Town Crier: Going to miss my friend Oren Long
by Clarke Davis
The last time he called was to ask who said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He never had a computer, but he knew who had access to Google.
Oren Long, a long-time contributor to these columns, died Saturday as a result of a car accident near his home on the edge of town. While the years had made him somewhat frail physically, his voice was as loud as ever and his mind never ceased to examine life.
He wrote his columns with a pencil and I supplied the erasers. He was his harshest critic and editor. After they were put into type, he would proof and rewrite them again. “Words matter,” he told me.
Oren was one of the first persons I met upon arriving in town so many years ago. He had a reputation of being a truth seeker and a free thinker. In those days he saw himself as a little boy with a stick outside a lion’s cage. Metaphorically the lion was society and he enjoyed raking the stick against the cage bars to stir the animal. But in later years he was the “Fiddler on the Roof” crying for tradition.
He was a Missouri native and served as a Navy lieutenant during World War II. More than 40 years ago — when this was dairy country — he was the fellow dairymen called to artificially inseminate their cows. Then in mid-life he returned to college to acquire a degree in the environmental sciences. He found Kansas University stimulating for his mind and thought the new Environmental Protection Agency held great promise.
He and his wife, Vera, commuted to Kansas City for seven years where he worked for the EPA and she was an executive secretary with some firm. I heard a lot of speeches about nonpoint pollution, but his enthusiasm of being on the cutting edge of the environment movement was dashed in time. I think most farmers would understand that they would not work well inside a huge bureaucracy where a practical, common sense approach is not very often the solution.
It made him love coming home to his grassland and cattle all the more. He then turned his attention to soil science and read the old literature and studies completed decades ago. But he found himself alone. He couldn’t find anyone who talked about or studied that stuff anymore. He was at odds with the modern commercial world, yet realistic in knowing it was essential now to feed a hungry world.
He was a student of human nature. He came to realize that just about everything that he had ever believed was not true and his search dealt more with finding the right question instead of the answer. He thought it was odd that people will believe certain things not because they are supported by any kind of rational logic and facts, but simply because that’s what they want to believe. Because of the irrationality of humans, his columns seldom left one feeling hopeful.
I remember him calling me when President Nixon resigned. Watergate was the perfect civics lesson, involving all three branches of government and testing the limits of the Constitution. He was almost sure that nothing would ever be that exciting again. His fear was boredom.
He would often read his columns to me — without eyeglasses — and his booming voice would carry through the building. He was loud and boisterous but he was a man who never drank or smoked. Swear words were never part of his speech and he never gossiped or talked low about people. I never heard him complain about taxes or the usual drivel, but he didn’t like it when the post office changed his address. And a neighbor who let a thistle go to seed? Well, that was just rude!
He and Vera’s hearts went out to the Vietnamese at the fall of Saigon and they rallied the community to adopt two families — 19 individuals and three generations — who were held up at Fort Chaffee, Ark. The Longs provided the house and the community furnished it and welcomed them to the local school.
I believe his proudest moment in later years was recognition by Kansas State University for his grassland program and cow-calf operation that had proven to be the most profitable.
The wreck that proved fatal to my friend happened next to his pasture where he had planted walnut trees. An environmental statement and a gift to a future generation.
I’m going to miss him an awful lot.
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