Longtime Rogue Valley Democratic political insider and university history teacher Jay Mullen died Saturday, a result of a massive heart attack he suffered last week. He was 76.
He is remembered as an old-style liberal in the FDR tradition, a storehouse of wisdom on history — which he taught at Southern Oregon University — and a fascinating storyteller, especially about his years as a CIA agent in Africa.
Allen Hallmark, a former journalist who often interviewed Mullen, called him "a brilliant man and a great scholar ... the kind who didn’t suffer fools gladly."
"He was an old-school liberal," said Hallmark, who would later follow Mullen as a local Democratic Party leader, "very much in the FDR vein of politician who believed government had a role to play in society’s life, making life better for its citizens and giving a leg up to those less fortunate.
"He was a tough, sometimes gruff old guy, kind of ornery, but had a good heart, a very good professor and writer, a fascinating guy ... . Jay put many of us straight when we strayed from the path of truth and justice.”
Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Mullen came to Medford in 1959 with his parents Noble and Marian Mullen when he was in high school. He graduated from Medford High School and got his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Oregon in 1962, followed by a master’s degree and then a doctorate from the University of Kentucky in 1971.
He worked undercover from 1971-76 for the CIA in Uganda, Chad and Sudan, often meeting with Chinese and Russian agents — Cold War foes — while passing as an innocuous history teacher.
In a 2011 article in the SOU Siskiyou, Mullen said, “I was a spy during the Cold War. The intrigue center for the world was Africa, but it was not easy to insert Americans into Africa to meet Chinese and Russians because they have to have a plausible reason to be there. I, having studied Africa, could have plausibly been there.”
He recruited agents to the CIA’s purposes and sometimes copied their documents. “I was photographing the documents, and my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t hold the camera; that’s what I reported back. A couple of days later, they sent me a tripod.”
Deciding to quit spy work “while I was still ahead,” Mullen came home to the Rogue Valley and ran Stagecoach Farms, partnering in the business for a dozen years with wife Nancy and Bob and Carol Doty.
After a few years teaching history at Hedrick Junior High School in Medford, Mullen started teaching the subject at SOU. He was chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Central Committee for several years and lost a race for state Senate in 1978 against incumbent Sen. Lenn Hannon of Ashland. Mullen taught at SOU last spring and was slated to do so again this fall.
The heart attack came July 11, with an induced coma lingering until Saturday, when he was revived but found without brain activity. His living will was not to persist in that state, said Doty, and he died Saturday.
“He had a very interesting life and was a great community activist,” said Carol Doty, a former Jackson County commissioner. “This was a surprise and a shock.”
On her Facebook page, Doty noted, “He was the person who stood for me publicly when I was going through my recall in 1979. We sang with other family members, especially when the rain and sleet were hitting the greenhouse roof. I sang a little song to him at the hospital last Tuesday, hope he could hear me. I miss him deeply.”
Former Southern Oregon Public TV producer Greg Frederick worked on television projects with Mullen and called him, “easily the smartest man in the room.”
Former Ashland Daily Tidings Editor John Enders noted, “Not everybody loved Jay, because he called it like he saw it and, unlike so many people, wasn’t afraid to say what he thought. But his life experiences before teaching made him just that much better of a teacher. So many college professors have never done anything but read and teach from books. He had real-life experiences, and an interesting life. He is the only person I ever met who swam with (notorious dictator) Idi Amin in Uganda. Way too young to go ... . My daughter said he was easily the most interesting professor she ever had.”
He and Nancy had three children, Molly, Dinah and Tobey, and five grandchildren.
“He was one of my very best friends, and we will miss him greatly,” Molly Mullen said.
A celebration of his life is tentatively slated for Aug. 14, with details to be announced.
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.