Although I think freely of Washington as home, I must confess to a technicality. I actually live in Idaho, on a farm we moved onto the same year I started working at Washington State University, 19 years ago.
When I drive to work by the various back roads between Pullman and our home, I never quite know when I’ve crossed from Idaho into Washington. There are no signs, no point where my brain says okay, I’m in a different state. Examined from Twin Falls to Aberdeen, however, Idaho and Washington obviously have very different identities. Idaho has no Ho Rain Forest, no Pacific shoreline, no Rainier. Washington has no Sawtooths, no River of No Return, no Lake Pend d’Oreille. But these differences are simply geographical, spread over an enormous landscape. They define appearance, mostly spectacular, but offer only an underpinning for understanding the soul and identity of these great states.
Recent history–post-European contact history, that is–distinguishes the states to a certain extent. But move back in time and state lines and other superficial boundaries disappear. Identity becomes fundamental and ancient, geography combining with the territories of Umatillas, Lummis, and Coeur d’Alenes. Time and culture shape our deeper identities, gradually eked out of mystery and etched into our collective memory through oral history, linguistic investigation, and archaeological exploration.
But forgive now me as I switch tacks. While still in a confessional mood, I may as well also admit that I am one of the great unwashed who did not graduate from WSU. Back in 1970, when I started college, back in the days before student recruiting, the Internet, and integrated marketing, I’d never heard of WSU. In fact, I didn’t know it existed until I came, from Indiana, to graduate school at the University of Idaho in 1976.
And how my perspective and identity have changed since then.
Not only does my identity now include memories of listening to the corn grow through a Midwestern summer and the smell of the oilcloth on my grandmother’s kitchen table, but also Cougar memories of Enoch Bryan, Lone Star Dietz, Hannah Aase, Edward R. Murrow, the 1952 ski team, and much much more.
In his 1950 study, Childhood and Society, Erik Erikson, in examining how a child gradually achieves a sense of self, writes that, “This sense of identity provides the ability to experience one’s self as something that has continuity and sameness, and to act accordingly.” But once beyond that solidity and need for sameness, as one ages, one’s identity becomes marvelously diverse and complex, memories over decades blending, sometimes chaotically, to form who one is.
However, even having absorbed 19 years of Cougar experience, the fact remains that I never graduated WSU. As an editor, perhaps it gives me an edge. Aside from the advantages of journalistic objectivity, this distance also gives me an interesting perspective on Cougar identity. I still marvel at how intensely loyal, enduring, and special it is.
One of those special Cougars is Phil Lighty, who died earlier this winter. He came here from California in 1936 and developed a great love for this place and his Cougar identity. I regret that I never met Mr. Lighty. But we at Washington State Magazine–and many others around the university–benefit daily from his love for WSU and his great generosity.
Tim Steury, Editor