Bethel Community Church is not exactly Notre Dame. Its parking lot crunches beneath visitors’ feet, and the glass in its windows is more plain than stained. Inside, 15 people gather for the monthly Trainsong Neighborhood Association meeting. A curly-headed toddler wiggles around and experiments with his vocals. An older woman nods in and out of sleep. As a handful of presenters express neighborhood concerns to the group, most seem uninterested. Neighborhood Association President Tom Musselwhite, on the other hand, sits in his chair like a hawk on its perch, attentively surveying the room and its goings-on.
At the Neighborhood Association meeting, Musselwhite tugs at his cheek by his silvery beard. As residents and members come and go, a mild dysfunction prolongs the meeting’s running time. Musselwhite observes, chiming in only occasionally to ask clarifying questions or to initiate votes. His leadership is present but unimposing.
“I like to do as little as possible and get as many other people involved,” Musselwhite said. That way, he said, it becomes an organization. He speaks slowly, unrushed to convey his thoughts. His eyes hold a faint shimmer of sincerity behind his thin-framed glasses, shadowed by the brim of a baseball hat whose embroidered letters hint at his attitude: “Hang Loose.”
Musselwhite has moved in and out of the Trainsong Neighborhood since 1978. Having grown up in Georgia and Florida, he wanted a change of scenery after finishing his duties in the Navy. When he met his last wife, who was from Eugene, he moved west and has been comfortable enough to stay. “I keep looking for better places to go,” he said, but he has yet to find anything that suits him. It has been 12 years since Musselwhite’s last move into Trainsong.
Musselwhite’s involvement in the Trainsong Neighborhood Association is preluded by a past freckled with involvement in various other community organizations. Seven years after a stint with an attempted Trainsong group in 2000, Musselwhite felt compelled to initiate the current Trainsong Neighborhood Association in response to an ongoing problem with what police classified as violent street gangs.
“I could not sit here and work in my garden without being afraid,” Musselwhite said. “I mean I felt like I was trying to hide from the trouble back here.” So he took to the streets himself, hanging up fliers as invitations to a hot dog cookout. His hope was to get his neighbors all in the same place so that they could discuss the issue and what they could do about it.
“We started what was going to be a neighborhood watch,” he said chortling. Then, with sarcasm dripping down his beard, he said, “That was interesting.” Now, he said, there is a descent neighborhood watch to keep an eye out for trouble, and the Eugene Police Department has increased its patrol of the neighborhood. One of the main gang members has been taken to jail, Musselwhite said.
The leadership role Musselwhite took in organizing today’s Trainsong Neighborhood Association is not the first time he’s stepped up to the plate. In the ‘90s, he created a homeless newspaper and the Recover Project to put homeless people together to form sustainable communities that could contribute to ecological recovery. He applied for grants and worked with other organizations like the Homeless Action Coalition to empower people to improve their own and others’ lives. During this time, Musselwhite himself was considered homeless, and he lived in his van on Blair Blvd.
Despite the initiatives Musselwhite has taken and whatever change he has helped to make, he remains humble in his view of himself. “I’m hesitant to call myself a leader,” he said, but he recognized that he has been able to take the initiative to get things accomplished.
Musselwhite is content to stay in Trainsong and live the life he has found there. He is at home in his garden, where his vegetables grow faster than his son’s and he is surrounded by sprinkles of purple, gold, and red. “Sometimes when leaders don’t know where to go, the best thing to do is not go anywhere,” Musselwhite said. Luckily for Trainsong, that’s just what he plans to do.