Teachers, friends remember homeless Oregon University student

By Cheryl Hatch
Corvallis, Oregon (AP) March 2010

On his deathbed, Doug Meuler wrote his last will and testament in big block letters on a simple sheet of white paper. He left everything he had to the Native American Longhouse and the Ethnic Studies Department at Oregon State University.

He didn’t leave much. He carried everything he owned in a big backpack and a folding camping chair with a blanket tucked inside.

Homeless and hard of hearing, Meuler, 57, died of a brain tumor on Feb. 18, a senior at OSU with a 3.43 grade point average.

Jo Alexander, of OSU’s Disability Access Services, and Kurt Peters, a professor of ethnic studies, were at his side.

Meuler started classes at OSU in the summer of 2008. He previously attended Linn-Benton Community College and Walla Walla Community College. At OSU, he made an impression everywhere he went on campus – sometimes favorable; sometimes not.

He faced challenges to doing his schoolwork and perserved. “He’d look for a light and a heat vent and settled in for the night to study,” Alexander said.

“Classes were a place of refuge for him,” Peters said. “School for him was revitalizing. It represented life.”

Cuauhtli Hernandez, a graduate student, taught Meuler in a class in Native American architecture. The students were required to build a model of a home.

“When he was building the model, he was living under a bridge,” Hernandez said.

Meuler frequently would sleep on a couch in the Memorial Union Lounge. Several times people complained and asked for him to be removed.

“He faced a lot of discrimination on campus,” said Stephanie Dunn, who works at OSU’s Human Services Resource Center. Her office helps students with hunger and poverty issues. She provided Meuler with “meal bucks” so he could purchase food on campus.

“If he were wearing a better backpack and was younger, nobody would say anything. We pride ourselves on being diverse – and I feel like homelessness is something it’s still OK to discriminate against.”

He found a welcome reception and a comfortable couch in the Ethnic Studies Department.

“People here are very aware of how uncomfortable this community can be to marginalized people,” said Leonora Rianda, office manager. “Everybody treated him with respect. This was sort of his home away from home.”

Alexander believes Meuler ultimately found far more compassion than discrimination at OSU. “People in the financial aid office. The M.U. business office. Human Services Resource Center. Student life. Oregon State Police and campus security. Across the board, people’s kindness toward him was amazing.”

“He was really open about who he was,” Alexander said. “He admitted to his faults. He knew he was no saint.”

A member of the Albany Union High School Class of 1971, Meuler had a criminal record nearly as long as his college transcripts. For years, he was addicted to heroin. He had felony convictions for possession of a controlled substance and possession of a firearm. He served more than a decade in jail.

In 2000, he was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and driving with a suspended license related to a car accident on July 2, 1999. Albany resident Bob Santos, then 47, died at the scene. Deylene Santos, his daughter, was seriously injured in the crash. At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Janet Holcomb increased Meuler’s jail time from a standard 25-month sentence to 52 months because of his criminal record, probation violations and failed attempts at rehabilitation.

At the sentencing, Meuler asked the Santos family for forgiveness. “I am very sorry. I truly wish it was me who died in the car wreck. But I refuse to give up on myself. I want to stay clean.”

A check of Meuler’s criminal record after his release from prison suggests that he did stay clean. And higher education played a part in that.

His circumstances sometimes dictated how Meuler tackled his class work, but not the quality of the work. Gail Woodside taught Meuler at OSU. She said he’d once brought in a paper held together with “14 different pieces of Scotch tape,” yet the content of his thoughts and writing made for some of her most rewarding reading. She valued him as a person and a student.

“He was never afraid to speak when 85 other voices were not saying a thing.”

Said Dunn, of OSU’s Human Services Resource Center: “Doug has a colorful past, but in his life as I knew him, he was trying to make right a wrong he had created,” Dunn said. “He was willing to sleep under overhangs on the campus, shave in public restrooms and carry his camping chair because that was his resource at the time to make higher education possible. And that is what I will miss about him; a man who refused to see the normal roadblocks that get in one’s way. And he did this without complaint.”

Last week, at the start of a memorial service for Meuler, student David Hunter carried an abalone shell and a burning smudge stick of sage. Peters walked by his side, his left hand placed gently on Hunter’s back, his right hand wafting the sweet smoke with a “sacred eagle feather.” They passed slowly from room to room, cleansing and blessing the space in the Native American Longhouse.

Meuler was Modoc. “Doug was very proud of his Native American heritage,” Peters said.

Nearly 70 people were at the longhouse for the service. A photograph of Meuler from his student days at Linn-Benton Community College was on a display table. His trademark camping chair and denim jacket sat next to the table.

People told stories about Meuler as a teenager, as a student at LBCC, as an OSU student.

Childhood friend Randy Glaser of Albany grew up with Meuler.

“He was a natural-born leader, very bright, very cocky,” Glaser said. “He loved sports.”

But Glaser also remembered Meuler’s teenage problems with drugs and his tragic family life.

“His family was just doomed,” he said, citing the early death of his father, his invalid mother and a car crash that killed his sister and her husband.

Robert Thompson, an assistant professor of ethnic studies, said Meuler “found what’s important in life in terms of love, of family, a true meaning of life. And people caring for him and he cared for us. He’s found maybe what he was always looking for.”

“Doug was really, really truly on the road to redemption.”