During my more than 30 years working as a journalist in Florence, I met a lot of memorable people — but none more so than Wilbur Ternyik, who died recently at the age of 92.
When I first moved here as a young Register-Guard reporter in 1970, it took little time to realize he was a mover and shaker, not only in the community but up and down the coast. He was a confidant of both former Gov. Tom McCall and Sen. Mark Hatfield.
In addition, he served long stints on the Florence City Council, both as mayor and councilman, and also the Port of Siuslaw Commission.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was heading the Oregon Coastal Conservation and Development Commission, which ensured that coastal residents, rather than just politicians and bureaucrats on the other side of the Coast Range, would have a major influence on rules for how the coast would grow and evolve.
But all that political and government stuff was only one facet of a complex man. He was a direct descendent of the Clatsop chief who greeted Lewis and Clark near the mouth of the Columbia River, and was proud of his Native American Heritage. According to Ternyik, when Lewis and Clark left the area they gave their Fort Clatsop to Ternyik’s ancestor, Chief Coboway.
Therefore, Ternyik joked, maybe he still had some ownership rights.
Native American historian and collector of artifacts, stabilizer of sand dunes, battle-tested U.S. Marine, wetlands restoration expert, trapper, hunter, wildlife rehabilitation volunteer, spinner of yarns — Ternyik was all of those.
He had no problem rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful, but for years he met daily for coffee at the Oceanaire Cafe with a group of working stiffs to swap yarns and catch up with the local news.
To a young reporter, he seemed to enjoy sharing stories of times past — like the antics of the unofficial local militia, the Vine Maple Savages, or the times the local Chamber of Commerce would set up dunes tours for visiting bigwigs from the valley that included views of “Sand Dunes Sally” in the altogether while basking in the sand.
As a reporter, I sat for many hours in public meetings at which Wilbur presided, sometimes wearing a fringed Native American jacket and wielding a tomahawk for a gavel. It was one of his favorite artifacts, he said, and appropriate for public meetings; it not only had a sharp blade but was constructed to double as a peace pipe.
He had the strength to keep deliberations on track and the humor to avoid acrimony.
Sure, Wilbur was a politician, but I don’t think his public service was an ego trip for him. I got the feeling he really cared about the community and the coast, and enjoyed working to make things better.
After he backed away from state and local government, I would still see him and his wife, Joyce, once in awhile tending to the landscaping at the intersection of Highways 101 and 126 — getting their hands dirty and happy to do so.
That’s the kind of folks they were.
Wilbur once lamented to me that all the characters he so admired in his long time at Florence were disappearing — special people that added the flavor and spice that helped make Florence unique.
Well, one more of them is gone now.