Friday, January 26, 2018


Phyllis and George Johanson 

Where Portland’s streets go up into the West Hills, one of them follows an arroyo along what was once a stream bed between two great bulwarks of stone and forest, now connected by a bridge locally called “Suicide Bridge.”  Today it is fenced so it’s not possible to jump off.  A little branch street goes from that perilous street that crosses the bridge and on it lived Phyllis Johanson and her family, Quakers, artists, and others not afraid to intervene when things go bad.  

Phyllis told about her neighbor who was going out but saw that someone at the bridge was looking as though he were going to jump.  The woman stopped her car and went over to the young man.  She got his story from him (not worth repeating since it was like so many others) but then had an inspiration.  

“What would it take to keep you from jumping?” she asked.  “Would this be enough?”  She held out the five dollar bill she’d had in her pocket.  It was enough.  The young man took the five dollars and ran down the street, probably to get a drink or a drug, but at least deterred for the moment.  After that, several people on that street began to carry five dollar bills, just in case.

One morning Phyllis and George were not up yet when the landline phone (this was decades ago) rang on Phyllis’ side of the bed.  It was a pervert who whispered,  “Are you in bed?  This is what I’d like to do to you!”  He began to describe things.  

Still groggy, she handed the receiver over to George who was also half-asleep.  “It’s for you, George.”  He listened for a few minutes and exclaimed,  “Can a person really DO that?”  The pervert hung up.

Painting by George Johanson

Phyllis never wrote a book, though books have been written about George since he was a revered artist and teacher in Portland, part of a strong art circle that formed around the Portland Art Museum, now Pacific Northwest College of Art.  George and Phyllis were Quakers who actually lived out their principles.  To know them was to be drawn into a world something like that of, well, let’s say Ursula LeGuin (who lived farther north in the West Hills). meaning steadily confronting the world, whether it was by rowing on the Willamette so early that they were moving through fog or by political activism as either liberals or progressives, however one frames the categories.  Always, the goal was peace and appreciative co-existence.

In the Seventies when I was at Animal Control as education coordinator, I worked with Phyllis much of the time.  We were part of a small but ground-breaking circle of activists concentrating on animal welfare, trying to redefine what it even was.  Phyllis was the gentlest and most resourceful of us, with Doug Fakkema next, and Mike Burgwin was the most aggressive and forceful.  I was somewhere in the middle.  

Phyllis’ specialty was cats, “rescue cats” which means pets of someone who had died or whom circumstances compelled to give up their pet because of aging or allergies.  The cats stayed with Phyllis so they didn’t become feral while a new home was found.  Every morning, going up a little wooded trail, she set out for a brisk walk with all the cats padding along behind her in single file, their tails straight up, which is a sign of pleasure and anticipation.  I witnessed because I used to get on the end of the line and follow along. 

Phyllis went to conferences across the country, though she didn’t make a big fuss or give speeches.  Once she packed for some city back east, got to the hotel, opened her suitcase, and discovered that some cat had peed all over her clothes.  She laughed and found the hotel laundry room, wondering whether this feline comment were a criticism or a way of participating.

If you had a meal at the Johanson house, it was prepared according to “Diet for a Small Planet,” by Frances Moore Lappé.  The vegetarian recipes were meant to improve the health of the planet, not just humans.  And you wouldn’t get a cup of coffee — rather it would be Pero, which I began to quite like.

Aaron, the son of George and Phyllis, is a photographer.  This link will take you to his portraits of the people in that special world of the family and community.  This was not the abstract Manhattan wild world of psychedelic stunts and counterculture gestures.  Nor was it the art world I had previously known in Browning, MT, of cowboys and Indians, carefully realistic records of an historical world.  

A lot of the animal welfare people in Portland at the time were pretty wacky and self-serving.  Graziella Boucher, for instance, was a little old lady who dressed like Thirties Hollywood and kept a husky that she claimed was a wolf.  The choleric force behind a radio program called “Animal Aid” just loved to fight and spread all sorts of outrageous rumors.  A frustrated middle-aged woman had an obsession with Burgwin.  Phyllis never got angry with them, mocked them, or got pulled into their issues.  She just went patiently and steadily ahead, doing what she thought was right.

I don’t believe people like this make a decision to follow Quaker principles, but rather are born with this temperament and find the community that will support it.  I mean, I never knew Phyllis to attend “Meeting”, though she had many UU friends and would visit the West Hills congregation now and then.  It wasn’t a matter of being converted to something, it was just the Johanson natural and rewarding way of life, and I was grateful to have a little marginal relationship with them.

When life happened to them, as it does to everyone, they looked at it with curiosity and clear-eyes.  If they saw suffering, they got to work for change.  If they saw beauty or jokes, they celebrated and shared.  I don’t see why death should affect any of that.  Phyllis is just as alive to me as she always was.  I try to be more like her.

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