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Remembering R.P. “Dick” Wollenberg

By Randall S. Barton on July 14, 2014 03:12 PM

Dick Wollenberg

Longtime Reed trustee Dick Wollenberg loved to play the saxophone. He also played a key role in overseeing Reed's financial management. “It is not an exaggeration to say that without his involvement, leadership, and generosity, Reed College might not have survived,” said former president Steven Koblik.

Emeritus Trustee Richard P. “Dick” Wollenberg died at his home in Longview, Washington, on July 2, 2014. He was 98.

“The Reed College community lost a great friend and benefactor,” says President John R. Kroger. “Through his generosity and leadership, he helped build the college into what it is today.”

Wollenberg served four decades on the Reed College board of trustees (1962–2005), inlcuding nine years as board chairman (1982–91).

He also chaired the board’s budget policy committee from its inception in 1992 until 2004. Projects launched with his support include the establishment of the president’s discretionary fund, the endowment of a professorship in economics in honor of professor George A. Hay [economics 1956–83], and the completion of several major science facilities projects.

Wollenberg’s influence ran deeper than any particular project, however. When he joined the board in 1962, the endowment was almost nonexistent. By 1972, it had reached $3 million, and by the time he left the board in 2005, the endowment was valued at $350 million. Today it is $538 million.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that without his involvement, leadership, and generosity, Reed College might not have survived,” says Steven S. Koblik, former president and trustee emeritus [1991­–2001]. “Dick Wollenberg deserves to stand in the first rank of individuals whom the College honors.”

Born August 1, 1915, in Juneau, Alaska, Wollenberg studied engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and received an MBA from Harvard in 1938. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force as a lieutenant colonel during World War II.

His name became synonymous with Longview Fibre, the company his father H.L. Wollenberg cofounded in 1926. Dick Wollenberg took the reins nearly 40 years after he began working at the company, becoming CEO and chairman of the board.

Stephen McCarthy ’66, emeritus trustee and founder of Clear Creek Distillery, recalls traveling to the facility in Longview to get advice from Wollenberg when they were on the board together.

“It was like driving into industrial Liege, Belgium, in 1930,” McCarthy says. “It was a huge factory; Dick said it was the largest pulp mill in the world under one roof. We ate lunch in the cafeteria with the people who worked at the mill. When you went to lunch with Dick Wollenberg you got in line at the cafeteria, went through the line, paid $1.15 for your lunch, and sat down with him at a table to have your conversation. He was a very real guy, very smart and charming personally. But if you had some topic to discuss with him, you’d better have done your homework.”

Wollenberg was one of a handful of successful young businessmen and entrepreneurs former Reed president Richard Sullivan [1956–67] selected to serve on the board because they understood how to make decisions and strategize.

“Reed got the best years of an unusually talented group of people like Dick Wollenberg, Ed Cooley, and John Gray,” McCarthy says. “Sullivan had a magic touch in picking people who would grow to dominate the state economically.”

For his first Reed trustee meeting, Wollenberg came to campus a day early, attending classes in economics, science and math—all areas he knew something about.

"I wanted to get a feel for the place,” Wollenberg said of the institution he would come to call “one of the premiere intellectual institutions in the United States.”

“He was a terrific force for long-run financial stability at a time when Reed didn’t have much to work with,” McCarthy says of the man who often referred to himself as “the abominable ‘no’ man.”  He was the one who often said, “No we can’t do this. We can’t afford it. How are you going to pay for it?’” McCarthy remembers.

Politically conservative, Wollenberg liked to quote Disraeli: “If a young man isn’t a liberal, I’d have his heart examined, and if after he matured he still was a liberal, I’d have his head examined.” He described himself as a fiscal conservative, but still very much a libertarian with a strong belief in freedom of choice, and saw no contradiction in his support for Reed.

“Academically Reed is very conservative,” says his son, R.H. “Rick” Wollenberg ’75, former president, CEO, and chairman of the board of Longview Fibre, and a Reed trustee since 1997. “He believed in people learning to think critically, which is what Reed is all about.”

Trustee Peggy Hill Noto ’75, whose term on the board overlapped with Dick Wollenberg’s, singles out his determination that the board maintain its oversight role without getting involved in the day-to-day business of the college, leaving the president and other administrators to do their job.

“He was a big-picture guy,” she says, “and a true believer in the liberal arts educating people to be creative thinkers and analysts, which he saw as valuable in the business world.”

A strong supporter of Reed’s mission, Wollenberg felt it was important that the Pacific Northwest have an institution of Reed’s caliber.

“Dick believed in higher education, and the higher quality the better,” says McCarthy. “He liked Reed’s independence, the freedom to make inquiry, but he also liked its rigor. Whether it was history or physics, it was extremely rigorous, very demanding, and rather classical. He saw that it represented excellence.”

Reed has welcomed opportunities to celebrate Wollenberg and his wife, Lee. In 1998, Reed recognized Wollenberg’s long service and generous support for the college and lifelong love for music by establishing the R.P. Wollenberg Chair in Music, a position now occupied by the prominent composer and professor David Schiff [music 1980–].

“You think of Longview Fibre, and the conservative businessman,” says Noto, “yet Dick played musical instruments and his whole family played in the Longview orchestra. There was a side of him that really appreciated culture, and particularly music.”

A resolution in 2005 honored Wollenberg’s extraordinary generosity and service to Reed’s board of trustees noting: “It is difficult to overstate the importance of Dick’s role in Reed’s accomplishments over the last four decades. Certainly, the college’s current financial stability grew from his fiscal leadership and his and Lee’s magnanimous philanthropy.” In 2006, the board approved a recommendation from the faculty for conferral of an honorary degree from Reed—a rare occurrence.

One of the most influential regional business leaders and philanthropists of his generation, along with his late wife, Lee, Wollenberg donated generously to local nonprofit and public service groups and schools. Over the years, the Wollenbergs gave nearly $22 million to Reed, most of it without designation in keeping with his stance against “micro-management.”

“When you’re giving your time or your money you say, ‘What’s the best thing I can do for society?’” Wollenberg said. “The future of America is dependent on getting the best people to contribute to society, and Reed has a tremendous reputation for preparing individuals who go on to make notable contributions in many fields. Reed College is important, and so I give it a lot of time and attention and support.”,

Survivors include his daughter Carol, and sons Rick, David, and Keith. His son Ken passed away in 2005. A memorial service in Dick’s memory will be held from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 20, in the auditorium and lobby of the Rose Center at Lower Columbia College, 1600 Maple Street, in Longview, Washington.