UO professor emeritus receives Congressional Gold Medal

First published in Around the O, George Wickes, a UO Professor Emeritus in English, was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his role as a cryptographer and intelligence officer in the Office of Strategic Services.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio presented the medal to the 96-year-old Wickes at a ceremony in the Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse this week. Wickes served at the end of World War II and in Vietnam from 1945 to 1946.

“It’s terrific to be honored today,” Wickes said. “It was an honor to serve in the Army and as a professor at the university.”

DeFazio lauded Wickes for his bravery and contributions to the nation.

“I wish that I would have taken a course in the English department during George’s time at the UO,” said DeFazio, who received a master’s from the university in 1977. “It’s an extraordinary honor for me, on behalf of the U.S. House of Representatives in Congress and the American people, to give George the Congressional Gold Medal for his service.”

The ceremony was attended by five dozen former colleagues and students of Wickes, who lives in Eugene. They applauded as DeFazio rewarded Wickes with the bright gold medal.

The Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom are the highest awards presented to civilians in the United States.

Paul Peppis, a UO English professor and director of the Oregon Humanities Center, spoke about Wickes’ “generosity of spirit” and “willingness to share wisdom, experience, hospitality and friendship.”

“George represents the ideal scholar who guides you to succeed,” Peppis said after the ceremony. “His literary knowledge is immense and he’s incredibly humble. He taught me the value of mentorship and respecting those who came before you.”

The OSS was the first organized effort by the U.S. to implement a centralized system of strategic intelligence and was the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

After his service with the OSS, Wickes went to graduate school on the G.I. Bill, earning a master’s degree at Columbia University and a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley.

While writing his dissertation, Wickes directed Fulbright programs in Belgium and Luxembourg. He taught at Duke University for three years, then moved to Claremont, California, to become one of the seven founding faculty members of Harvey Mudd College.

After 12 years teaching humanities at Harvey Mudd, he came to the UO as a visiting professor of English in 1970. In his 2006 memoir, Wickes said he immediately knew Eugene was where he “wanted to spend the rest of my life. Except for travelling, of course.”

Wickes officially retired from the UO in 1993 but continued to teach until 2015. After his retirement, he taught at French universities as a Fulbright lecturer, inaugurated the UO English department’s faculty exchange program with the University of Tubingen in Germany, and taught in several European cities through the UO’s overseas program.

He is the author of numerous books, including “Americans in Paris,” “The Amazon of Letters,” “The Memoirs of Frederic Mistral” and three collections of Henry Miller letters, all of which he donated to the Knight Library, where they are available to view through Special Collections and University Archives.

By Jess Brown, University Communications