News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Sisters man recounts love affair with Oregon

Jack McGowan’s deep love for his adopted state is worn on his sleeve — and it was on full display at Paulina Springs Books last week.

Deeply dissatisfied with his life on Wall Street in his native New York, McGowan headed west to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s — and he fell in love. A career that zig-zagged through the arts, journalism and politics reached its pinnacle when McGowan became co-director with his wife, Jan, of SOLV (Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism), one of the premier conservation organizations in the nation.

McGowan’s story forms chapter 1 of Marcy Cottrell Houle’s book, “A Generous Nature: Lives Transformed by Oregon.” Houle presented the book in an author event at Sisters’ independent bookstore on Thursday evening, February 20. The book offers profiles of 21 conservationists and activists who have made enduring contributions to the preservation of Oregon’s wild and natural places and its high quality of life.

Houle notes that the many people who are drawn to Oregon by that natural beauty and quality of life are unaware of the work that has gone into creating a structure of land-use planning and conservation to make Oregon what it is.

“They don’t have a clue all the gifts they have been given,” she said. “All of these (elements) created the Oregon we know and cherish, and they will be critical to its future.”

McGowan described a hardscrabble upbringing as the grandson of an Irish barkeep who was murdered in his New York City speakeasy in 1932. It was a significant accomplishment for him to land a spot on the stock exchange — but the work conflicted with his values and he had a deep-seated yearning for… something else.

A chance meeting with the legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon on a New York street corner set him on the path to Oregon, where he migrated with little savings, no job and no clear path ahead. His doubts about his leap into the unknown were countered by the natural magnificence of Oregon, which he set out to explore from the sagebrush sea in the east to the rugged coast to the west.

“I had never camped a day in my life,” he said.

He made up for lost time with a vengeance.

McGowan recounted his winding career path before describing the powerful instrument of conservation and community that he and Jan steered in the 1990s.

Under their leadership, SOLV grew from an enterprise that could almost be contained in a shoebox to an operation that conducted huge cleanup operations fielding thousands of volunteers. And it was the nature of that volunteer work that meant the most to McGowan.

He explained that volunteers came from all walks of life, a variety of races and cultures and an array of political persuasions. Working together for a common goal of restoring and enhancing their Oregon-built interpersonal bridges across cultural and political chasms.

It’s an ethic that McGowan continues to believe in, even as the national discourse grows more and more polarized.

He described seven steps in community-building as they played out through SOLV:

1. Association — an opportunity for a variety of people to come together.

2. Dialogue — people working and sharing together.

3. Familiarity — people start to recognize and understand one another.

4. Trust.

5. Consensus — people begin to see that, whatever else might divide them, they do have significant common ground.

6. Shared vision — people come together to define that common ground and to act for the common good.

7. Action — in building a better Sisters, a better Oregon, and maybe a better America.

McGowan continues to act upon his philosophy. He and Jan retired to Sisters (where they were married years ago). Jack has served on the board of directors of the Sisters Folk Festival, has been involved in community emergency planning, and currently serves on the board of directors for the Sisters-Camp Sherman Rural Fire Protection District.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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