Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2007
Profiles in the Law
A Modern-Day Man of Letters
Bill Long Is a Seeker of Knowledge Who Resists Pigeonholing
By Cliff Collins

Bill Long doesn’t need to learn the word polymath for a spelling bee. Instead, he lives it. A polymath — someone of great and diversified learning — is what Long aspired to be, and became. "That’s what I am: a person of broad learning who just wants to keep getting broader," says Long, of Salem. "I tried for years to be a single-subject person, because that is what I was told you should be; you have to have your specialty. I tried to do that for 30 to 40 years. I am a failure at being a specialist."


Among many other accomplishments, William R. Long is a top speller, but "failure" is not a word anyone associates with the researcher, wordsmith, philosopher and Renaissance man.

He has been a lawyer at Stoel Rives, an editorial writer at The Oregonian, an ordained Presbyterian minister leading a congregation in Portland, a history professor in a small town in Kansas, a professor of religion at Reed College and a visiting professor at Willamette University College of Law. He also is the author or co-author of 10 books, including an award-winning book on the Oregon death penalty, and numerous articles. He holds a doctorate from Brown University, and is author of more than 3,000 essays posted on his own website on subjects as diverse as Job, Aaron Burr, Shakespeare and current events.

It doesn’t seem possible that one person could be this many things in one life. And Long is only 55 years old. Besides all of this, he has placed in the top 10 in each of the last four years in the AARP National Senior Spelling Bee. He finished runner-up twice, came in third once, and was in the top 10 this year. Part of his preparation for the spelling bee was to read the entire Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. "I’ll probably be back until I win," he says.

Asked if he has a photographic memory, Long explains that the current term for that concept is "eidetic," undoubtedly a word he has been asked to spell at some point. "I have a very precise and pretty comprehensive memory," says Long. Since leaving Willamette last December, he has been working as a legal consultant and expert witness, in addition to writing daily for his website, drbilllong.com. The site receives over a million visits annually, so he feels he can reach more people through it than with a best-selling book.

"Generally I can tell you lots of detail about many things," he says. He began memorizing the Bible when he was 18, committing hundreds of verses to memory. "I started to fall in love with words as a young person," and by the time he was in his 40s, he longed to exercise his interest by entering spelling competitions. Not until he was over 50 did he discover that opportunity, with the AARP event.

Long insists that his memory gets better with age. "I remember things I want to remember, and I have the knowledge base on which I can go back on." For instance, he can name who was president or chief justice of the United States at any given time.

Getting Religion
Long was born in Stamford, Conn., and lived there until his family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was 15. The teenage Long’s New England upbringing clashed with "Summer of Love" San Francisco, a factor that led to his embrace of evangelical Protestantism. He enrolled in Brown University as a mathematics major, but changed to the study of religion in his sophomore year.

After graduating, he entered seminary in Massachusetts, obtaining his master’s of divinity. He then pursued a doctorate after his undergraduate adviser at Brown offered Long a full scholarship, plus a stipend and teaching assistantship. He obtained his Ph.D., studying for a year in Germany, and accepted a position to teach religion and humanities at Reed College, in his wife’s hometown.

At the same time as he began at Reed, Long became an ordained Presbyterian minister. During his six years at Reed, he also taught and led classes at churches and synagogues throughout the Northwest. While Long was on sabbatical from Reed, The Oregonian’s editor invited him to write editorials for the newspaper. Long returned to Reed after his sabbatical, but was itching for something different.

He became interim head of staff at Northeast Portland’s Westminster Presbyterian Church for 18 months, then took six months off to decide his next move. It proved a dramatic one: He, his wife and two children left Portland for Kansas, where he had accepted a position to teach world history at tiny Sterling College, where he remained for six years.

Practicing and Writing
Long next decided to enter law school. As a high school senior, he had intended to study law after completing college. "I remember as early as eighth and ninth grade ... being fascinated with the work of the Supreme Court and (reading about) the justices and their work," he says. "I felt that I had devoted a lot of attention to religion, and then to history, and that now ... I could heed the first call I heard, the study of law."

The family returned to Oregon, where Long went to law school at Willamette. "Since I would be starting a new career in my 40s, I wanted to do so in a place where I already knew some people. The contacts I made in Portland in the 1980s would be very helpful in landing me a lawyering job at Stoel Rives in 2000."

After law school, Long commuted from Salem to Stoel Rives, where he practiced for three years. During that time, Willamette asked him to teach a class on jurisprudence, then another course and another, until he was teaching a full load as a visiting professor. He taught until the end of 2006.

Karen E. Saul, a friend who practices at Farleigh Witt, calls Long "a brilliant thinker" who is willing to devote time and energy to researching, writing and speaking about ideas. Gregory R. Mowe of Stoel Rives, who has known him since Long’s days at Reed, says Long "is intellectually gifted and perpetually curious. His daily essays, on topics ranging from the biblical lectionary to Barry Bonds, amuse and surprise."

For the time being, the niche-free, ever-restless Long is content dispensing wisdom to all-comers. "I love my life the way it is now," he muses. "It looks like for now things are holding strong."

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2007 Cliff Collins

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