Landmark legislator VanLeeuwen dies at 97

By Scott Swanson
Lebanon Local

Liz VanLeeuwen, a longtime mid-valley farmer who represented Sweet Home and Lebanon in the Oregon state Legislature from 1981 to 1999, died Nov. 27 on her farm on Irish Bend Loop, near Halsey.

She was 97.

“She was an amazing lady,” recalled Coreen Melcher, who served as VanLeeuwen’s legislative aide in the 1990s after the legislator called her up one day and asked Melcher to help her out.

Alex Paul, former publisher of The New Era, and his wife Debbie, knew VanLeeuwen well.

“She was a tireless worker for the people, for rural people, especially – for agriculture, timber,” Alex Paul said.

He emphasized that she was first and foremost a farmer.

“She understood rural people, our needs and the challenges that the modern world keeps throwing at rural America. She understood it and she worked to protect the interests of those who want to live in the country.”

Melcher described VanLeeuwen as high-energy, extremely organized and very responsive, a legislator who “answered every single constituent – write or call. Every single one.”

“She taught me so much,” she said of her boss, who formerly had been a teacher. “I had no idea how to even turn on a computer. She worked with me and taught me.”

VanLeeuwen was born Nov. 5, 1925, in Lakeview, where she lived until attending Oregon State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in homemaking education and a minor in English in 1947. Growing up, her father raised registered Ayrshire dairy breeding livestock until losing his Lake County farm and dairy cattle when banks went broke in the late 1920s.

She married George “Geo” VanLeeuwen on June 15, 1947. They became seed farmers, In addition to farming, she was a news reporter and journalist for the Brownsville Times from 1949 to 1970. She also taught at Monroe High School and hosted a weekly farm report radio program on KWIL in the 1970s.

She and George, who preceded her in death on Oct. 21, 2016, had four children: Charles, Mary, James and Tim.

VanLeeuwen’s political involvement began well before her stint in the Legislature. She was a founding member of Oregon Women for Agriculture and a member of the Oregon Farm Bureau Women’s Committee and Legislative Committee before being elected to the Oregon House of Representatives.

“She was active in farming before she ran for office,” Paul said.

“She did it out of survival. People were trying to take away their land for the river. She knew what it was like to have city people trying to make rules that would really hamper or harm the family farm,” he added, referencing state plans at the time to create a giant 510-mile park along both sides of the river from Portland to Eugene.

In 1999, VanLeeuwen was elected to the Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District board and held that position until her death.

Debbie Paul, now office administrator for the LCSWC, said VanLeeuwen was active to the end.

“She was very hard-working, very passionate about representing her constituency when she was in the legislature, as well as agriculture concerns while she was on the Soil and Water District board,” she said. “She was never afraid to ask the hard questions, even if it made people uncomfortable. That’s one of the things I always admired about her.”

As she did with her constituents’ communications, VanLeeuwen was thorough in reading the paperwork for board members, Paul said.

“She would read it and have little sticky notes to remind her to ask questions. She didn’t let anything get by her, that’s for sure.”

In 2002 she ran for Oregon’s 4th congressional district against Democratic incumbent Peter DeFazio, losing 64% to 34%.

As a legislator, she was “very, very smart – astute,” Melcher said, remembering that when VanLeeuwen would get invitations to debate during campaigns “she could anticipate a set-up.”

“She never put her campaign things out until right at the last. She said ‘Nobody needs to see them until the end.'”

Van Leeuwen was always an incredibly productive “farm girl”at heart,” Melcher said, recalling although the VanLeeuwens’ home was set up around her legislative work, a lot of other things were happening.

“She didn’t really have time for normal hobbies like quilting, though she would host events at her beautiful home.

“She had checklists every day. They’d have little boxes and we’d initial it and put a little date in it.

“She never wasted taxpayer dollars. She’d get tons of mailings and if the paper had a blank side, we’d save it and cut it into squares and make notepads out of it.

“She and George – he called her ‘Lizzy’ – would be doing farm work on the side while she was working hard. This was in the 1990s. She was probably in her 60s, maybe even 70s. She was up before I got there and she always fixed me lunch. Before I went home at night she would go to the garden and pick green beans, corn, and she’d send me home with all of that. And even then she still wasn’t done.”

VanLeeuwen was a devoted advocate for agriculture and forestry interests – and “very devoted to youth,” Melcher said.

She was instrumental in founding the local Court Appointed Special Advocates program – CASA, which serves abused and neglected children who are wards of the court in Linn County.

VanLeeuwen could hold her own with anyone, Melcher recalled.

“She was not intimidated by anybody.”

She recalled attending an Oregon Department of Forestry meeting with VanLeeuwen, where the discussion centered on the marbled murrelet.

“I was jotting down little things, and I noticed that these were not facts – ‘We assume they do this,’ they were saying.

“Pretty soon Liz gets done. She said, ‘I’m not interested in this. OK, Coreen, what do you have to say?'”

Melcher said she was caught totally off-guard, but managed to refer to her notes.

“I said, ‘You know, I haven’t heard one fact here today.'”

Alex Paul said VanLeeuwen and Democratic state Sen. Mae Yih formed a “tag team” for Mid-Valley interests, even though they were in opposing political parties.

“They were like ‘Magic’ Johnson and Larry Bird,” he said. “They battled each other sometimes, but when it came down to nuts and bolts, for somebody in Sweet Home or Lebanon, they were tough to beat. I think that is an important point that most people did not realize.

“They were a dynamic duo. They were not young. They were seniors; they had wisdom.”

Over the years VanLeeuwen served in a wide variety of organizations in addition to those mentioned: Linn County Commission on Children and Families, Gov. Robert Straub’s Day Care Task Force, South Santiam Watershed Management Area Local Advisory Committee, Western States Legislative Forestry Task Force, Benton, Lane, Lincoln and Linn Regional Strategies Board, Pacific Northwest Economic Region Board, and numerous legislative committees.

Her other community involvement included American Agri-Women, Alliance For America, American Legion Auxiliary, AWANA, Linn Extension Association, 4-H clubs, Future Farmers of America, Peer Court, Chambers of Commerce, Farm Bureau, Citizens for a Drug Free Oregon, Grange, OSU’s Jackman Foundation and Third Force for Forestry.

She was also a Sunday school and Bible school teacher.

“She was a kind Christian lady. She loved her family and she loved her state and her community,” Melcher said.