Roy Bennett and the Liberation of the Corvallis Weekly Guild, 1973
by Tom Motko (March 21, 2016)
Disclaimer: This account is based on memories from over 40 years ago augmented by a very few personal records and the discovery of a crucial record in the University of Oregon library. I do not attest to complete accuracy. Indeed, something my visit to the UO library reminded me is that one cannot reasonably rely on 40-year-old memories for accuracy. I am in the process of contacting those I can find whom were most directly involved and reserve the right, as they say in Congress, to revise and expand these remarks. I do believe, however, that I have been accurate in general and in spirit.
Learning of the death this year of my old comrade Roy Bennett, then reading his deliciously flawed history of Corvallis, Oregon, brought back memories of over forty years ago when Roy and I and a few others gained temporary control of a community weekly press and turned it into an anarcho-leftist above-ground underground weekly newspaper out of a house just north of the Mary’s River in Corvallis.
We worked from the house still at 646 SW 4th Street (as late as 2015, “The Animal House,” a pet store). Although a number of people are listed in various editions as contributors, the principal production workers and core collective (editorial decisions, writing, paste-up, etc.) were Roy, Dan Buhr, Sally Whitbeck, Barbara Whitbeck, and me. The five of us were the core production collective for the Corvallis Weekly Guild for two issues and then for the Willamette Valley Union, which became both a rival and a sort of successor, for three issues. Roy did not use his real name as he wasn’t allowed by his parole officer to engage in political activities. He was listed as Conrad Deutscher. I don’t want to suggest that we five were the only workers; there were actually quite a few and if they happened to be on hand when decisions were being made, they had the same input/decision rights as the core group, meaning, they were treated as part of the collective. And, while we were a collective of co-equals, Roy was the natural leader of the group, his feet on the ground with a clear purpose in mind.
The Weekly Guild was a failing for-profit community newspaper we took over by playing on the guilt feelings of the “liberal” owners; for them it was sort of a money-losing vanity project. It was mainly through Roy’s direct negotiations with the owners that we were able to co-opt the Weekly Guild.
I met Roy through in late 1972 through Barbara, who was a new friend and introduced me to the folks at the 4th Street house. I’d been out of the army only nine months and had never lived in Oregon (I’m still here), so everyone then was a new friend to me, of course. It was one of those “do you know so and so…you just have to meet him” things. I can’t recall the exact circumstances of meeting Roy, but I know he granted me credibility because I was a combat vet and was organizing a local chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, at that time a nationwide organization of many thousands of Viet Nam veterans of the US war on that peasant republic. VVAW was famous for its dramatic guerilla street tactics in opposition to the war on the Vietnamese people. VVAW’s most famous spokesperson was, by the way, current US Secretary of State John Kerry. Once he discovered his own political aspirations, of course, Kerry distanced himself from the organization because of its generally radical left, in-your-face orientation, but not before his activities brought increased credibility to an organization later decimated by the US’s COINTELPRO assault on the livelihoods and civil liberties of dissidents.
In the early 1970s, Roy was almost exactly as he was in 2011 when I met him again after at least 25 years, except that his face, like mine, had grown lined with age and the hardships of the life he had chosen. Slender, blondish, looking a little like a pale Trotsky without the goatee, he had a constant air of intensity, of taking it all in and instantly analyzing information; his wheels were always turning. He still had that familiar look of derision, his head a little tilted with that squinty, sarcastic twist of a smile, whenever he perceived hypocrisy or someone running some sort of con (of which his definition was broad). Roy had something of the monastic about him and, indeed, his religion was waging justice on society. His ability to call bullshit on, well, bullshit was as unrelenting in 1973 as it was in later years. I learned that Roy had done hard time because of a conviction for conspiracy to firebomb an ROTC building as a protest against the war on Viet Nam. Roy didn’t talk much about it, sort of like a lot of combat vets, particularly those who were prisoners of war (There were really POWs in Viet Nam other than John McCain; those who were not officers or who opposed the slaughter of Viet Nam somehow were largely ignored by the mainstream media). Roy did seem pleased that, while in prison, he had time to teach himself Swedish and continue his always voracious studies. Maybe his time in the joint is what sensitized a quick dialectical wit to the shuck and jive of a con artist.
Both Roy and Dan had been working on the Guild for some time and both had become disgusted with its small-town chatty content (not to mention that revenue wasn’t enough to include something as luxurious as salaries, at least not enough to live on…in those pre-food-stamp days we often survived on free commodity foods from the USDA). One regular column in the pre-liberated Guild was called “Points on Pets,” an insipid if well-meaning compendium of some guy’s opinion of sometimes wrong advice on pets; the column became the tongue-in-cheek symbol of everything Roy and the collective thought was wrong with the original paper. As what became our collective started producing the newspaper to address real issues, there came to be any number of stoned late-night work sessions rife with jokes about Points on Pets, none of which, in keeping with the times, can I remember.
I’m not certain how he pulled it off, maybe with skills learned in the joint, but Roy had convinced the owners of the Guild that it should have an entirely democratic editorial policy as determined by the staff actually doing the work of putting out the paper. Once he had secured that agreement, he and Dan began looking for like-minded folks. I would handle international news. What this meant was that I organized the copy dealing with whatever international news we cared to report on. My qualifications for this lofty position were that I had been to Viet Nam, Japan, and Taiwan while in the Army and to Europe as a youngster and I was the radical vet du jour in Corvallis. Of course we had no titles and everyone in the core collective did some of everything, and if someone wanted to put in an article, we’d find room for it.
Not only did Roy secure agreement that the paper should operate as a workers’ democracy, but the owners gave Dan and him a credit card to pay for…everything. Well now. And the fact that Roy, Dan, and Sally could live in the house was an added bonus. We went right to work.
The core five, along with one or two others, would get together for the final push to finalize copy for the printer, we’d have food and horrible canned, generic coffee in the kitchen (it would still be awhile before Allann Brothers first brought the Corvallis masses real coffee), and other amenities to see us through the long night ahead. We’d do the layout in the living room to the rhythm of mad typing in the parlor, all the while making hip-shot editorial decisions, passing joints, popping cross-tops to stay awake, maybe cranking up Hendrix or Dylan on the stereo. The closest thing we had to a computer back in those days was what was called a VariTyper. The VariTyper was a sort of miracle machine for small-time publishers in the Pre-Digital Age and it could create corrected paste-up-ready text for offset printing. One thing for sure, it was an improvement over the hand-cranked mimeograph machine some comrades and I used to put out a GI underground press in Texas several years earlier. Other than VariTyping, of course, everything was still done by hand to create camera-ready copy for the printer, complete with hot wax and roller for paste-up. We’d have it ready to go by 6 the morning after and Roy would get it to the printer at the last minute.
Only two issues of the Guild were put together over several all-nighters before the owners realized they were, uh, the owners and took back control of the paper, which under our current political-economic system would be consider their property. The owners, of course, did none of the work. When the owners asserted themselves, we liberated whatever of the means of production we could for as long as we could and put out another paper, the Willamette Valley Union, until our resources ran out, though there were ample all-nighters until that happened.
After the first issue of the Guild under the collective’s control on February 2, 1973, people in town were talking. We generally offered what we saw as an entertaining expression of the counter-cultural left, had good graphics (considering it was the Pre-Digital Age), actually carried news and analysis from an alternative perspective, and so the Guild now filled a niche in the Corvallis milieu of old-left and new-left activists, religious liberals from the peace churches, university liberals, insipient second-wave feminists, and the burgeoning counterculture in which all the staff but Roy and Dan had our lives totally immersed. Neither Roy’s nor Dan’s personal styles fit in with the “youth rebellion” of the time; they both had SDS connections with whom they viewed the whole hippie thing as a bit suspect. Not that they had anything against it; the weed was cheap and most of their friends were living it. It just wasn’t their style. Roy’s “style” in the early 70s was almost exactly the same as in 2015. I never saw him wearing a headband, beads, or flowers, not even once.
1973 was one of the last peak years of the counterculture in Corvallis and surrounds. Not only was the antiwar movement still cooking (in Corvallis, January, 1973, saw what was said then to have been Oregon’s largest antiwar demonstration of the Viet Nam era) along with associated militancy around women’s rights, racial justice, gay liberation, and other people’s movements, there was the whole hippie thing to which so many folks were at least somewhat connected– there were the town tribes and the back-to-the-landers who were spreading out especially into the Summit/Hoskins/Kings Valley/Pedee areas.
The second issue of the new Guild came out on February 9. Points on Pets was at last gone. The paper was controversial but accepted and had a wide distribution in Corvallis. We sold subscriptions at what amounted to $.10 per issue, but why would anyone pay for something that could be picked up in for free in any of 20 different places in town as well as in Lewisburg and at the old Fort Tavern out in Hoskins? I don’t know if any individual ever made a dime out of it…I know I didn’t; and we brought our own food and amenities to work parties. We had discussions about being able to make a living from the Guild, but realities changed quickly in those days when we had so many realities from which to choose. Besides, every member of the Guild collective was also involved in all manner of jobs and relationships and higher education and organizing around our notions of social justice and, of course, partying. Corvallis hasn’t changed all that much. Lives of young adults in the late sixties and early seventies, tempered in the civil rights and antiwar movements and immersed in a counterculture of rock and roll, cheap weed, and sexual liberation while coming to grips with what feminism was pointing out, burned then with such intensity and raw energy that it’s difficult to imagine it being so for any other generation. But how could it not be?
Next: Satire taken literally (in a college town?!); the owners strike back; birth (and death) of “The Valley Union”