Memories of a ‘welcoming’ Umpqua Community College shattered by gun death tragedy

When news broke last week that nine people had been killed by a gunman at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon, Iain Mackinnon’s thoughts jumped to the time he spent there a decade ago.

By chance I’ve visited Umpqua Community College in Oregon, scene of the latest mass killings.

This is no inner city madhouse where students live in constant fear — it’s Ambleside, not the Bronx.

Nor is it a coven of far-right extremists, or even a bunch of hillbillies fitting in a bit of college round another hunting trip. It’s a lovely, welcoming rural community. And the killings are sadly yet more evidence of a deeper, and baffling, structural problem in America.

It was 1995 and I was on a month-long study trip to the USA funded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

I spent a day in Douglas County, hosted by Norm Gershon, president of a local job training non-profit, and also a member of the state legislature.

There were certainly no entry barriers, which most urban colleges in Britain sadly have to have. Umpqua was about as far from being an inner city hell hole as it is possible to be

Norm took me to meet a group of staff at Umpqua Community College. They were just the sort of hard-working, kind, deeply committed, college staff who we all know from our own colleges over here.

The college worked and still works primarily with adults, many of them ‘displaced’ as Americans call it — a less personally negative word than ‘redundant’ — helping them to re-train.

And helping them to re-train for better jobs where they could — there was a strong emphasis in Norm’s non-profit and in the college and with other providers, that simply getting someone into another minimum wage job was a poor second best.

They worked hard to give them a leg up to something better (and their placement data recorded how much a successfully-placed student earned in their new job).

It was heart-warming stuff. And the college was a welcoming place. Pleasant buildings, pleasant surroundings. There were certainly no entry barriers, which most urban colleges in Britain sadly have to have. Umpqua was about as far from being an inner city hell hole as it is possible to be.

But they weren’t hillbilly rednecks either, pillars of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Douglas County was — and seems still to be — a warm, welcoming, liberal-minded, lovely place to be.

I was Norm’s guest the night before our visit to the college at the county’s annual First Citizen’s dinner. More than 700 of us packed a sports hall and at least 50 of us were invited to stand in turn to be applauded by the rest (‘this is a bit of a marathon, I’m afraid, Iain — you’re doing well’). I was one of those to be applauded as the MC, who struggled with my weird first name, announced: ‘Mr Ay-ain Mackinnon from London, England, our furthest travelled guest of the evening’.

I’ve dug out my notes to refresh my memory. They took a lot of trouble to dress all the tables. They paraded the flag. They stood to pledge the Oath of Allegiance. There was a real sense of community and huge local pride on show. ‘Isn’t this a great place to live,’ said one speaker, to huge applause.

It clearly was, and is, a great place to live — and it will be again. But right now they’re hurting, and they’ll need all that warm community spirit to help them cope with this tragedy.

Again and again we in Britain struggle to understand how so many Americans are still so reluctant to tighten their gun laws to stop these near-daily mass murders, so commonly targeted on schools and colleges and universities — and despite overwhelming evidence that gun control works.

I feel as powerless to stop this tragedy in America as I am to stop the tragedy in Syria (and it’s no comfort that even President Barack Obama shares that frustration).

In my note to Norm the day after the tragedy, I said: “There are many people this side of the pond thinking of you all today”, and I hope that being remembered is at least better than being ignored.

We can and should keep repeating our dismay than an otherwise civilised society can’t sort this out.

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