Many remember Gresham's iconic former mayor Gussie McRobert for her willingness to fight for her city
Gussie McRobert, who served as Gresham's mayor for 10 years and was known for her strong advocacy of the city's interests as well as her 'shoot-from-the-lip' style of honesty, died Thursday, March 8. She was 79.
Gussie served as mayor of Gresham from 1989 to 1999, the second woman to hold the office after Margaret Weil, who resigned in 1987. In her first run for public office, Gussie challenged incumbent Larry Deyo and won by a two-to-one margin. She was unopposed for re-election in 1994.
One of her first initiatives as mayor was to encourage the part-time city councilors to take a more active role in the decision-making.
'When I started on the council, I immediately found that our job was to show up twice a month and rubber-stamp,' she said in the book 'Gresham: Stories of Our Past.'
Gresham was changing: Rockwood was annexed, and the MAX line was completed a few years before her term began, and the population was rapidly growing. Gussie initiated the city's first community-wide program to guide transportation and growth through the year 2020. She also supported parks and open space bond measures. The Springwater Trail emerged, and Gresham Butte was protected from development.
The new City Hall was built on Eastman Parkway, as were the high-density housing projects along the MAX line. U.S. Bancorp, Fujitsu and LSI Logic brought more jobs to the city. Gresham Station was also jump-started by the investments the city made to build roads in Civic Neighborhood.
Gussie also backed a proposal to give salaries to the mayor and city councilors, saying that she didn't just want retirees and high-income earners to run for office, but voters rejected it. (Gresham's mayor and city councilors are still unpaid.)
Her guiding principle, she said, was to ask, 'Will it matter in 20 years?'
'I want to be remembered for saying it like it is,' she told The Outlook in 2008. 'I am genetically incapable of talking out of both sides of my mouth.'
Gussie's reputation for 'saying it like it is' and for never backing from a fight sometimes led to arguments with city staff, public officials, regional agencies and with The Outlook.
Early in her mayoralty, she clashed with then-City Manager Wally Douthwaite over the running of the city, leading him to resign in 1990. City Hall staff complained that she asked too many questions.
Gussie was critical of Multnomah County when it overlooked East County. In 1997, she suggested that Gresham secede from Multnomah County and join Clackamas County. Gresham and Clackamas County officials met to discuss the idea, and it's an issue that still surfaces every few years.
Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis said he kept in touch with Gussie over the years, asking her questions, bouncing ideas off her and talking about past and current issues.
'We shared the same spirit in our approach to public policy' by being direct and having no tolerance for nonsense, Bemis said.
Rod Park, a local nurseryman and former Metro councilor, said he visited Gussie a few days before she died. He credits her with encouraging him throughout his career.
'She affected Gresham and the region in so many ways,' Park said in an email. 'I know I wouldn't have been at Metro without her pushing and support. I am going to miss her in so many ways. I will especially miss giving her a call to bounce an idea off and she'd tell me what she thought of it. No sugar coating. No soft pedaling.'
Mark Garber, publisher of The Outlook and president of Pamplin Media Group, met Gussie in 1986 when he became The Outlook's editor.
'Gussie was perhaps Gresham's most forceful mayor of the past 30 years, and certainly she was Gresham's most well-known mayor regionally,' Garber said. 'The Outlook's editors and publishers didn't always agree with her, but there was never any doubt that she stood up for Gresham's interests.'
Gussie was born Norma Jean Augustus on Feb. 26, 1933, in Blanca, Colo., to Lester and Della Augustus and grew up in Montana and Southern Oregon. In her autobiography, 'From Hell and Back: Survive and Thrive,' Gussie described her traumatic childhood with an alcoholic father and a mother who attempted to kill her on several occasions.
'I knew from early childhood that my mother hated me with a passion,' she wrote. 'She couldn't display anger or displeasure about her 19-year sentence as the household slave, and she was not going to quietly accept being enslaved another 20 years with an unwanted child.'
Gussie wrote that her mother - also a victim of abuse - would leave her on the kitchen countertops in hopes that she would fall; Gussie's brother and sister intervened and took turns staying home to protect her. Gussie never earned her mother's love, she wrote.
Gussie's son, Tim McRobert, said the book was therapeutic for his mother, and she wanted it to inspire and empower others. Many readers wrote to her about how the book helped them, he said. (Her book is being republished as 'From Falling to Flying.')
Gussie moved to Gresham in 1955. She was married to Dr. Marshall Brown, but their marriage ended in divorce. In 1965, she married Chester 'Chet' McRobert, the owner of a successful automobile dealership in Gresham. Chet was also active in public service, serving as president of the chamber of commerce and as chairman of the Gresham Planning Commission and the Multnomah County Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission.
Gussie credited Chet with encouraging her to explore her potential. When she campaigned for mayor, she went door-to-door on one side of the street while he worked the other side.
A registered nurse, Gussie returned to school and received her bachelor's and master's degrees in communications. An award-winning journalist, she worked as a radio and television producer. Her reports were featured in local media, Oregon Public Broadcasting and on National Public Radio's 'All Things Considered,' 'Morning Edition' and 'Week End West.'
She also started a communications firm but gave it up to devote more time to being mayor.
Gussie had a tumor in 2004 that destroyed 80 percent of her pancreas. As her health declined, she resided in a Persimmon condominium with two cats and kept busy with her gardening.
'The last two years of her life were filled with joy and happiness,' Tim McRobert said. 'She was proud of her life and the legacy she left behind.'
Her husband, Chet, died in 2003.
Survivors include her sons, Marc McRobert of Boise, Idaho, Skip McRobert of Oak Grove, Bradley McRobert of Portland, Tim McRobert of Gresham and Gregory Brown of Gresham; and three granddaughters.
Bateman Carroll Funeral Home is handling arrangements.
A service will be held at 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, at Gresham City Hall in Council Chambers, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway.