Ed Durgin Explores the Meaning of Humanity
Ed Durgin attended Centralia High School back when it was still located on the current Centralia College site. “The columns of our school still stand on campus,” he said. “And the current gymnasium was our high school gymnasium.”
When it came time to select a college, the choice was easy. “Centralia was my home,” he said. “My older brother graduated from CC and it was also extremely affordable. Those were the main reasons that drew me.”
At the time, Durgin wasn’t entirely sure what he would select as a major. Law seemed a good fit, considering his passion for ideas, reading and exchanging dialogue. “I was, and probably still am, a geek,” he said with a humble laugh.
But one Centralia College class would set him on an entirely new path - anthropology. The subject matter spoke to him. “This is a discipline that explores what it means to be human from the broadest perspective possible,” he said. “It looks at language, human and primate physical characteristics, cultural systems, and archaeological remains to understand humanity.”
The class reminded Durgin of his early years growing up in Ketchikan, Alaska. He attended grade school with Tlingit children and enjoyed trips to the Totem Bight State Historical Park. “I would go out there and just marvel at the totem poles’ intricate carvings,” he said. “Deep in my DNA, there is a burning question that keeps popping up into my consciousness: What makes us human? I used to look at those totem poles and think, these were made by people who are different than me. I found them to be beautiful creations, which again stimulated my interest in human diversity. When I took my first anthropology class at CC, I thought, this is a discipline that really speaks to the question that’s buried deep in my DNA.”
In addition to finding his life’s calling, Durgin also met his wife of more than 50 years, Jill Penhallegon. “We were both enrolled in one of Gordon Aadland's English classes,” Durgin said. “She asked for my help in writing some of the required essays. The relationship that developed continues today.”
After graduating from CC in 1966, Durgin earned his Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from Washington State University in Pullman. He transferred two years of college credits from Centralia College and noted that his work there well prepared him for his work at WSU. “But I really didn’t know what I was going to do with a degree in Anthropology,” he said.
Fate soon intervened via the larger political landscape. “The year I graduated was the year that more young men were drafted for the war in Vietnam than any other year,” Durgin said. “I had gotten a deferment to finish my bachelor’s degree, but I had the draft hanging over my head.”
Durgin applied to graduate school in hopes of becoming a junior college professor. “I wanted to do this because of my good experience at Centralia College,” he said.
He earned a full-ride for his doctorate at the University of Oregon in Eugene, funded by the National Institutes of Health. “A lot of federal money was being offered at that time for students who were studying in the social sciences,” he said. “So off I went.”
He only made it through one semester before the draft board came calling. Durgin informed his professors and traveled to Seattle for his pre-induction physical. Fortunately, a childhood skin condition rendered him ineligible. “I went to Seattle to get inducted, got rejected, and returned to Eugene,” he said. “That dreaded childhood disease came back to have a real positive effect in my life.”
Stepping Outside the Classroom
Durgin spent three of the next six years in the classroom at the University of Oregon. The next year was spent 21 miles south of the Arctic Circle in a Canadian subarctic settlement, where he moved with his wife to study cross cultural education. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to gain access to the schools to complete this research.
Winter was closing in, housing was extremely hard to find, and he was in one of the most inhospitable climates on the planet. So he did what a good cultural anthropologist does – adapted. “The behaviors surrounding alcohol consumption slapped me in the face,” he said.
Durgin decided to study the tribe’s drinking patterns and its effects. “Drinking dominated village life most weekends. Alcohol-related issues are extremely prevalent in the Canadian subarctic, probably related to the fact that, traditionally, the Indians I studied were nomadic; they followed the animals in the wintertime through a very harsh environment. But when you’re no longer mobile, what do you do for a living? There are few to no jobs and you don’t farm. You can trap animals and sell pelts to the Hudson Bay Company – which then sells them worldwide – but basically you’re tied to a sedentary village life with limited economic opportunities. One of the consequences of that type of life is an increase in idle time which can be filled with the consumption of alcohol and a variety of disruptive behaviors that play out in this type of environment. It was illegal for the natives to make and consume homebrew, but this law had little to no effect on the fact that it was consumed.”
These interactions took place in private homes, where Caucasian strangers were not often welcome. Durgin familiarized himself with the natives by living as they did, in a cabin without running water, electricity, or sewer. “I was different and they knew it,” he said. “I had come to study their life and learn from them. An anthropologist sort of weaves their way into the lives of the people they study. I became a friend and pretty soon I was invited to drink with them. I was different but I treated them in an accepting and nonjudgmental way.”
Durgin’s ethnographic study discovered that while the prevailing norm held that drinking was not acceptable, most people drank a lot. They justified their actions by comparing themselves to other communities, where the issue was deemed worse. Those who didn’t engage were essentially excluded. “It’s a really complicated topic because these people had a very egalitarian attitude about themselves and everyone else in the community,” he said. “Families have lived together for hundreds of years. You know everybody; you know their history and their great-grandfathers’ history. It was interesting to see how those stories interrelate to each other and play out over and over, time and again.”
Real World Applications
After spending two years in library research, working with field notes and completing his dissertation, Durgin graduated with his PhD in Cultural Anthropology in 1974. He found himself in a bad economy with Oregon’s unemployment hovering around 11 percent. “I didn’t even have the money to pay for a cap and gown so I sat with the rest of the spectators at the ceremony,” he said. “I was unemployed with a wife and a 10-month-old daughter during a period of high unemployment.”
Durgin picked up temporary work to make ends meet. Then one of his former professors pointed him to a position with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which had secured a contract to conduct ethnographic research in several federally-funded high school career education programs under development nationwide. Durgin secured a research position in the program operating in Tigard, Oregon, following students through their various activities and completing a monograph. When his contract with ETS was completed, he was without work once again.
Durgin had spent his undergrad summers working in grain dock inspection labs for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. He found a similar opportunity with the Oregon State Department of Agriculture (ODA) in Portland. He even omitted his PhD on the application because he worried they wouldn’t want someone who was overqualified. “The starting wage was less than half of what I’d been earning as a researcher,” he said. “But I had a family to support and was grateful to have a job.”
Three years later, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) assumed inspection activities formerly performed by the ODA, and Durgin found himself working for the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS). He was an engaged worker who always volunteered for every opportunity and training course. His bosses soon noticed his PhD-level writing and research skills, and he worked his way up through the ranks accordingly.
When a coworker became head of the FGIS International Marketing Division in Washington, D.C., he selected Durgin for an international assignment allaying Japanese fears over potential inaccuracies in soybean grading. “As you can imagine, that was just a wonderful opportunity for me to work in an international setting using my anthropology degree,” Durgin said. “I was working with someone from a vastly different culture than mine on a daily basis, learning to understand their perspective. This is what a good anthropologist does. I developed a lifelong friendship with people who were formerly suspect about what we were doing. We became – and still are – good friends.”
In 1999, Durgin permanently transferred to the Department of International Affairs in Washington D.C. “During that 10-year career, I probably spent at least one full year outside the U.S.,” he said. “I spent two four-month assignments in Malaysia and traveled to 22 different countries in Africa, South America, Europe, and Asia – all over the world. That’s where I felt my education was really being used. I had the joy of living and working in cultures that were vastly different than mine. My DNA was being satisfied then.”
One of Durgin’s favorite memories from that time was simply sitting on a Vietnamese park bench conversing with locals, adding piece by piece to his broader understanding of what makes us human. “I was so grateful to have numerous experiences to represent the U.S. government and experience life in other cultures away from normal tourist attractions,” he said. “I had so many wonderful experiences, it’s hard to describe.”
One such experience was a personal tour through the Kremlin in the former Soviet Union. “Our guide said, ‘Most of the residents of Moscow will never get to see the inside and witness what you’re seeing,’” Durgin recalled. “Those were once in a lifetime experiences as result of my career with the USDA. Looking back, I feel so blessed.”
Now in retirement, he recently completed a memoir for his grandchildren entitled, “Moments: The Stuff of Our Lives.”
Words of Wisdom
Looking back, Durgin advises students to work hard in school, but also get involved in clubs and outside organizations. “These can expand what it means to be learning,” he said. “Ask yourself periodically, ‘Why am I here and what do I want to learn?’ These are important questions. Ask them often.”
Durgin’s career path is a shining example of the power of adaptation, working hard and staying open. Throughout his life, he continued to learn, grow and explore the question burning deep within his DNA. This remained his focus, even in those early years working outside his trained field at the port. “I gained some pretty invaluable experiences,” he said. “I may have been doing the same job I did during the summers when I was working toward my bachelor’s degree, but I was getting more answers about what it means to be human.”
Those answers led to some extraordinary places.