Remembering Paul Persons: Our Loss, Our Gain
by Dane Cameron
I had the pleasure of knowing Paul Persons for well over 30 years. On the loss of a very good friend such as Paul, one contemplates all the things that he still had left to do, because he was taken from us at such a young age. But Paul lived every inch of his life; he was able to get into 55 years what it would probably take most of us 75 years to accomplish. So even though I feel a real sense of loss of a friend that I’ve had for so long, I also am thankful for having had the opportunity to know him, work with him, and to be a law partner with him.
I first met Paul back in the ’70s, when we were both involved with the Legal Studies program at Chico State. Paul’s energy was fairly boundless. He, along with Professor Bronson, really grew that program over the time he was involved in it. This is what ultimately became Chico State’s Legal Studies program, and what is now called the Community Legal Information Center. Even then, Paul was fighting for the underdog—taking up the unpopular cause. Few fought on behalf of those who had been jailed or in prison, Paul did; few really cared about what happened to single mothers when they needed welfare or needed to make reproductive decisions, Paul did. He also championed the causes of students, and empowered them.
Even back in the ’70s, when both of us were college students and attempting to make ourselves attractive to law schools, Paul went to a law school that was known for its progressive perspective. New College School of Law was also at that time in its fledgling state, and during the four years he was there, Paul helped that school to define what it was about. I also attended law school in San Francisco during that time, and he and I kept in constant contact about what was going on back up here in Chico, what was up with “our” program and the continuing strides that it made. We were both so proud of what the Public Law Internship program was becoming.
When I graduated from law school, I continued my work with the San Francisco Legal Assistance Foundation. I kept in touch with Paul and the work that he had done with San Francisco Legal Assistance Foundation while he was there in San Francisco, even after he had moved back to Chico.
After he was here at Chico for a year and teaching in the Legal Studies program, he asked if I was interested in coming home to Chico to join him in doing the same thing. It took me absolutely zero time to think about it. Within months we were reunited and both teaching in the Department of Political Science and supervising the Community Legal Information Center together. That was in 1981. Shortly thereafter, Paul and I became law partners.
It was then that Paul began to get me into the scariest situations that I had ever encountered. Sometimes those involved being on whitewater and wondering why, with Paul taking the lead, or in the air in an airplane that I didn’t know and didn’t trust, or in the courtroom, taking on cases in which the attorneys on the other side represented the government or corporations. The firm of Cameron & Persons took on issues involving the rights of women to make reproductive choices, the rights of inmates who were in jail or prisons, and environmental causes involving local planning.
The floors of our law firm were literally painted over with poster paint when the “No On Condos in the Canyon” initiative came up. We were able to clean up and carpet over those remnants, but there are so many terrific fights that Paul involved us in that at the time seemed scary. We felt like we were playing pretty far over our heads, but his energy and his commitment to do what he thought was right was what drove us. At almost every turn, it was his initiative that got us involved in these fights, and I’m grateful that he, in many ways, “sucked” me into some of those battles in the first place. I was lucky to fight by his side for as long as I did.
Paul was a very independent guy. That independence sometimes showed up in ways that put him at odds with administrations or the powers that be, or even nature itself. This was a man who was in many ways unafraid to take on the big guys or meet nature on her own terms, whether it was on whitewater or even in his own home in the canyon when the floods would happen. On one occasion when a bad flood hit Butte Creek Canyon, I called Paul because I had a four-wheel-drive truck that would probably get into where he was, so if stuff needed to be packed out, we could do it. Paul’s response was “No problem, we’re doing just fine down here.” The next day his picture was on the front page of the Chico Enterprise-Record with him paddling his canoe on the water that had reached right to his home’s threshold.
For someone who was so independent, he was deeply involved in his community, including with us here in the political science department. His advisory duties with our students not only showed how committed he was to them, but earned him the Outstanding Academic Advisor in 1998. Awards did not matter all that much to Paul; what did matter was his family, his clients, his students, and his fellow faculty. His work in the Academic Senate demonstrates his commitment to the faculty and the issues that come up for all of us. He was a great advocate on our behalf.
But most important to him, next to his family, was how well his students would be prepared to meet life on its terms. Thousands of students benefited from knowing Paul Persons. He has made such an impact on them that I think of George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life and wonder what it would have been like if Paul had not been here. Those thousands of students would not have been touched by his presence, his encouragement, and his vision. They had a role model in Paul Persons. Literally thousands of inmates who have come and gone from local jails and state prisons would have suffered through conditions there that were most demeaning. And what he has done for our environment is something that we all experience every day, whether we know it or not.
Many of these things would never have occurred if Paul had not been there. It is for this reason that I feel a sense of loss—of a friend, a partner, a fighter, a father, and a wonderful faculty member who actually cared about his students. I also feel that all of us have gained a great deal for having known him. When one looks at the people who were at the ceremony at the BMU, there was nothing short of an incredible mix of faculty and students, friends, community members, and even folks who had been for some point in time incarcerated who were there because Paul was important. All of us have gained a great deal for having known him.