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Merlo thankful for many things

On Sports


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Harry Merlo is thankful for his active life and his contribution to professional tennis.The tennis world will pay homage to Harry Merlo Saturday night at Bellevue, Wash., when he is inducted into the USTA/PNW Hall of Fame. The man who turned Louisiana-Pacific Corp. into a Fortune 500 giant grows humble at the very idea.

“I think somebody else should have that place more than me,” Merlo says, sitting at his Merlo Corp. desk in Southeast Portland. “I feel guilty about getting this award. Not guilty enough to give it back, though.”

He chuckles. Merlo, 88, chuckles a lot these days.

“God has been good to me,” he says. “I’ve had a wonderful career. I’m a late octogenarian right now, trying to make the most of every day I have left. I can’t waste any time.

“It’s been a real wonderful trip, for sure.”

The still dapper Merlo has a full head of white hair, a black pencil mustache a la Clark Gable and a body that remains fit, his 170 pounds distributed over 6 feet — the same weight as when he won a light heavyweight boxing title while with the U.S. Marines nearly 70 years ago.

There are a lifetime of stories, too many of them to fit into a newspaper column. Some of them have to do with sports and tennis in particular, a game he didn’t come to until middle age.

“Hell, as a kid, I couldn’t afford a racquet,” Merlo says with a grin.

Merlo isn’t kidding. One of six children born to Italian immigrants and raised in a lumber yard in tiny Stirling City in northern California — “Dago Town,” he says, “on the wrong side of the tracks” — Harry is a rags-to-riches story. His father worked in a mine for a while, but his health was poor and work was irregular.

Harry’s mother ran a boarding house and sold wine that her husband made on the side.

“I’d get up in the morning and take care of 125 rabbits and 1,200 chickens,” Merlo says. “We did what we had to do to survive.”

Years ago, Merlo was honored at a banquet along with football star Herschel Walker.

“I told Herschel, ‘I was so poor when I was a kid, every Christmas, Dad would take me to the local graveyard and show me where Santa Claus was buried,’ ” Merlo says. “And Herschel said, ‘Harry, y’all were poor. But I was so poor when I was a kid, every morning my mother would take me down to Kentucky Fried Chicken to lick other people’s fingers.’ ”

From such humble beginnings, Merlo became a raging success as an advocate and as a businessman. After his Marine stint and earning a degree at the University of California-Berkeley, he owned and operated a number of lumber mills in Northern California until lured north by Georgia-Pacific impresario Robert Pamplin Sr.

“Greatest man I ever met,” Merlo says. “I loved that man. Bob was a great financial man. He kept bugging me to come aboard.”

In the early 1960s, Pamplin bought Merlo’s nine mills and brought him to Portland. In the early ‘70s, Merlo branched off from Georgia-Pacific and established Louisiana-Pacific.

As a means of bringing wider acclaim to his new company, Merlo bankrolled Brian Parrott’s small-sized tennis tournament in the 1970s and early ‘80s, which became the Louisiana-Pacific Invitational and brought to Portland such luminaries as Boris Becker, Roscoe Tanner, Guillermo Vilas and Ilie Nastase.

Thus begat L-P’s financial support that brought a pair of Davis Cup ties to Memorial Coliseum, with the company becoming the U.S. Davis Cup sponsor for three years in the mid-’80s.

It was during that time that Merlo made a grand statement about decorum in the sport after attending the Davis Cup finals at Sweden in 1984. The U.S. team featured bad boys Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.

During that tie, as Merlo writes in his autobiography, “Vintage Merlo,” Connors and McEnroe put on as much a show with their ugly deportment as with their tennis skills.

“I was embarrassed by their behavior,” Merlo writes. “Both shouted vulgarities at the umpire when they disagreed with line calls, and McEnroe generally acted like an ill-behaved 3-year-old — pouting, stomping on the floor, and throwing whatever he could find, including small fishing nets the young ball boys and girls used to retrieve tennis balls. As the CEO of the sponsor of the American team, I was embarrassed beyond words. I knew L-P stockholders ... would share my embarrassment.”

After meeting with Parrott and L-P executives, Merlo considered withdrawing from his three-year contract with the USTA. Instead, the USTA drafted a code of conduct that required a signature by all participating Davis Cup players.

In a note to Merlo, U.S. captain Arthur Ashe wrote, “a great deal of the fault ... is mine alone. I knew full well the down side of trying to pull together Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe on the same team at the same time. While some people, including quite a few in the USTA, thought I had pulled a coup, others said it would never work. In the end, the egos were just too strong, and years of self-centered lifestyles took precedence over a wholesome image. Some of our top players have been allowed to get away with so many things for so long that no one is going to change their habits.”

The code of conduct was approved by the USTA and went into effect in January 1985.

“Because of Harry’s stature and taking the position he did, it gave some spine to the

USTA,” says Parrott, who served as Merlo’s Davis Cup administrator during that period. The USTA “sent a copy of the code of conduct to the country’s top 30 players, asking them to sign. The only three who refused were McEnroe, Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis.”

Parrott says Merlo received more than 1,000 letters of thanks for his stance.

“To some degree, there was a turning point in behavior in the game,” says Parrott, who will present Merlo with his award Saturday night. “Today we have the likes of Roger

Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, all gentlemen as well as great players. (The code of conduct) was one of the things that helped bring sportsmanship back into tennis.”

Merlo and L-P later purchased the Portland Timbers of the North American Soccer League, and through his association with the team came into a friendship with Timbers star Clive Charles. When Charles took over as coach at the University of Portland, Merlo became a major benefactor. Today, the Pilots play on Harry Merlo Field. And the UP tennis squads play at the Louisiana-Pacific Tennis Center, courtesy of Merlo.

Merlo looks back on his long-running financial support of sports in Portland with pride.

“We had a lot of fun along the way,” he says, “and made a lot of people happy.”

Since splitting from L-P in 1995, Merlo has focused on his plethora of other business interests, including: the Harry Merlo Foundation; a Sonoma winery operated by his only child, Harry Jr.; logging operations in Eastern Oregon and Northern California; a ranch in eastern Oregon and Global Aviation out of the Hillsboro Airport.

“Phil Knight has two private planes in our hangar,” Merlo says. “He’s a multi-billionaire and owns a lot of Nike, but other people are there, too, and he doesn’t feel right about putting his planes at the Nike hangar.”

Nine years ago, the Merlo Corporation bought Portland Bottling Company out of bankruptcy.

“We made an investment, and it has just blossomed,” he says. “I have such wonderful people out there running it. We’re doing very well with it.”

Merlo continues to work five days a week. He lives in the house on Southwest Scholls Ferry Road he purchased in 1969 from Jack Meier — former president of Meier & Frank and son of former Oregon Gov. Julius Meier. There are 11 acres on the property, including seven acres of grapes fit for wine-making. There is a gym at the home, Merlo’s domain for a workout every evening.

“I hit a heavy bag 2,000 times, do 30 minutes of weights and 30 minutes on the bike,” he says.

There have been health issues of late. Merlo had knee replacement surgery in April, and recently learned he has cancerous tumors. One doctor recommended chemotherapy.

“But my primary doctor said chemo would be too stressful,” he says. “He says as long as they don’t grow, we’ll just watch them. When it’s time to treat them, there’ll be better stuff on the market.”

Mostly now, Merlo — a devout Catholic — thanks God for his time on the planet.

“Every day is wonderful,” he says. “I’ve had some great friends in my life.”

There are elk hunting expeditions to enjoy this month. There is work to do. There is a well-deserved award to accept Saturday night.

“I keep busy,” he says. “It’s been a charmed life.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers