From Outsider to Community Leader

by Alli Jarvinen

Erik Muller could be called a “turkey burgher”.  Although he  has some German blood, when Muller calls himself a “burgher” he doesn’t mean the kind between two sesame-seed buns. As for the turkey, it has nothing to do with the gobbling main dish for Thanksgiving dinner.

“I consider myself a burgher, not a hamburger,” he joked.  Muller uses the term to describe his living preference. As a burgher, Muller likes living in a small town, not too rural and not too urban.  For Muller, the Amazon neighborhood is his burg.

Muller is co-chair of the Steering Committee and member of the Sustainability Subcommittee for the Amazon Neighbors in South Eugene. He is also the founder and publisher of Traprock Books, featuring exclusively Oregon poets. In 2001 he was awarded the Steward Holbrook Award from Oregon Literary Arts for his work as an editor for the quarterly journal Fireweed (1989-1998) and his support of literary activity.

At first glance you wouldn’t expect this distinguished community leader and poet to have ever been considered an outsider.

“We were called Turkeys” said Muller, recalling his college days at Williams College in Massachusetts. When Muller got a full scholarship at the once all-male school, most men were members of fraternities. “That’s just how it was” he said.

He never joined. “That country club b.s. wasn’t for me,” he added, shrugging.  As a non-affiliate, Muller became part of a counter-culture, on the outside of the Greek majority.  Of some 1500 students, only about 100 belonged to this nonconformist group jokingly called “turkeys”. Today, Muller is anything but an outsider.

After writing for his college literary magazine, Muller’s interest in creative writing brought him to teaching. He taught large classes at an all black college in Arkansas focusing on improving deficiencies in reading and writing. He said this experience shaped his teaching.

Hopping a train to San-Francisco for his honeymoon brought him West where he completed his Masters degree.  Muller took a job at Southwestern Oregon Community College teaching english composition courses. For 17 years, Muller enjoyed teaching English at SOCC.  On the side, he served as a volunteer firefighter and Eastside City Council member in Coos Bay.  He had never been part of a fraternal organization, but his experiences here would lead him to a lifetime of community involvement.

Muller later took a position teaching at Lane Community College in Eugene, where he wrote a text book for his English 122 class called Opening Argument, published by Harcourt Bridge Jovanovich in 1994. “Going into publishing and the media,” he said, “there’s a pressure to do business, to forget quality, to forget classics that endure.”  The book, he admits, was not very successful.  The text failed to make it to the next edition.

“Maybe I was blessed,” he said. “The people who have texts have to edit and edit and edit. Authors have aged and died at the computer.”

When he retired from teaching, he continued to write.  Poetry is an activity Muller calls his “meditation”.

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