Oregon State Senate President Peter Courtney, this year’s speaker for Western Oregon University’s Commencement, has had many things to be proud of in his 41-year public service career. In fact, after this term he’ll have the longest legislative career in the state’s history. When asked what stands out to him among his accomplishments, he said, “They were never my achievements.” This humble comment typifies a man who has dedicated his life to serving the residents of Oregon.
He is widely known for his efforts toward improving mental health services in the state. On a drizzly day in October 2004, he and a small group of staff, legislators and media toured the Oregon State Hospital. He described the facility as “ungodly with pigeon dung everywhere and scratches on the walls by former patients.” He noticed a small shed and asked that his group be shown inside.
“I was aghast,” Courtney said. “There were 3,000 or so rotting canisters fused together. Dusty shelves, dank rooms, a leaking shed and a rickety table.” He remembered seeing a book on the table with water stained pages filled with faded numbers and names. They corresponded to the canisters filled with the cremains of former patients. After leaving this shed, later named the Room of Forgotten Souls, Courtney said within days the legislators made a commitment to rebuild the hospital and take care of the cremains in a respectful way. They found that the cremains were from the late 1800s through the 1970s. This led to a revolutionizing change of mental health services in Oregon. “I remember that day. I remember the weather. I remember the silence that fell over everyone,” he said.
Courtney has also had a significant impact on WOU through his service to the university since he first joined campus as assistant to the president in 1984. Since that time, he has been an assistant to six presidents and held additional roles such as instructor of speech communication and Freshman Experience. He has supported higher education in Oregon through his legislative roles, and WOU specifically through his on-campus position. One project he was dedicated to was the creation of the Health and Wellness Center, which came to fruition a few years ago. “The wellness center was important to me,” he said. “I was desperate to get an indoor running track.” The facility has adopted one of Courtney’s favorite phrases as its motto: “healthy mind, healthy body.”
In December 2014, Courtney retired from WOU. This Commencement event is special not only for that reason, but for the fact that he’s chaired the Commencement Committee on campus for about 20 years. This has always been an important event to him. WOU holds a special place in his heart. “I am convinced that if it weren’t for WOU, many of the students who go here wouldn’t get a bachelor’s degree,” he said.
Courtney has a message for this, and any, graduating class. “Don’t try to plan out your life,” he said. “If you have, don’t be surprised if it starts to get away from you here and there. You can have a game plan, but it’s going to get loose on you occasionally.” Ultimately, Courtney advises students to not get discouraged.
He hopes the graduates love the university as much as he does. “The institution of higher learning I think about the most – and I smile about the most – is Western Oregon University. I’m proud to say she’s a very special and unique place.”