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James B. Thayer

September 16, 2018, in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

A Reed trustee for 19 years, James lived an extraordinary life as a military hero, successful businessman, and renowned civic leader. 

Born to parents who divorced when he was four, Jim was raised by his maternal grandparents on a farm in Carlton, Oregon. He edited the high school newspaper and won a scholarship at the University of Oregon, but his education was cut short following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Jim joined the army, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and was assigned to a front-line antitank company in the 71st Infantry Division. He arrived in Le Havre, France, in February 1945 with the Germans in retreat. As platoon commander, Jim led his unit across France and into Germany, clearing minefields along the Maginot Line. In April, his platoon engaged an SS regiment occupying the Austrian town of Hörbach.

“Their battalion commander told me he wasn’t allowed to surrender unless he killed me and killed himself too,” Jim said. “It was tough. I thought I was going to die.”

With the help of a sergeant who spoke German, Jim kept the commander talking long enough for his battalion to advance from the rear and defuse the situation. Days later, his platoon was hunting for German ammunition dumps near Wels, Austria, when they came upon dead, dying, and emaciated people lining a remote forest road. Nearing the end of the road, they were overwhelmed by the smell of the Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp, part of the Mauthausen-Gusen complex.

“Of all the horrors of the place, the smell, perhaps, was the most startling of all,” wrote Captain J. D. Pletcher of the 71st. “It was a smell made up of all kinds of odors... all mixed together in a heavy dank atmosphere, in a thick, muddy woods, where little breeze would go.  The ground was pulpy throughout the camp, churned to a consistency of warm putty by the milling of thousands of feet, mud mixed with feces and urine. The smell of Gunskirchen nauseated many of the Americans who went there. It was a smell I’ll never forget, completely different from anything I’ve ever encountered. It could almost be seen and hung over the camp like a fog of death.”

Liberating the camp, Jim and his men saved the lives of more than 15,000 Hungarian Jewish refugees. He received both the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for his service in the U.S. Army during World War II. Years later, Jim was at the airport in Vienna when a Jewish man identified him and said he was 14 when the Americans arrived at Gunskirchen. He told Jim he would have been dead if they had come 24 hours later. 

“That changed my life,” Jim said.

Jim returned to the University of Oregon after the war and graduated in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He met his future wife, Patricia Cunningham, in The Dalles; they were married in 1954 and settled in Beaverton. In addition to starting a family, together they founded the J. Thayer Company, selling office products, furniture, stationery and fine gifts. The store won the Geyer Award as the top small retailer in America.

Jim served as president of the Oregon Historical Society, the Port of Portland Commission, and the Beaverton Chamber of Commerce. He chaired the Tuality Community Hospital board and Gov. Vic Atiyeh’s Lower Columbia River Task Force. In addition to sitting on Reed’s board of trustees, he served on the boards of GTE Northwest, the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and Technology, the Knappton Corp., the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission, the Evergreen Aviation Museum, Boys & Girls Aid of Portland, and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

Retiring from the U.S. Army Reserves as a full colonel in 1982, he was promoted to brigadier general and commander of the Oregon State Defense Force and became Oregon’s Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army.

After 50 years in Beaverton, Jim and Pat sold their home in 2008 and moved to the Stafford Retirement Community in Lake Oswego to enjoy a simpler lifestyle together. Patricia passed in 2014 and Jim had a heart attack two days later. At the age of 96, Jim passed away peacefully with his family at his side. He is survived by his sons, Jim, John, Tommy, and Mike. Tommy, who is lead guitarist in the rock band Kiss, said of his father, “First and foremost, he was a great family man and great father, but had a great military, business, and civilian career. He liked to help people and organizations that needed help.”

When it opens in 2020, the Brigadier General James B. Thayer Oregon Military Museum at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas will be a fitting tribute to him. The $20 million museum and historic park will honor all Oregon veterans and citizen soldiers past, present, and future.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2018

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