August 12, 2009
‘It was an interesting time’: Walter Grebe ’64 witnessed firsthand the strife of the 1960s
This is the seventh in a series of stories profiling Oregon Law alumni whose class reunions occur this fall.
Attending law school against the backdrop of the burgeoning unrest of the 1960s certainly made for a fascinating experience. The nation was experiencing a cultural shift unlike any other in its history, and 1964 graduate Walter Grebe had the chance to experience these changes on more than one occasion.
“It was an interesting time,” remarks Grebe. “I was in law school when JFK was assassinated and the civil rights demonstrations in the South were really heating up.”
Grebe recalls having a firsthand look at the 1960s South while driving back from Miami after attending a law student conference in the Bahamas. “On the way home we drove right through Birmingham, Alabama, and saw some very serious demonstrations occurring. Of course we were very interested in what was happening, but then realized that with our Oregon license plates we needed to get out of there fast.”
The life-long Portland resident had his heart set on a law career since high school and after receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon in 1960, being a double duck just made sense.
“My father always thought law would be a great career, and he had a huge influence on me,” Grebe remembers. “He really got me thinking about going to law school.”
So in the fall of 1961, Grebe headed to Oregon Law after serving six months in the army where he spent time at bases in Oklahoma and California.
“It was a fine experience. I actually look back on it rather fondly,” he says of his time with the army. “I can’t tell you how often I refer back to my army leadership training.”
Grebe’s army experience and law school education eventually led him back to the South.
Six years after graduation from Oregon Law, he and fellow classmate Charles “Chad” Quaintance, Jr., were appointed to serve on the staff of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. They were members of the field operations staff stationed in Jackson, Mississippi.
“Chad was with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and called and invited me to join him in Jackson,” Grebe adds.
President Richard Nixon formed the commission in 1970 in the wake of the tragic deaths of university students at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi. Former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton served as chairman of the commission.
“Because of my military background, I was the point person to communicate with the National Guard in Mississippi,” Grebe recalls. “I remember interviewing the commanding general of the Mississippi National Guard whose troops had been involved in the Jackson State incidents. He obviously resented our being there and nervously picked up a bayonet that he used as a letter opener and began twisting it in his hands. Without thinking I said, ‘Are you going to use that on us, General?’ He dropped the bayonet and was very cooperative after that.”
While there Grebe and the other team members conducted intensive investigations both in Jackson and throughout the state.
“The situation was so volatile that when we would send one of our team out for an extensive trip (four hours or more) we would have them stop and call in periodically. That way we knew where they were and where they were headed next,” Grebe says. “I was shocked at how deep the resentment ran against both those on our team with a different ethnicity and even those of us who were not from the South.”
The results of the investigations throughout the country and subsequent recommendations were submitted to President Nixon as a full report in September 1970.
“I’m not sure if anything ever came of the report,” Grebe modestly remarks. “I suspect it may have been relegated to the same dungeon all reports like that go.”
Now, nearly forty years later, Grebe, a business and corporate lawyer, is a shareholder in the Portland law firm of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. He joined the firm in 1988 when his firm, Grebe, Gross, Peek, Osborne & Dagle, P.C., joined Schwabe’s Portland office. Grebe served as president of the firm from July 1994 through October 2001.
Schwabe was a large law firm that had undergone some major changes just before he became president, including the breakup of a major merger in Seattle, a change in the firm’s compensation system, and the withdrawal of approximately twenty-five insurance defense trial lawyers in Portland to form their own firm. Grebe helped guide the firm in making a major transition to a more diversified practice, helping the firm build its tax, corporate, construction, and employee benefits departments while increasing its profitability each year.
“I’m really proud of the work I did as president and that the firm was able to prosper,” he notes.
Grebe’s outstanding work in law has been recognized numerous times throughout the years. These honors include being named president of the Multnomah Bar Association in 1986, chairman of the Oregon State Bar CLE Committee in 1978, and 2005 recipient of the Multnomah Bar Association Professionalism Award.
Grebe credits his time at Oregon Law under the imposing shadow of Dean Orlando Hollis with teaching him the self-discipline and work ethic needed to be successful in law and life.
“We started with 50 students in our class and Dean Hollis said not all of us would survive,” Grebe recalls. “The pressure was on. It was a scary time, but caused us all to prove what we could achieve. At no other time have I experienced that kind of constant pressure.”
It was that constant pressure that caused Grebe and his classmates to band together and make the best of their three years while proving themselves to the dean.
“My classmates and I formed some very tight bonds that have lasted throughout the years as a result of us all being under that huge amount of pressure.”
Grebe, a steering committee member for his class’s reunion, will have the chance to reconnect with his fellow classmates in September during their 45th class reunion.
“It’s always good to see old classmates. I’ve been in touch with six or seven. It’s fun to get together and tell some old stories.”