A grape, a contest and a grandmother’s legacy: how the governor’s home got its name

Eric Johnson’s grandmother liked to send him newspaper clippings.

The former Salem resident said her letters often contained a “weird collection of stuff,” but one piece in 1988 caught his eye.

The Oregonian offered a chance to “make a little history” by naming the historic south Salem home that Governor Neil Goldschmidt has just moved into. 

Johnson’s grandmother, Martha Jane Spitznogle, sent over the entry form along with a suggestion: Mahonia Hall.

“I loved the name,” he said.

His submission read, “I think it would be a great name because Mahonia is part of the Latin name for the Oregon grape. (The state flower, of course!) And hall, in the dictionary, means a building or a large room devoted to some public or common use.”

Johnson reflected recently on the contest as the governor’s mansion celebrates its 100th birthday this year.

At the time, Johnson was a Judson Middle School student. He submitted his entry and then “completely forgot about it.” 

The Oregonian received 1,392 entries. The selection panel included United States Senator Mark Hatfield and former Governors Vic Attiyeh and Bob Straub. 

One weekend, Johnson went to Seattle to visit his mother. He returned home to discover a flashing light on the answering machine. 

Johnson assumed the message was for his Dad, Earle. “The answering machine message was for me. It was completely a surprise,” he said. 

Mahonia Hall was one of five finalists for the residence, along with The Oregon House, The Cascade House, The Eyrie (Eagle) and Trail’s End.

The selection came with an invitation to lunch with the governor on April 1, 1988.

Finalists for the contest to name the governor’s mansion in Salem pose outside in 1988.

Johnson described lunch as an “out of body experience where you feel like you are looking down at what is going on.” The anticipation of hearing the winning name was so surreal, Johnson cannot remember what they ate. 

Mahonia Hall was selected as the winner. 

“The moment they announced it, I shook the hand of the Governor at the table. The next thing I remember is being by a mantle, the reporters were around me, the old school flashbulbs were going. I was overwhelmed and probably made for a bad interview,” he said.

Johnson does remember one reporter’s question. 

“They asked, ‘What are you going to do with the prize money?’ $750 was a lot of money in 1988, especially for a middle school kid. I had been saving up for over a year to buy my own Nintendo.”

When he told the reporter his plans, the journalist asked, “What is a Ninendo?”

It was his first purchase with the winnings. On April 14, 1988, Nintendo released the Action Set for $109.99 — a console complete with controllers and two games, Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt.

The finalists and their parents posed for a photo outside of the newly named Mahonia Hall.

As the winner, Johnson also got a trip to Washington D.C. sponsored by United Airlines, Azumano Travel Services, Inc., and Tax-Free Trust Fund. He took his father with him.

“I was in the seventh grade, and was unimpressed by everything. My dad and I were able to meet Hatfield in his office, then we had lunch with Hatfield in the Senate lunchroom. My Dad worked for the State of Oregon and they had plenty to talk about.” 

A newspaper clipping shows 13-year-old Eric Johnson shaking hands with Gov. Neil Goldschmidt after his suggestion, Mahonia Hall, was selected for the governor’s residence in 1988.

Johnson never visited Mahonia Hall again, but he holds dear. 

“It means that whenever you are in a situation, where you are meeting someone or a group exercise, and they ask, ‘Tell us something interesting about yourself,’ I can say I named the Oregon governor’s mansion,” he said.

Johnson now lives in Gastonia, North Carolina. He is retired from local government and owns Supersweetcards, a baseball card business. 

During his career, he was a member of Toastmasters Club. “I worked the story (of the contest) into a humorous speech in a Toastmasters Club. I made it to the state finals. I lost in the finals because I did not allow enough time for laughter and went to overtime and was disqualified,” he said.

In reflection, Johnson sees the experience as part of his grandmother’s legacy. 

“That’s where my pride is. I’m proud of her. She did so much good work during her life that I’m very grateful she had an opportunity to shine,” he said.


Salem history: the governor’s mansion turns 100

Rebekah Willhite is a freelance writer in Salem. Contact her at [email protected].

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Rebekah Willhite - Special to Salem Reporter