(l-r) Liz Lyman, Lucia McKelvey, Lois Wadsworth, Sonja Snyder in 2016

Eugene Weekly’s Radical Roots

Today’s EW got its start four decades ago in the midst of cultural revolution

By 1982, when Eugene Weekly came on the scene, a cultural revolution was well underway in Eugene, having influenced everything from arts and politics to health care, housing and food. The preceding decade saw the birth of the Oregon Country Fair, Saturday Market, White Bird Clinic, Growers Market, organic farms, the Hoedads tree planting co-op, the anti-war group CALC (originally Clergy and Laity Concerned, now Community Alliance of Lane County) and a plethora of alternative schools, nonprofits and businesses. Some hippies and progressives had even jumped into the political ring. 

Eugene’s first two alternative weeklies were The Augur in the ’60s and, later, the Willamette Valley Observer. When WVO closed its doors in 1982, readers especially mourned the loss of its calendar, which really tied the community together. Out of those ashes, What’s Happening was born — a funky 8- to 16-page calendar of arts, events and entertainment listings, supported by ads from a handful of Eugene’s progressive businesses willing to take a chance. In 11 years’ time, it would be renamed Eugene Weekly, reflecting its broader mission, with local news, feature stories, investigative reports, election endorsements and national columnists, along with the art and movie reviews.

We four women founders had become lifelong friends in the ’60s. We were part of the “back-to-the-land” movement of that era, opting out of a materialistic, militaristic, corporate, sexist America, and seeking a new paradigm for living. But our radical roots run deep.

I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and met Elisabeth Lyman, from a Boston suburb, when we were freshmen together in 1959 at University of Colorado in Boulder, where we got radicalized in the Young People’s Socialist League — coincidently, at the same time as Bernie Sanders was a YPSL member at the University of Chicago. My degree was in political science; Liz’s was in social sciences. We later lived in New York City and Florence, Italy, further expanding our radical world views.

We met Lois Wadsworth and her extended family in 1966, eventually moving into Lois’ mountain home outside of Boulder, where we began a communal existence, sharing resources, child rearing, cooking and gardening. We lived simply with wood stoves and kerosene lamps and little need for outside income.

A native of east Texas, Lois studied theater arts at North Texas University while raising her young kids. She was living near Dallas when President John Kennedy was assassinated there, which she said influenced her politics forever. In the early ‘60s, she partook in peyote ceremonies influenced by Native Americans who were just beginning to share their spiritual ways with non-Natives. She taught us and others this respectful approach to the healing powers of psychedelics.

Sonja (Ungemach) Snyder grew up in Fresno, California, and studied at California State University, Fresno, in the English department, a hotbed of radical poets, writers, teachers and students at the time. It was the late ’60s, and there were frequent anti-war protests, sit-ins and be-ins on campus. In her senior year, she studied at Uppsala University in Sweden, then lived in London before returning to the political unrest in the U.S. in 1969 and dropping out.

She met up with Lois, Liz and me in Northern California in 1969, eventually moving to 20 acres of hippie paradise in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Grass Valley. Through various routes, we each ended up in Taos for several years, had some babies, then arrived in Eugene in the late ’70s.

We met Bill Snyder, the fifth founder, in Eugene, in the early ’80s, when he was managing Whiteaker Energy, a nonprofit weatherization company spawned by the activist Whiteaker Neighborhood Association. His roots were in the alternative business community, including Genesis Juice, which began as a cooperative.

Before the Weekly, we were activists in energy politics. The partial meltdown of Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in 1979 freaked us all out. Some members of the EWEB board of directors had already succeeded in keeping EWEB out of the nuclear consortium, Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS, pronounced “WHOOPS” by its critics. 

Lois hooked up with activists and produced a weekly TV program called Nuclear Questions, which aired on local TV. She interviewed experts on energy and environmental issues. Lois and I joined other activists to lobby the incoming cable company for a TV studio and public access channel where Nuclear Questions, as well as many other programs, were then produced and aired. (In a back-to-the-future aside, Nuclear Questions co-sponsored the “No Nukes” concert at Mac Court in 1980, headlined by Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne — both recent acts at the Cuthbert.) Under the umbrella of a nonprofit, Energy Futures, Inc., we published the “Lane County Energy Consumers Guide.”

But activists are poorly paid, if at all. By 1982, the Reagan recession had hit Oregon hard, and all five of the founders were working low-wage or temporary jobs. Four were single moms. So, with no capital, a little experience, and a lot of enthusiasm, we published the first edition of What’s Happening on Thursday, Sept. 16, 1982.

We made enough money with the first issue to pay the printer, so we did a second one — and so forth, surviving on a shoestring budget for years. Two of the founders dropped out in the first year because of financial pressures. They returned later.

When asked if I thought the paper would be around 40 years later, I laughed. I didn’t even know what the next month held! Those first couple years were such a struggle. It was a challenge every day, but we never missed an issue!

I think we each knew that whatever happened, we had our family, and if this venture didn’t work out, we’d find the next thing that would. Being entrepreneurial and imbibed with the spirit of the ’60s, we’d get through. And today we are all still close, having raised our families together and now guiding our grandchildren along their paths to adulthood. We feel like we contributed to Eugene’s vibrant alternative culture along with those visionaries who transformed Eugene in the early years of its revolution.

Where are they now?

Lois went on to get her master’s degree in journalism, returning to Eugene Weekly to serve as editor, arts editor and beloved movie reviewer for many years. She remained an advocate for women, kids, the arts and the environment — both expansive in spirit and uncompromising in her convictions. Sadly, she passed away in 2019.

Elisabeth became a gifted family counselor, working with teens and families in some of our most underserved and underprivileged communities. She also incorporated her life-long Jungian studies into her practice. After retirement, she served on the board of directors of the Eugene Friends of Jung. She devotes much of her time to her family, helping to raise her granddaughter.

Sonja worked at Eugene Weekly for 20 years. After a short break, she signed on with another of Eugene’s alternative institutions, BRING Recycling, helping to raise funds for their new headquarters in Glenwood. Now retired, she doesn’t know how she ever had time to work, devoting time to friends, family and politics, and chronicling tales from the ’70s.

Bill is retired and living happily in southwest Oregon.

I became a Licensed Massage Therapist and continued my many years of study and occasional teaching at the Process Work Institute in Portland and international seminars. In retirement, my extended family brings me much joy, and I’m having fun writing some life stories.

Comments are closed.