Million-dollar donor happy to help young people
- Nancy Townsley
- Forest Grove News-Times - Features
Generous - For retired businessman and Forest Grove School District benefactor Harold Wyatt, life has been all about meeting challenges
Years ago, whenever Harold Alfred Wyatt had a problem he needed to work out, he headed to the Forest Grove High School track.
There, he would run laps - three or four miles' worth, accompanied by one of his hunting dogs - until the answer to the issue became clear to him.
That was in the 1970s, after the small-town boy from Halfway, Ore., had risen through the workaday ranks to lead Flavorland Foods, one of Forest Grove's biggest business success stories.
'I came up with a lot of good ideas while I was running,' said Wyatt, now retired and a resident of the Jennings McCall Center. 'It helped me maintain my sanity.'
For Wyatt, it's always been important to mentally wrestle through personal or professional conundrums. The self-made man doesn't believe in taking the easy path in life.
'I had to make my own way from an early age, which meant I had to start earning money and saving money during the worst part of the Great Depression,' recalled Wyatt, who'll turn 95 on March 27.
Once he left his parents' sheep ranch as a teenager, he landed job after job - from caring for horses to logging to laboring in hotels - during the 1930s and 1940s.
Wyatt proved his mettle and stashed away cash to accomplish his goal of gaining a higher education, attending a business school in Portland before graduating from Reed College in 1938.
'It wasn't easy, but I had the confidence that I could do whatever I wanted to do,' Wyatt said.
Wyatt wouldn't insist that young people today fight the same struggles he did. 'Getting an education is important, and it's not always an easy thing,' Wyatt said last week.
A longtime advocate for youth, Wyatt established a $400,000 scholarship fund for graduates of western Washington County high schools in 1998. He was particularly interested in helping young people who wanted to work in the agriculture industry. He made a similar gift to Baker County schools in eastern Oregon.
This month, he upped the ante by offering to set up the Harold Alfred Wyatt Fund, a $1 million trust that will provide $45,000 or more each year in college scholarships for Forest Grove High School graduates. The fund will be administered by the Oregon Community Foundation.
Principal John O'Neill was floored by Wyatt's generosity, which represents what is thought to be the largest single monetary donation in school district history.
'Last May, a gentleman called me and said he'd like to take me to lunch and talk about student achievement,' O'Neill said at an assembly Jan. 10.
Noting that the high school's graduation rate had increased and its dropout rate had declined in recent years, O'Neill said, Wyatt was interested in setting aside some money for scholarships.
At first, he committed to $500,000. A few weeks later, O'Neill noted, Wyatt called him back and doubled that amount during a second lunch together.
'I just about dropped my cheeseburger,' O'Neill joked.
Wyatt's beginnings as a municipal consultant appear, in hindsight, to hint at a prolific entrepreneurial career to come.
His work with the League of Oregon Cities, managing a project codifying city ordinances across the state, earned Wyatt a special commendation from the Portland City Council in 1943.
Wyatt served with the U.S. Army in Germany during World War II, returning to Oregon in 1951. By mid-decade, after buying Gribner Packers and acquiring Sunset Packing in Banks, he had purchased Chandler Company in Tigard and Pacific Packers in Salem.
Construction of new processing and freezing facilities in Forest Grove made it possible for Wyatt to expand and close the older plants.
He changed the company name to Flavorland Foods in 1973, and the firm soon became the city's largest employer.
Flavorland, with facilities on 24th Street in Forest Grove, became the largest processor of frozen strawberries in the U.S. under Wyatt's watch. Wyatt sold Flavorland in 1979, and Henningsen Cold Storage occupies that property today.
Former Flavorland field manager Bob Schlegel of Forest Grove called Wyatt a 'good manager and a great boss' who figured out ways to market his products all over the country.
'He was also really physically active,' said Schlegel, now 85. 'He walked from his home to the company and back nearly every day.'
Dave Saucy, 83, who retired from Flavorland as general manager in 1981, met Wyatt at a Bible class years ago. He was impressed right away by Wyatt's honesty and integrity.
'He was always strictly above-board,' Saucy said. 'We worked very well together for many years.'
The three men still make an effort to meet for lunch every couple of months.
In Wyatt's view, using his assets to help students who want to better their lives just comes naturally.
'I guess I started doing that when I was in food processing,' Wyatt said, shaking a finger adorned with a large quartzite ring. 'We hired hundreds and hundreds of kids - they accumulated money and they accumulated work experience.
'I really got interested in them because they worked so hard.'
Wyatt doesn't maintain regular correspondence with any of the teenagers he took under his wing, but if one writes to him, 'I'll give them a personal answer,' he said.
He feels quite a bit of satisfaction simply from knowing they're out there, making the country's economy hum. 'They've done very well, most of them,' Wyatt said.
Forest Grove High's fortunes increased - literally - after Wyatt observed a wave of academic improvement at the school, where his own children, Linda and Douglas, attended.
Wyatt's wife, Julia, passed away in 2002.
For years, Wyatt said, 'Forest Grove had not done a very good job educating these kids. They hadn't devised a proper program to keep them in school, so they just didn't graduate.'
When things started turning around at FGHS, a couple of years after O'Neill's arrival, 'I got very interested in rewarding that,' Wyatt noted. 'So I did.'
Reclining in an easy chair inside his comfortable apartment, Wyatt doesn't much worry about leaving a legacy. That's not what his million-dollar gift is about.
An amateur genealogist and a prolific writer, with a dozen self-published books to his credit, Wyatt feels no need to impress anyone.
With a crown of white hair atop his six-foot-two frame, Wyatt moves more slowly than in the past, leaning on a walker to compensate for neuropathy in his legs.
But his quick wit and a Jimmy Stewart-like lilt to his voice hearken back to a time when he commanded the food processing industry in Washington County - and kept his eye on the up-and-comers at the same time.
'I've really enjoyed helping young people get an education,' Wyatt said simply. 'It makes me feel good.'