Portland State History Professor Dr. Gordon G. Dodds named his book “The University that Would Not Die: The First Fifty Years of Portland State University.” To some this title may seem a little dramatic. After sitting in the professor’s office hearing the tale of PSU’s tumultuous history, I gained an appreciation for the barriers overcome by the university that almost wasn’t.
“Portland State University was intended to be a temporary two year college, primarily accommodating World War II veterans under the GI Bill”, Dr. Dodds explains. A small city near the Columbia River named Vanport became the first home of PSU. “Vanport would be better described as the world’s largest housing project,” created by the United States Government during WWII.
Vanport College opened on a temporary basis, offering classes to freshman and sophomores in the fall of 1946. This date is considered the birth of our present-day Portland State University.
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1948, disaster struck the fledgling college when a dyke broke in the Columbia River and flooded the city of Vanport. The college was destroyed and 15 people died in the devastating flood. Some school records were saved along with three library books, and a few football helmets floated to safety because of their foam padding. The college was destroyed and might have been lost forever except for the efforts of education advocates in Portland who scrambled to find a temporary facility.
Stephen Epler, renowned as the man most responsible for the opening of Vanport College and the person to whom Dr. Dodds has dedicated his book, temporarily secured Grant High School’s builing for the summer term. Classes commenced on June 14, and just weeks after being physically wiped off the face of the earth, the young college was back in business. The fall semester started two weeks late that year, opening at its third home, a Kaiser shipyard facility in St. Johns. PSU remained there until 1952, before moving downtown to its current location.
The school prospered and discussions to make the college a permanent two year institution began. The notion of a new permanent higher education facility in the heart of Portland displeased some other universities in Oregon, which proclaimed vehemently that granting permanent status to the school would be a waste of tax money.
Epler persisted and the once-destroyed college was made a permanent institution on April 15, 1949, when House Bill 213 was endorsed by the Joint House-Senate Committee and signed by the then governor Paul Patterson.