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History professor tells of Expo '74's impact

Bill Youngs

At the April 22 to 23 Hope for Creation Conference at the Cathedral of St. John, Eastern Washington University history professor Bill Youngs will speak on "Expo '74: The Environment Then and Now."

He will review how the environment, the focus of Expo '74, was viewed 48 years ago and explore lessons for today.

Because that World Fair was the first to focus on the environment, the 2020 World Fair in Shanghai, China, included Spokane's fair in a video on World Fairs.

"In the history of World Fairs, they credited Spokane as the first with an environmental theme," Bill said. "Ours was the smallest World Fair but future fairs looked to Spokane as a trend setter in the way we explored the environment."

For its 25th anniversary, Bill wrote a 500-page history of the World Fair, The Fair and the Falls: Spokane's Expo '74, Transforming an American Environment.

His book will be reprinted next year in preparation for the 50th anniversary of Expo '74 in 2024.

"One thing about the World's Fair in Spokane was the centrality of the Spokane River," he said. "People were drawn to the river before there was the town."

Once people settled here, they set up mills at the falls. Railroad tracks covered the river downtown for many years.

"With Expo, people removed urban clutter and restored the falls," Bill said. "The city did the impossible once in restoring it, so I believe we can do the impossible now to restore the environment. We can clean the air and clean the water.

"Expo was a major player in environmental consciousness. As we go forward we need to value the environment," he said. "Native Americans were managers at Expo '74. No previous World Fair had involved Indians in administering their own exhibit."

The story of improving the river is an ongoing one. Before the World Fair, Spokane dumped raw sewage in the river. Now groups are concerned about cleaning the river from stormwater runoff and chemicals. There are also efforts to create more access to the river for picnicking, walking and floating, said Bill, who enjoys camping at the Bowl and Pitcher campground.

He is involved in the Friends for Riverfront Park Board, working to help improve that park. He also supports Spokane Riverkeeper, which picks up trash and plants vegetation and trees.

"I arrived in Cheney in 1972, coming to teach at EWU," said Bill, who grew  up in Indiana, studied American history at Harvard from 1959 to 1963 and earned his doctorate in American history in 1970 at the University of California at Berkeley. 

After teaching for two years at Kenyon College in Ohio, he came to EWU 50 years ago to teach American history.

"In the last 10 years of teaching, my focus has been on environmental history. I offer classes on the history of the American wilderness and the history of national parks," he said.

Even before the pandemic, Bill was teaching online lessons while traveling around the world to visit national parks of different nations—Taiwan, Jordan, Tanzania, England, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and other locations.

"I would be at Yosemite and with digital filming could show, 'This is what Yosemite Falls looks like today.'

Growing up in Bloomington, Ind., Bill said that beginning in 1949 his father, a mathematician, drove his family across the United States to visit national parks. Bill wrote to 34 parks asking them to send their  brochures.

When Bill went to college in Massachusetts, he rode his motor scooter 8,000 miles across the country over eight weeks, camping every night for 42 days "in the midst of nature with no tent," he said.

For his class on the history of American wilderness, Bill wrote articles and made films, some of which are available on his blog at

Other classes include the American Revolution, a U.S. survey, colonial America and capstone seminars for seniors. The current theme for the senior seminar is "Disease and History."  He has also taught on film and history.

"In teaching American history, I include African American and Native American history," said Bill, speaking of his book American Realities: Historical Episodes from the First Settlements to the Present, as well as his classes.

Other books are God's Messengers: Religious Leadership in Colonial New England, The Congregationalists and Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life.

"It's important to know history and its lessons," Bill said. "In evaluating American history, we need to look with perspective at triumphs as well as tragedies.

For example, he pointed out that during the 250 years of slavery around the world, while many white people benefited from it, many white people also died to abolish it.

Bill pointed out that divisions have been part of politics through the years.

"In the time Thomas Jefferson was running for President, those who opposed him worried that the end of the world would come if he was elected. They thought he was anti-religion," Bill pointed out.

Bill felt President Joe Biden stated well in his State of the Union address that the nation has experienced tragedies and setbacks. The U.S. has lived through bad times and each time it has grown. In overcoming challenges, the nation is stronger.

He particularly likes words from Biden in that address:

"As hard as times are today, I am more optimistic about America today than I have been my whole life, because I see the future that is within our grasp and because I know there is simply nothing beyond our capacity. We are a nation that turns crisis into opportunity. When things look bad, they are not as bad as they seem," he said. "Despite our flaws, we have something to offer and can turn crises into victories."

Bill remembers when he was a student standing just 30 feet away from Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights leader came to Berkeley. He drew a crowd of 10,000.  The day after his assassination, a crowd gathered in silence in the same plaza.

Over the years, Bill participated in many marches for justice and peace. The last was at the beginning of the Iraq War. 

"I'm ready to march for Ukrainians," he said.

For information, call 499-0895 or email

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2022