was correct.

"He knew he could not use the law himself. He knew it would take too long to get through the process to be put into place. He was not doing it for himself. He was doing it for others who he felt had the right to make decisions about the end of their lives."

Barbara Roberts continued to speak out for similar measures in other states. Today, 10 states and Washington, D.C., have such measures. Oregon, Washington and Colorado have done so at the ballot box, and Montana through the courts; legislatures have done it elsewhere.

Roberts' first book in 2002, which was revised in 2016 to reflect activity in other states, was aimed at opening up the public discussion about death.

Roberts now lives in a Clackamas County community where most residents are age 80 or older.

"A lot of people here talk comfortably about death, because they know they are in the latter part of their lives," she said. "But not in the general society, and that certainly is true of legislators."

She said the focus should be on personal planning for the end of life, not necessarily the method.

"When my life does not have much meaning left, when pain or mental disability takes away the part of me I care about most and matters to me the most, I am willing to make that decision, not just for me but my family," she said.

"I know what a pain for a family is to have a lingering illness where they cannot help the patient and make life easier. When the time comes, I don't want them to have to deal with that. I want them to know I've lived a good life and I've accomplished a lot of things."

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