Former Gov. Vic Atiyeh remembered as a gracious statesman

Former Gov. Vic Atiyeh remembered as a gracious statesman »Play Video
FILE -- Former Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon's last Republican governor was remembered Monday as a gracious statesman who helped guide the state through a recession and the beginning of the end of its reliance on timber.

Vic Atiyeh died Sunday night of complications from renal failure, a family spokesman said. He was 91.

Atiyeh died one of the most recognizable members of the Oregon GOP, both a testament to his enduring popularity after leaving office and a reflection of the state Republican Party's recent inability to put candidates in statewide offices.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon's only Republican representative, said Atiyeh left the state better than he found it.

"His steady hand guided our state through turbulent times," Walden said. "Through his leadership, we weathered that storm and laid the groundwork for Oregon to flourish in a whole new world economy."

The son of a Syrian immigrant, Atiyeh turned down an offer to play for the Green Bay Packers to take over his family's rug business. He entered politics in the Oregon Legislature, then ran for governor and won on a platform of cutting taxes.

"Though he was the last Republican governor of Oregon, he was beloved by members of both political parties," Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler said in a statement Monday.

Atiyeh, a mainstream Republican who championed small state government and allowing citizens to be "left alone," lost his first run for governor in 1974 to Democrat Bob Straub. He challenged Straub again four years later and won, taking office in 1979 as Oregon underwent what was then its most severe recession since the Great Depression.

The state jumped from among the fastest growing in the country to one with a dwindling population as environmental regulations helped doom the once-mighty timber industry.

He championed a significant tax cut plan that included both a rebate and a permanent reduction. Within a year, as the recession took hold and the state budget took a hit, some supporters of Atiyeh's tax plans had buyer's remorse.

The work required him to walk a narrow line politically, something he was praised for Monday.

"Governor Atiyeh represented the rare pairing of strong leadership and practical governance that has come to define Oregon politics," said U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici. "His priority of the state over party allowed him to successfully steer Oregon through an extremely difficult economic downturn."

To this day, Oregon hasn't elected another Republican to the governor's office.

After leaving office, Atiyeh retired, working part-time as a business consultant. He was a golfer, fly fisherman and collector of guns and memorabilia from the 1805 Lewis and Clark expedition.

Though the Republican Party moved right of his gubernatorial politics later in life, Atiyeh remained active in Oregon GOP circles.

"Vic was a loyal Republican while I was and am a loyal Democrat," said former U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin. "But seldom have I met a man in either party at any level of government who exhibited more decency and statesmanship. I will miss my friend."

Kerry Tymchuk, the executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, knew Atiyeh well. They worked together on the board of Special Olympics and he said the governor’s legacy speaks for itself.

“One of this favorite sayings was it is amazing what you can get done if you don’t care you gets the credit. That’s his legacy, I think,” Tymchuk said. “He was a great Oregonian – a true gentleman. You know at a time when politics has become sort of divisive, partisan and bitter, he was a throwback to the old days – of working together, reaching across party aisles (and) just getting things done.”

Atiyeh turned down an offer to play for the Green Bay Packers to take over the family rug business after his father died. That turned out to be a great move, because the Atiyeh Brothers Rug Co. is still thriving today.

He famously cut his own salary three times to help balance the books. And before he left office in 1987 he turned his attention to the future by traveling the world to attract new industry to the state. He’s remembered for that work with a statue inside the international terminal at Portland International Airport, which bears his name.

For much of his life, he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and carried an elegant gold lighter.

Atiyeh married high school sweetheart Dolores in 1944. The couple had a daughter, Suzanne, and son, Thomas. They later raised several foster children.

KATU’s Stephen Mayer contributed to this report.

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