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  • Ednold

The Mystery in Twin Oaks Cemetery 7/26/21

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

I can’t say I ever really knew Gus, but I met him a few times when he must have been 8 or 9 years old. Even at that age he was already a bit of a local celebrity, having set several national age-group records. But it was another six or seven years before the whole rest of the world got to see him. After winning three events at the state high school track and field championships in that spring of 1984, he went down to Los Angeles to run in the Olympics as a 16-year-old who had just finished his sophomore year of high school. He was a big deal. He didn’t make it out of the prelims running against the fastest guys in the world, but he was an Olympian, and returned home to win six more state championships over his final two years of high school. He crushed the state records in the 100, 200, and 400 meter dashes and led McKay High School to the team championship in 1986, earning himself a scholarship to Stanford.

In college, Gus had trouble adjusting to life away from home and he didn’t get along with his coach. His running suffered, but he stayed in school and earned his degree and, though he never became the star in college that he had been in high school, he ran in three more Olympic games. No sprinter from anywhere has competed in more Olympic games. By the time he was done he had competed in the 100, 200 and 400 meter dashes as well as anchoring the relay team, and in 1996 in Atlanta he was the flagbearer in the opening ceremonies.

If you’re wondering how this man who turned out to be a fairly average college sprinter managed to run in four different Olympic games, then I guess it’s time I mentioned his father. Gustavo Envela Sr. and his wife had emigrated to the U.S. from the small country of Equatorial Guinea. Gus Sr. eventually had six children, most born in Africa, including Gustavo Jr. The younger Gustavo, or Gus, as he was known by everyone, used his ties to that country to represent them at the Olympics. Apparently he was the fastest man that Equatorial Guinea could claim as their own up through the Atlanta games of 1996, which just happened to be a very important year for Equatorial Guinea. 1996 was the year oil was discovered there, and things haven't been the same there since.

Equatorial Guinea is a geographic anomaly. It’s made up of two separate parts, along with a few more tiny islands. One part is a small chunk of the west coast of Africa about the size of New Hampshire. The other part, where the capital city of Malabo is located, is the island of Bioko. You can find Bioko on a map right in the armpit of west Africa a hundred miles from the Equatorial Guinea mainland. But it’s much closer to the countries of Nigeria and Cameroon, and the fact that they chose to make a city on the island their capital is strange. Lots of things are strange in Equatorial Guinea, mostly thanks to the scads of oil money that have been pouring into the country over the past quarter century.

Gustavo Bodjedi Envela-Makango was born on June 26, 1926 in what was then Spanish Guinea. As a young adult he studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew and graduated from a seminary in 1949 and was ordained a minister of the Presbyterian Church in 1953. A few months later he married his sweetheart, Maravilla, and in 1955 he received a scholarship to study at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he received an advanced degree in religion. His oldest son was born soon after his arrival in the States, and soon after their return from Pennsylvania in 1957, Gustavo was widowed. In March 1960 Gustavo remarried and his new wife eventually bore him three more sons and a daughter.

Gustavo made his living pastoring churches and teaching English along the northern coast of mainland Equatorial Guinea while spending his free time working for the movement to gain independence from Spain. The country had originally been colonized by the Spanish, but gained its independence in 1968. The new nation needed an Ambassador to the United Nations. The poor guy they chose turned out not to be to the president’s liking, and he was executed after his first month on the job, before he had even taken his seat at the U.N. So guess who was their second Ambassador to the United Nations? That’s right! That brave man was none other than Gustavo Envela Sr.

Gus Sr. at the U.N.

In March of 1969 Gustavo was chosen to head their delegation to the United Nations, but by May 1970, due to escalating violence at home, Gustavo resigned his post, citing family health reasons. The reality was that he had a problem with the human rights abuses the president visited upon his own citizens and ended up fleeing the country to save his own life and those of family. I guess avoiding execution is technically a health reason. So the family ended up in, of all places, Salem, Oregon. Why Salem? You may have noticed that this story isn’t called “The Answers To All Mysterious Things”. It’s a mystery!

I do know that Gustavo had resigned his post in May of 1970 and by August of that year the family was in Oregon, where Gustavo went to work as an interpreter while earning his Master's Degree from the University of Oregon. In order to be able to spend more time with his family, in 1972 Gustavo got a job with the State of Oregon processing Social Security disability claims, a job he held for the next 16 years before he retired in 1988. He and his wife Victoria separated in 1982, and divorced in 1993, and he then married Nikki Richert the following year.

Which explains why, when he died in the summer of 2005, Gus Sr. was buried in Twin Oaks Cemetery, or Twin Oaks Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum, as it’s officially called. On a hot midsummer day Mrs. Ednold and I took the short drive to pay our respects. It’s not a very big cemetery, but it’s large enough that you could spend several hours looking for someone if you didn’t have anything to guide you. So I stopped in at the little office and asked the owner, Mike, if there was a directory I could look at. His response was “No. We don’t keep track. We just put them in the ground and don’t really pay attention to who goes where.” Smartass. Sounds like something I would say. He laughed and asked me who I was looking for. When I gave him the name he just smiled a huge smile and pointed. I was tempted to make up another name just to put a different expression on his face, but I guess if you work there every day you would remember who’s where, and I did appreciate his ability to recall it on demand.

Mike is a nice guy, and talkative, and had obviously done business with several members of the Envela family since he was throwing out names that were unfamiliar to Mrs. Ednold and me. He talked about Gustavo’s wife and children and inlaws as if they were personal friends, and maybe they are. He told us the story of Gus pulling up in his Jaguar one day, parking near the grave and just sitting, apparently soaking in the proximity to his father. When asked why, when the family was based in Salem, they had chosen to bury their patriarch near Corvallis, he explained that Gustavo’s wife Nikki had already had members of her family buried there so it made sense for Gustavo to be buried there with them. One mystery solved. But there was still the question of why he chose the unlikely spot of Salem, Oregon to relocate to in 1970, and Mike was no help with that.

Twin Oaks Memorial Garde s

But, knowing the date of Gustavo’s death, I staked out the cemetery on that anniversary and waited for someone from the family to show up so I could talk to them and solve this mystery. I’ve been to cemeteries that aren’t creepy and some that are even interesting. Twin Oaks isn’t one of those. I believe that Mike, the owner, does his best under the circumstances but it’s just a sad, shabby, depressing place and spending a few hours on a scorching hot day waiting for people you don’t know to arrive wasn’t much fun. I was dreading an awkward and probably intrusive conversation with whoever showed, but I stuck it out as long as I could. Not a single other person entered the grounds during the few hours I was there and I felt like picking a few dandelions to put on his headstone since nobody else had showed to mark the occasion. But that didn't seem suitably respectful and I finally threw in the towel, knowing nothing more than I had when I got there, mystery unsolved.

That first president of Equatorial Guinea, Francisco Nguema, had turned out to be one of the most brutal dictators in history. So, it seemed like good news when he was overthrown in 1979. Except that the guy who overthrew him was his own nephew who turned out to be even worse than his uncle. That new guy, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has been in power ever since. President Obiang, as he is known, is now the longest-serving ruler in Africa and a man accused of presiding over one of the world's most corrupt and repressive governments. He allegedly pulls in $60 million a day in oil revenues as head of sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer, yet three-quarters of his country’s 675,000 citizens live on less than a dollar a day. According to the World Bank, Equatorial Guinea has the highest per capita income of any country in Africa. It also has the highest Gini coefficient in the world. As I'm sure you all know, the Gini coefficient, not to be confused with the I Dream of Gini coefficient, is a measure of wealth inequality. The higher, the worse, and they're #1. If you'd like to double-check my math I've included one of the formulas used to calculate the coefficient. On top of the poverty, people are routinely beaten, imprisoned, and tortured for no apparent reason while the President and his family and friends think of ways to waste all of that money.

And waiting to succeed Obiang someday is his son Teodorin, who’s been auditioning for the job by displaying spectacular levels of greed and stupidity. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Teodorin has spent millions that he could not possibly have made from his job as the country's Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. He bought a home in Malibu, California and several expensive sports cars. He even bought one of Michael Jackson’s old sparkly gloves. He bought lots of little baubles for his girlfriend, American rap star Eve although, is she really a star if Ednold has never heard one of her songs? They are no longer together, possibly because of all the big red flags he raised when he tried to buy a yacht for $300 million, which is three times the amount of Equatorial Guinea's health and education budget. The guy is seriously unhinged, and also seriously the man most likely to be Equatorial Guinea’s next president.

None of which sits very well with Gus Envela Jr. He spent his 20‘s in southern California trying to break into the acting business, and if you’re one of the few who saw the Steve Martin movie Sgt. Bilko then you’ve seen him. But for the past 20+ years he has spent most of his time trying to find a way to improve the situation in the country of his birth. He has campaigned for the presidency multiple times but has had to do so from outside the country, since Obiang brooks no dissent and typically garners more than 90% of the vote in presidential elections. About ten years ago Equatorial Guinea refused to renew Gus’ passport, making it even more difficult for him to have any kind of positive influence there.

Gus Jr.

Making matters even more difficult is the fact that Gus has a rap sheet of his own. The last I heard of Gus he had been arrested for breaking and entering at the Equatorial Guinean embassy in Washington. He broke in in the middle of the night and didn’t do much but make a mess. Nobody was hurt, and it sounds like it was a pretty feeble one-man protest, but still, that doesn’t look good for someone who wants to be president. His friend and campaign manager, Sal Williams, belongs to a notorious crime family in Pittsburgh, where Gus spends much of his time these days. Sal may be a great guy who’s gone straight but, again, the optics aren’t good for a presidential hopeful.

As far as I can tell, Gus has given up his plans to become president, at least for now. He splits his time between Washington and Pittsburgh, where he is the president of Voice of Democracy, an Africa-focused group that does consulting work on issues concerning Africa, including advocating for change in Equatorial Guinea. He is a tireless lobbyist and email writer to anyone he deems to have any influence over the situation.

So there he lies, Gustavo Envela-Makongo Sr., in a small, quiet, inconspicuous graveyard on a bit of winding road outside of Corvallis, beneath a fairly humble-looking stone. A former Pastor, which is etched there into the stone, just in case you didn’t know. But there’s no mention of the fact that he was also a former Ambassador. It’s just a minute or two off of Highway 34, one of the most heavily traveled roads in the mid-valley, but I wonder if any of those drivers would know, or care about, the life story of the Ambassador whose final resting place can practically be seen from that highway. It just doesn’t seem like a fitting resting place for someone who played even a tiny role for a very short time on the global political stage.

Gus Jr.’s state records all lasted through the end of the last century, but these days his name has all but been erased from the record books. Even most of his school records at McKay are now gone. In a cruel twist of fate, Ryan Bailey, the most successful sprinting product Oregon has ever produced, also went to McKay, where he bested Gus’ 100 and 200 meter marks in 2007, leaving him with only his 400 meter record still standing. Bailey then went on to be an Olympic medalist in London in 2012, an achievement that eluded Gus four times.

It doesn’t sound like things will be changing much in Equatorial Guinea anytime soon. But if they ever do it will probably be because Gus Envela kept pestering people until someone was willing to listen to him. Given people’s tendency to close their ears to inconvenient truths, I don’t think that’s very likely, but I wish him luck.

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