Updated: June 2013
My name, as you've no doubt gathered, is Finn. I live just south of Albany, Ore., with my wife, Natalie, and our son, Nathaniel — along with a couple noisy beagles, one silent cat and 17 fruit trees. Our place is just across the road from the Calapooia River where it snakes across the valley floor, close to where it empties into the Willamette.
The early stuff
I was born in the Willamette Valley in the late 1960s, and grew up in a deep, primordial forest six miles outside the tiny timber town of Molalla, about three miles from Wilhoit Springs. That was during the “good times,” when good-paying jobs as a logger or mill worker were practically there for the asking. Of course, it couldn’t last. We were cutting trees way too fast; sooner or later we’d run out.
But before we did, my family moved to Beaverton, and a couple years later to southeast Portland — where I went to high school. So when you hear about the “urban-rural divide” in Oregon, well, I can tell you something about both sides.
I graduated from the University of Oregon in 1991, just after Ballot Measure 5 delivered the second installment of a one-two punch to the Oregon economy — the first was the virtual shutdown of the state’s independent timber cutting and processing outfits in the late 1980s. Big outfits like Weyerhaeuser and Willamette Industries were fine; they owned huge tracts of forestland; their supply was unaffected. But smaller “gyppo” operations, and even some large and mid-size operators like Bohemia Inc., Lane Plywood, WTD Industries and W.A. Woodard, couldn’t keep up without access to public timberlands. One by one, they sold out to the big dogs or simply shut down.
After graduating, I went into the timber industry myself, after a fashion. I took a job as a reporter for the Silverton Appeal-Tribune — which was printed on paper made in Oregon City. It was the beginning of a career in newspapers that spanned the following 17 years, with brief interruptions during which I launched a successful real-estate advertising magazine and bought an ultimately unsuccessful “regular” magazine. During that time I worked as a staff writer or editor at the Cottage Grove Sentinel, The Springfield News, the Corvallis Gazette-Times, the Albany Democrat-Herald and the (Orcas) Islands' Sounder, and as a correspondent for the Salem Statesman Journal, Eugene Register-Guard and New York Post.
By 2008, though, I knew I needed to make a change. Increasingly, I felt like the loggers had in the late 1980s. My industry was changing — and shrinking — fast. I started looking for grad-school options.
I ended up in the literary nonfiction program at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, headed by Professor Lauren Kessler (Dancing with Rose; Stubborn Twig; Clever Girl; Happy Bottom Riding Club; Full Court Press; After All These Years; When Words Collide).
The book project: Herbert Hoover?
My final project for my master's degree, although obviously finished and submitted, is in a sense still developing. While doing some research for one of my Offbeat Oregon History columns in 2009, I learned that one of the U.S. presidents lived in Oregon once. Actually, he grew up here, from age 11 to 17. His name: Herbert Hoover.
Somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a more glamorous ex-president, I followed up to find out more about Hoover’s time in Oregon — and stumbled onto one of the best kept secrets of American history. As it turns out, this “boring, stodgy” ex-president actually was personally responsible for saving more people’s lives than Hitler and Stalin took — most likely, five to seven times more.
The man himself estimated his "life toll" at 1.4 billion, in the course of two world wars and one massive war-induced famine. That may be high, but the actual number is certainly no lower than 500 million.
Then he went on to become the president who was driving the bus when the Great Depression broke out. He came to represent not the concrete facts of what he’d achieved, but the abstract blather of a political viewpoint — to become, in essence, the darling of the anti-Roosevelt folks. And that’s his popular image even today: People may not remember the rescue of Belgium, Germany, Austria and Russia from starvation, but they sure remember living in a Hooverville, eating Hoover Hogs (armadillos), riding in a Hoover Cart (car with no fuel in it, pulled by a donkey) and sleeping under a Hoover Blanket (newspaper).
Now, except for historical interest, I couldn’t give two hoots about the New Deal one way or the other. But I do recognize this as an unfair characterization of this man.
For my project, I produced a book proposal and two sample chapters of the project that I'm still working on today (late 2013): the story of Hoover’s first foray into life-saving, in German-occupied Belgium in 1914. Few people know it, but everyone should. Regardless of your politics, it has to make you a bit proud to know that the person who holds the world record for life-saving — throughout all of history — is an American.
(As a side note, I've put this project on hiatus until summer 2014, because the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is coming up, and I want to make sure my project doesn't duplicate anyone else's scholarship.)
Anyway, here's a link to my ongoing Hoover project. It's tentatively titled America's Most Hated Hero.
(As an aside: There is another candidate for the title of Most Lives Saved in Human History. Believe it or not, it's another Iowa native, Norman Borlaug, the man who's primarily responsible for the Green Revolution. Because you can't count lives saved the way you can count deaths, we'll never know which of these two guys "won." But it's unquestionably true that between the two of them, they saved billions of people from starving to death.)
After receiving my degree from the University of Oregon, I started teaching in the New Media Communications department at Oregon State University. From both professional-development and personal-fulfilment standpoints, this has been one of the best decisions I've ever made. It's encouraged me to develop expertise in both theoretical and practical aspects of new media and social media, which has been reflected in my Offbeat Oregon franchise — which went, sometime in the middle of 2011, from being a newspaper column with an archival Website to a trans-media public-history resource with a hub page feeding out into its various channels (RSS newsreader feed, iTunes daily audio podcast, an as-yet-almost-unused YouTube channel, Facebook page with about 800 "likes," a Tumblr blog, etc.) — with a newspaper column attached (which, although easily overlooked, is the core of the franchise).
In mid-2011 I took a break from my Herbert Hoover project to produce a pop-history book on what you might call the naughty bits of late-1800s Portland. The result was Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town, published in June of 2012 by The History Press. (The audiobook version, produced and narrated by Yours Truly, was released in January 2014.) It was an utterly unmitigated pleasure to research and write, and it introduced me to some of the real treasures of the history world — specifically, the University of Oregon Special Collections Reading Room, the OSU Archive, the City of Portland Archives and, oh yes, most definitely the Oregon Historical Society library.
History shows and lectures
Since early 2013 I've been presenting public pop-history lectures — one-hour multimedia presentations on interesting bits of Oregon history, accompanied by a slideshow of historic photographs, visual wisecracks and gags, and pop-culture references — at the Jack London Bar, located beneath the Rialto Poolroom at Fourth and Alder streets in downtown Portland on the first Tuesday of each month (schedule of upcoming shows). They're part of the Jack London's Stumptown Stories lecture series.
Right now (very late 2013) I'm in the process of adjusting to the new deadline schedules I've set for myself going into 2014. The RSS newsreader feed is getting cut back to once a week, on Fridays (the podcast feed will continue to be 5 days a week) to free up time for a weekly Tumblr post and a monthly YouTube video, which will be created in my studio using the script for the month's Stumptown Stories live-history show.
I also plan to produce the first of a series of "Heroes and Rascals of Oregon History" books in 2014, probably through The History Press (which published my first book, Wicked Portland). My plan is to use the 275-odd articles I've written over the past five years as starters, and do more in-depth research so that I'm adding to the available scholarship on each of these figures rather than just retelling stories I've already published.
And, of course, I will soon be busy once again with the Herbert Hoover book. It will not be a pop-history book; it won't have the kind of breeziness that characterized Wicked Portland. But I intend for it to be an easy, accessible read, something serious history buffs and casual readers alike will enjoy. I guess we'll soon see how it comes together.
So, there you have it. My story. And if it held your interest all the way to the bottom, we must have a few things in common. Drop me a line sometime and tell me yours!
P.S. One other thing. If you're looking for a more formal introduction to me and what I do, chances are you skipped straight to the bottom of this page looking for a link to my C.V. If so, here you go!