Obituary of an American Original: Writer and Organizer Bill Nygren Dies

Bill at the Ranch He e-mailed a few trusted friends; his co-writer, his bowling buddy–a friend since first grade, and his godson … confidential… going into the hospital… lengthy stay… must do this alone… They kept their word and didn’t say a thing until everyone who knew and loved Bill was very worried. The one who was writing a book with him, Matt Nelson, was the first to  let the cat out of the bag. Did I know anything and what was this about the hospital? Hospital?! I called around to the area hospitals… no word… Where the hell was he? Why didn’t he answer e-mails or phone calls over weeks and weeks? Was he traveling and meeting up with friends at the big wedding celebration to which  he was invited? He was a social person as well as a very private person. The answer was too sad to believe. I finally traveled to his home to find “police tape” and a deserted air about his home late one August night. By chance, a couple of people going by told the outlines of  a sad tale that couldn’t be about Bill… but it was. He died alone at his home and was not found for weeks. He had hired a lawn service, so the front looked tended. He must have been taken suddenly by his illness and never made it to the hospital. Here is an obituary that attempts to say what should be said, no cost per word.

William (Bill) M. Nygren, the first draft resister in Oregon, died at his Oregon home this last July at the age of 68. Mr. Nygren was an independent scholar and writer and a political organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland, Oregon. He was the youngest professional sports writer and KUGN broadcaster in Portland, Oregon in the mid-sixties. When the Newspaper Guild strikers from The Oregonian started an alternative newspaper, The Portland Reporter, Mr. Nygren was on board and was told by The Oregonian management he would never work in mainstream media again. He never did. He was one of a dozen Portland State political activists investigated by the (US) House Un-american Activities Committee in 1964-65. Bill  served as the editor of the Portland State University (PSU) student newspaper, The Vanguard. He introduced innovations, placing key editorials about state education funding issues, Joe Uris’s student body president endorsement and the Vietnam War occasionally on the front page; through Bill Nygren’s editorship The Vanguard received the coveted National Scholastic Press Association’s All-American Award.

In 1966 Bill resisted the Vietnam War draft and accepted the legal consequences. Because he saw himself as someone who may have willingly taken arms or be a medic in WWII, he felt he was not a qualified conscientious objector. He was not raised in a traditional ”peace church.” He helped articulate what became the moral compass of true north of the national anti- war movement. Challenging the draft itself as the means to wage war, The Resistance organized civil disobedience to the Selective Service, a federal offense. For the resisters, going to Canada or Sweden was cop-out and not an option.(The most famous of the Resisters was David Harris, Joan Baez’s former husband.) During this period, Bill and his parents received death threats, harassments and threats of loss of livelihood. He received moral support from the historic “peace churches” like the Mennonites and the Portland Quakers (Friends) and William Sloan Coffin and Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, the one of two senators to vote against The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing more military actions in Vietnam by the President (and like the authorizing resolution to make war on Iraq, based on later-shown mis-information).

After serving an eighteen-months sentence at Lompoc (Federal Prison) in California, Bill Nygren returned to find the world did not quickly hire ex-felons, peace-makers or not. Now most of American society accepts that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake at best, but in 1966, Bill was considered a traitor by many, even his own father, a WWI veteran! He eventually received a presidential pardon from Gerald Ford.

While working at San Francisco’s Troubadour Press, Nygren wrote and edited their Gnomes series, based on the international best seller. Recruited by his fellow workers to help organize a union, the later union’s elections and Nygren’s wrongful firing appeal were upheld by the NLRB, but also led to his being blacklisted by the West Coast publishing industry. Bill continued on his own to write policy papers, research and organize. When he died Bill was working on a history of the 20th century’s Portland Left with Matt Nelson.

Bill Nygren leaves behind a circle of friends who were his family, including M. G. Hudson, Mia, and Patrick, his godson. His ten-miles-a-day running regime did not extend his life but gives his friends other benchmarks. No one will ever match his generous and helpful kindnesses, wry and wicked sense of humor, or on-going political commitment when most people are planning retirement jaunts. But we can try.

A memorial meeting in Bill Nygren’s honor was held October 5, 2013, in Portland, Oregon at The Simon Benson House.

A few Highlights from Bill Nygren’s CV:

Writer and Editor of The Vanguard, Portland State University 1963-66

Newspaper sports writer for The Oregonian & Portland Reporter and KUGN broadcaster, Portland, 1960s

Nygren was youngest War Resister’s League organizer, working with Dwight McDonald & AJ Muste, 1960s

National Resistance to the Draft and his Federal trial– Portland, 1966

Catholic Workers’ Joe Hill House, working with Ammon Hennacy’s community, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1965

Lompoc Federal Prison (pre-Watergate gentrification) 1966-1968

PSU’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) remained independent when the New Left began to splinter. 1968-1971

PSU Speaker’s Bureau Coordinator brought visiting scholars like William Appleman Williams, John Judas, Gabriel Kolko, James O’Connor and Kathleen Gough Aberle to PSU, 1968-1970

People’s Army Jamboree (an anti-war festival and march) organizing committee, Summer, Portland, 1970

Teach-In Organizer: “Why the Palestinians Want a Nation: Is a Two-State Solution Possible?,” Portland, 1970

The New University Movement, Portland, 1971

Various peace and social justice groups, from neighbor groups to Spartacus League and St. Joseph the Worker Church’s community volunteer,1970-1980s, Oakland

Longshore and construction worker, helped rebuild Rivendale School, San Francisco, 1970s

Film Critic for the Weekly Punk Paper, San Francisco, early 1980s

Deadly Connections Conference, Berkeley, CA,  organizing team examining connections between environmental issues and the war-industrial technological complex, 1984

The Pledge of Resistance staffer (Central American anti-war/solidarity support) Oakland, late 1980s

The SF Bay Area “Middle East Policy Study Group,”  Berkeley, 1980s & 1990s

Israel Support groups, 2000s

The Left Libertarians’ newsletter

Volunteer for Oregon Collie Rescue (animal care) and McKenzie River (Land) Trust projects (invasive plant control) at The Ranch, Eugene,  OR 2005-2013

Researching and interviewing for new book with Matt Nelson about the Portland Left, Oregon, 2013

Web-articles for http:/, 1999-2012

An American Original: Louis Bromfield

Memory Project: Rose Wilder Lane, Ghostwriter in the Sky

Life in the Jaws of the Crocodile: Walter Benjamin’s Last Project

2 comments to Obituary of an American Original: Writer and Organizer Bill Nygren Dies

  • Barbara Kelley

    Maureen, this looks like a work of love, an honorarium to
    to Bill, which honors you in the process. I am going to print it out, and
    read every word. By not knowing Bill, and by his being quite a way in the past, most of us did not pay the attention to your grief as you deserved. Let me say now, belatedly, how sorry I am for the loss to you and to our world of such a very wonderful person. I will read every word. Promise.

    the same thing happened to me when Alan died. He was “my Bill” Yes he was
    also in the past, a crucial influence in my adult life who became woefully mentally ill. So few people knew his nurturing side. They sure got to know his dark side. But while he was dying I helped care for him, and that authentic love came flooding back. The, with the death, that long 8 month grief. We had not married. There was little or no sympathy. Kathy held me together best she could.
    I will never forget that.

    so in closing I want to send sympathy and love. and when I see you again, “Tea and sympathy” as TS IEliot would say.

    don’ forget to do a real slide show from those exquisite nature shots you showed me when I was last there. what a show for the school children, with you at the helm, explaining to them,

    Sending you my long term and well worn LOVE, Barbara


  • James Rowland

    I am very sorry to see that Bill died. I just came across this tribute. I got to know Bill when we were fellow resisters in Lompoc. We spent a lot of time together, and during the last part of his sentence he was in the same unit (cell bloc) as I was, so we hung around together a lot. Bill was invariably cheerful, and had a great sense of humor. There was an essential kindness to Bill’s personality, so being around him was always an uplifting experience. I am sure that his passing left a trail of sad people.

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