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'Dee Day': Party marks Denton's 90th birthday

Friends and family gather to pay tribute to Lake Oswego icon's lifetime of community service


REVIEW PHOTO: J. BRIAN MONIHAN - Dee Denton basks in the admiration of friends and family who gathered Sunday to celebrate her 90th birthday. 'It's wonderful to see you all together,' she told the crowd. REVIEW PHOTO: J. BRIAN MONIHAN - Dee Denton wears a Harley-Davidson cap during her birthday celebration Sunday. The cap, a gift from fellow Rotarian Bill Warner, honored Denton's role as a Biker Babe during a motorcycle ride-in for Rotary's annual Lobster Feed & Auction in 2003.Dee Denton has been called a lot of things over the past 90 years: mother, grandmother and great-grandmother; Royal Rosarian and Lake Oswego Rotarian; executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and passionate supporter of the arts.

But on Sunday, one of her fellow Rotarians added a label that might just outlast the rest.

“To all of us,” Bill Warner said, “you are a gift.”

More than 200 friends, family members and community leaders gathered in the Mountain Park Clubhouse to celebrate Denton’s 90th birthday, the latest milestone in the life of a woman who has had an unprecedented impact on Lake Oswego.

She was the first female Royal Rosarian and one of the first three women admitted to the Lake Oswego Rotary Club. As the longtime executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, she was instrumental in developing programs that not only benefited local businesses but also groomed future leaders.

She helped found the Festival of the Arts, an iconic event that draws more than 20,000 people to Lake Oswego every summer. Despite retiring in 1996, she remains intimately involved in the cultural life of the city. And perhaps most impressively, her children and grandchildren have all continued her legacy of community service.

“These are her people, and it just really fills my heart that they’re here,” daughter Tris Denton said on Sunday. “It’s just a wonderful tribute to my mom, and I know it means a lot to her.”

Denton herself was at a loss for words.

“I don’t know what else to say,” she told her admirers after a standing ovation that lasted nearly five minutes, “but that it’s wonderful to see you all together.”

A fortuitous path

REVIEW PHOTO: J. BRIAN MONIHAN - More than 200 friends and family members attended Dee Denton's 90th birthday party Sunday, toasting a woman that Rorarian Bill Warner called 'a gift.'Dee Denton was born in New York in 1926 and met her husband there during World War II. The couple had two sons, Michael and Dennis, and moved to California in 1948, where Tris was born. In 1961, the family headed for the Pacific Northwest; after three months in Portland, a friend suggested they check out a place called Lake Oswego.

“We came on that one Sunday I’ll never forget,” Denton says. “I loved it — the trees, the small-town atmosphere. I came from a fairly small town in California, too. We loved it; it reminded us of Tahoe.”

Denton describes Lake Oswego at the time as a bedroom community. The city had just annexed Lake Grove, but still had a population of less than 10,000. Denton became an active PTA member and quickly began forming connections throughout the area, focusing for the first few years on her children’s activities — schools, Girl Scouts and sports teams.

“That’s what took all my time — going to ballgames, getting to know the community,” she says. “I only knew my neighbors across the street and that was it.”

But that quickly changed when Denton took on the role that would eventually make her a household name in Lake Oswego. In 1963, she became executive director of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and quickly got started on a variety of initiatives to help grow both the Chamber and the city.

“One of the things that really helped our success was that we had a business directory,” says Denton. “I listed everybody in Lake Oswego — if they did not want to be listed, they would tell me, but that was very few.”

Despite having a staff of only three or four people, Denton says she managed to compile the names of every business in the city by looking at business licenses, and she included all of them instead of soliciting fees for individual listings.

“That was one of the biggest accomplishments during my tenure,” she says. “That was a marketing tool for me, too. Other chambers couldn’t believe the stuff we did.”

Denton was involved in countless events and initiatives during her 33 years with the Chamber, which grew from 60 members to nearly 500 during her tenure. Numerous Lake Oswego traditions owe their genesis entirely or at least in part to her leadership — the holiday tree-lighting ceremony, the Santa Clause parade and the flower baskets that brighten streets throughout the city each spring, for example.

But Denton is perhaps best known for a tradition she created in her very first year with the Chamber: the Festival of the Arts.

“A community-wide event that (people) were proud of — that’s what I saw was lacking,” Denton says.

She proposed the event — known at the time as the Arts and Flowers Festival — as a new way to bring the community together. The idea was incredibly well received, and the festival has been held every year since, now attracting more than 20,000 art lovers to Lake Oswego every summer.

“Here I had something to give the community to be proud of,” Denton says. “Everybody volunteered — I mean they just came calling.”

REVIEW PHOTO: ANTHONY MACUK - Cecelia Ranger, former Provincial Superior of the Sisters of the Holy Names (left), sits with her long-time friend, Dee Denton. In her remarks Sunday, Ranger called Denton 'The Mother Superior of Lake Oswego.'

‘It takes a village’

Denton says the Chamber became deeply involved in the community and aware of its needs, throwing its support behind a variety of projects over the next several decades. Not all of them were popular ideas at the time, Denton says, but they have all been beneficial to the city.

“At the time, you always had people who were anti-everything,” she says, referring to public opposition to a plan for a new public library in the First Addition neighborhood. The construction of Kruse Way was also controversial, she says, because “people at first didn’t want to have a freeway going into town.” But the Chamber supported the decision to construct the new road as a way to bring more business into the city.

REVIEW PHOTO: J. BRIAN MONIHAN - A portrait of Dee Denton as a young woman greeted guests at the Mountain Park Clubhouse on Sunday.Locating the Mormon Temple in the Westlake neighborhood was “a very big challenge for our community to accept,” Denton says, but the Chamber supported that decision, too, because it would bring more visitors to the city.

“The Mormon Church development was a fabulous addition to our community,” she says.

Denton also made a consistent effort to reach out to other chambers, attending workshops every year with managers from around the country. “You get ideas from other chambers — what to do and what not to do,” she says.

One of those ideas would eventually give rise to a program called Leadership Lake Oswego. After witnessing the success of similar leadership groups in other cities, Denton brought the idea home and convinced the Chamber board to give it a shot.

“I’d heard about it from other chambers, how successful they were,” she says. “I made arrangements for the executive committee from Salem to come up and talk to our board.”

Denton counts Leadership Lake Oswego as one of the Chamber’s greatest successes, because of its ability to educate the public about the city, develop crucial skills and encourage people to become more active participants in the community.

“It’s a lot of planning, but ours has been very successful,” says Denton. “We have so much proof that it does work.”

Another fond memory, Denton says, is working on floats the city made for the Rose Parade in Portland. “That’s a forgotten thing, but we used to have six or seven floats,” she says.

One year, the Chamber couldn’t afford to build floats, so Denton sought the help of local high-schoolers. Armed with $5 coupon books for local businesses, student leaders divided up the city, coordinated teams in each area and raised enough money for the floats — which were then constructed with more help from kids in the community.

“None of this can be done alone,” she says of her many accomplishments. “It’s the result of many, many people and volunteers. I’ve got to emphasize that.” Using the flower baskets as an example, she adds, “I loved the idea, but it takes a village.”

Denton retired in 1996 after 33 years with the Chamber — according to a Review headline at the time, her retirement was dubbed “Dee Day” — but she remains an active member of the community today. She attends nearly every Monday meeting of the Lake Oswego Rotary Club, where the city’s movers and shakers still seek her advice. She’s an honorary member of the Lakewood Center board, and she continues to serve as an advisor on the Festival of the Arts board.

“We meet every other week,” she says, “for as long as I can.”

Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..