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Remembrances…Walter Giersbach

Where is Home Now? By Walter Giersbach

“We were happy to receive these memories of Forest Grove in the 1950s from Walter Giersbach of New Jersey. They appeared in our recent newsletter.  This weekend we were notified that Walter passed away in his home state of New Jersey. Our thoughts go out to his family. Walter was the son of Walter C. Giersbach, the President of Pacific University from 1941- 1953. His mother, Marion, was an important figure in preserving early Forest Grove history: she founded Pacific’s Museum in Old College Hall. The memories below illustrate how President Giersbach’s departure from the university in 1953 affected his family. As Pacific’s Archivist, I am struck by how an event that was dry and political in our records was so very different in the eyes of a child.” – Eva Guggemos, FHFG Secretary and Pacific University Archivist.

 My world had no endings when I was 13 in that small Oregon farming and logging town. Only beginnings in 1953. Fields and groves were endlessly green. Gales Creek flowed forever and asphalt roads led to new sights. Life in Forest Grove was a page of Dylan Thomas poetry.

Forest Grove newspaper delivery boys ready to deliver the day’s news. Courtesy: heritage.lib.pacificu.edu

Mornings began at six o’clock when I pedaled my Schwinn bike to the Shell station on Pacific Ave. for my pile of newspapers. But first, I dropped two quarters into the machines to extract a Milky Way candy bar and a Coke. Now fortified, I gave each copy of the Portland Oregonian two practiced folds and dropped it into the canvas bag draped over the handlebars. For the next hour, I pedaled miles to stuff them into the newspaper boxes for my 50 customers. I was getting rich at $20 a month, in spite of having to hector customers who wouldn’t answer their doors when I came to collect.


Life was good and eighth grade was a cinch with a really funny teacher who regaled us with stories about his drinking escapades in the Navy and a strange food called pizza.

Walter C Giersbach(left) and Dr. Richard Feinberg, Dean of the College of Optometry look over Jefferson Hall building site in 1951.

But one April morning a headline caught my eye as I folded papers. My Dad’s name leaped from the Oregonian’s front page. It was a story about Pacific University that I couldn’t understand—a complicated story about the faculty in rebellion. Accusations. Hatred exposed.  While he had saved the college from bankruptcy in his dozen years there, many were rankled that he had also been appointed a state senator.

Something had happened. The faculty had given my Dad, the college president, a vote of no confidence. He explained it to my two brothers and me over dinner as we sat in dumb silence. Mom was trying to hold back her tears. “I’m resigning,” he told us. “We’ll have to think about moving.

Moving? But I was at the point of telling Judy Bristow I loved her. Soon, I’d find the courage to kiss my 11-year-old girlfriend. Moving meant I’d never again see my pal, Frank Dunham, who double-dated at the Grove Theater with his girlfriend and had actually kissed her (he said).

Our house on College Way was emptied that summer as boxes and furniture went into the Allied Moving Van. Accumulations of papers and magazines were thrown from the attic window to the driveway. Dad’s library and Mom’s manuscript of Oregon history were carefully boxed. But my Red Ryder BB gun, Schwinn Black Phantom and Erector Set disappeared.

Too soon our family and the cat were piled into our used ’48 Cadillac sedan and we headed south; Too soon to properly say goodbye to Judy and Frank or copy their addresses with promises to write.

Finding myself in South Pasadena was a shock. I was a year behind academically. There were curious classmates—Mexican-Americans—who wore pegged pants and called themselves Pachucos. And the girls in our church youth group were all blonde and unapproachably sophisticated.

My two new friends were geeks who read L. Ron Hubbard and J.R.R. Tolkien and wore clothes from J.C. Penney. My only achievement was writing my autobiography by hand, pasting in Kodaks, then binding the single copy. I got an A from my 9th grade teacher.

My brothers and I, Mom and the cat, lived in our rented bungalow and took each day as it came. For some aberrant reason, I ate only lunchtime sandwiches of Wonder Bread and Kraft Sandwich Spread. But I didn’t die. Dad immediately found work as a fundraiser with the Volunteers of America before landing a position with the headquarters of the Congregational Church in New York City.

I didn’t write except for that handwritten autobiography. I read. Science fiction, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, the Hardy Boys and other mysteries. But two things became clear. One, I was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Like Valentine Michael Smith, newly sent to Earth after being raised on Mars. Among different people for the first time, I struggled to understand the social practices and prejudices of human nature that often still seem alien.

Second, an internal universe of words appeared. Writing, absorbing new vocabulary and explaining things articulately were easy. Numbers came harder. This default writing ability made me an English-Journalism major at Grinnell College in Iowa. A career epiphany occurred the summer of my junior year. I was invited to be a staff reporter for a Chicago suburban weekly. I covered fires, the police blotter, sports, rewrites, even weddings, taking my own photos with a Speed Graphic. At last, it seemed there was an escape into the real world.

My first job after graduation was writing copy for new Mobil Travel Guides. Sure, it was a humdrum task—until I got an unsolicited letter from a woman who said she was home-bound. She read the Guides to escape into a world that was out of her reach. At last I had an audience, and every piece I wrote was directed to my secret spectator.

Three years of serving as an Army Security Agency analyst took me to Korea and Taiwan. Taiwan brought me a wife and some great source material I filed away for 30 years.

For the next three decades I soldiered on in corporate communications, writing and editing employee publications; writing press releases; managing exhibits; crafting senior management’s speeches. I embraced it all. Each day in New York City was different. No one knew my job description, which allowed me to define my position and interact with everyone from the CEO to the clerk or bench worker. They were my audience that I worked to reach on some level of understanding.

Upon early retirement I ruminated on why I was drawn to publish two anthologies, short stories and articles. It was simple: Somewhere there was a person who would read my words and say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve felt the same way but wasn’t able to put it into words.” I could help that person leave his or her couch or bed and enter another world.

My wife and I returned to Forest Grove, once, to refresh my memories, reprise childhood experiences. and introduce her to my past. The educator Maria Montessori said a child is imprinted with his or her first home. And that’s what Forest Grove is to me.

Marion Giersbach

I managed to have Mom’s manuscript, A College Grows in Oregon: The Splendid Audacity of Pacific University, published by Pacific (commons.pacificu.edu/beetree ). In the process, I would discover meaning in the world that had turned me upside down.


That’s why I write.

Photos courtesy of heritage.lib.pacificu.edu

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