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Stephen R. McCarthy ’66, Trustee

January 2, 2023, in Portland, from Parkinson’s disease.

Steve was often described as the perfect Reedie. Serial entrepreneur, outdoorsman, lover of art, savvy marketer, perfectionist, passionate advocate, he captured the restless quest for excellence, knowledge, and the well-lived life that motivates so many students at Reed.

A second-generation Reedie, his service to the college began as a student when he was elected student body president. It continued as an alumni board member from 1971–72 and led to his appointment to the board of trustees, where he served with distinction for 21 years. As a trustee, Steve contributed greatly to the health of the college.

“In his many-faceted work to change the world for the better, Steve’s leadership of two presidential searches stands out,” said Hugh Porter, vice president for college relations and planning, referring to the appointments of Reed Presidents Steven Koblik [1992–2001] and Colin Diver [2002–12]. “Steve would do anything to find the right president for Reed College. He understood the daunting challenges of the college’s precarious finances and distributed governance structure—and firmly believed it was a great job. He approached the job like a mountaineer, indefatigable and adaptable. A favorite story of his was jumping out of a shower to speak with Apple CEO Steve Jobs about his extensive thoughts on the Reed presidency.”

Serving as vice-chairman of the board from 1998 to 2005, Steve helped identify and recruit 24 new trustees and provided wise and energetic leadership on the trusteeship committee—including three years as its chair. He also played an important role on the development committee. In 2002, Steve was presented with the college’s highest recognition for its volunteers, the Jean Babson Award.

He was the eldest of four boys born to Kate Rogers McCarthy ’39 and Gerald McCarthy, who worked in the orchard business and then as manager of Umpqua Plywood in Roseburg. The family moved several times in the ’40s and ’50s. Steve began school in Tacoma, Washington, and graduated from high school in Roseburg, Oregon. He remembered Roseburg as an “isolated, claustrophobic small town,” but during his senior year in high school, Kate took her children to Grenoble, France, so they could take classes at a local university and drink in the culture. In Steve, it ignited a perception of the richness of the European lifestyle. After returning to Roseburg, he was accepted at both Reed and Stanford, but chose Reed because it seemed to offer rigor, intellectual freedom, and independence.

He majored in political science, took courses in biology, and, until he moved off the campus the second semester of his sophomore year, he did well. At that point Steve began to lose interest in his studies and became obsessed with the notion of mountain climbing. A summer job doing biological research in Alaska provided him with the money to travel to Kathmandu with Gary Payne ’65 and David Wyatt, a friend of his from Roseburg. While they were descending from a mountain in the high Himalayas, Wyatt fell to his death. Steve was devastated.

He hiked out of Kathmandu, took a steamer to Marseilles, and worked at a hotel in Geneva. Eventually he took a steamship from London to New York, hitchhiked across the country, and arrived back at Roseburg in March of ’64, deeply affected by Wyatt’s death. The Vietnam War was heating up, and because at the time undergraduate college enrollment was an automatic deferment, the woman who ran the local draft board encouraged him to enroll immediately at the University of Oregon. He started at the U of O in the spring of 1964, but that fall returned to Reed. He was immediately aware that the place had changed. There were more students, and the civil rights, antiwar, and sexual liberation movements were in full swing. Drugs were also sweeping up the coast.

“Many of the things I had taken for granted the first two years I was there—the sort of mellowness of the place, the seriousness of our interest in academics, the kind of charitable, kindly atmosphere of an undergraduate school . . . seemed to acquire a terrible edge in that second two-year period,” Steve remembered. “I had a sort of meltdown experience.”

The following summer, he began working on his thesis, “Two Innovations in Oregon State Government,” advised by Prof. Richard Frost [political science 1960­–69]. Planning to use his thesis as a springboard into the Oregon political scene, he scraped together enough money to get an apartment in Salem and begin research. He also got involved in the gubernatorial campaign of crusading journalist Tom McCall.

Steve went on to earn a law degree from New York University and then practiced law for three years. He was hired as executive director for the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) until 1974, when he joined TriMet, Portland’s public transportation agency, where he served as assistant manager and acting general manager. From 1979 to 1987, he was president of Michaels of Oregon, a family-owned manufacturer of hunting and shooting accessories.

He married Lucinda Parker ’66, a Boston native who studied at New York’s Pratt Institute and at Reed. Lucinda has achieved great success as an artist. Her works hang in the Hallie Ford Museum at Willamette University, the Seattle Art Museum, Portland City Hall, the Oregon Convention Center, Reed’s Performing Arts Building, the performing arts center at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington, and the federal courthouse in Bakersfield, California, among others.

As an adult traveling in Europe, Steve developed an appreciation for the fruit brandies produced in Germany, France, and Switzerland. “It was a matter of great interest to me why the Americans couldn’t make these wonderful true-fruit brandies,” he said. “I’d go to Europe and buy a bottle and bring it back with me and six months later it would be gone. I’d go to the local liquor store to try to find some and it didn’t exist. Nobody knew what I was talking about.”

Eau de vie—what the Germans call schnapps—is a brandy made from pure fermented fruit, which is distilled. There is nothing in the product that wasn’t growing on the tree. It is the most authentic way to make brandy, but alas, also the most expensive and slowest. Steve described pear eau de vie as “a condensed mist of pear.”

He decided to produce his own and began studying with people at distilleries in Germany, France, and Switzerland. He picked up a few tricks of the trade in Europe, but ended up learning more through trial and error. Perhaps the key thing he learned was to concentrate on what’s nearby.

“Eventually I came to appreciate that the people I met ate and drank only what they grew,” he said, “what they had. Their genius was taking whatever they could grow and making something wonderful out of it.” Returning to Oregon, he started with one of the things the state grows best—fruit.

In 1985, he opened Clear Creek Distillery in Northwest Portland, producing eau de vie made from Bartlett pears grown in his family-owned orchards. It took 30 pounds of pears to produce one 750-ml bottle of pear eau de vie. The New York Times spirits critic said it might be the best brandy ever made in the United States.

It was slow going at first, making small batches and rejecting a lot of what was made. The first two years, Steve worked at the distillery on nights and weekends while running his other business, a hunting and shooting equipment company. After selling that business in 1987, he began distilling full time. He spent long hours on the road, trying to win over distributors, retailers, and restaurants, which he called “a humbling, real-world experience.”

Within years, Clear Creek Distillery added apple brandy from Golden Delicious apples grown in Hood River and aged in old Limousin oak cognac barrels; framboise fermented from Sauvie Island raspberries; kirschwasser from cherries grown in the Hood River valley or The Dalles; and slivovitz from Forest Grove blue plums. They would also produce Italian-style grappas, a single-malt whiskey, and unaged grape brandy that Steve sold to vintners to fortify such wines as port.

“Stephen is one of the two or three best distillers in America,” wrote F. Paul Pacult, editor and managing director of the Spirit Journal newsletter, which went to 20 million readers worldwide. “He shows incredible attention to detail. He has passion.”

In 2014, Steve sold Clear Creek Distillery to Hood River Distillers, Inc.

Steve joined the board of trustees at Reed in 1988. His first board meeting was President Paul Bragdon’s last. Steve believed that Bragdon’s presidency had essentially saved Reed College at a time it was teetering toward insolvency. But there were still many issues to be resolved, beginning with the low rate of student retention.

“We were living with a situation where over half the people that came to Reed left,” he said. “And we had developed a rather elaborate ideology that said ‘That’s OK.’ My 20 years on the board of trustees have been an effort to turn that all around.”

Shortly after joining the board, he was asked to co chair a drug and alcohol task force by Reed President James Powell [1988–91]. Steve also worked to improve the quality of student life, including improving the food that was served in Commons. He and Lucinda were especially supportive of the Gray Campus Center, a challenging project that dramatically improved Reed’s facilities for student life and music performance. They also founded the Stephen R. McCarthy ’66 and Lucinda Parker McCarthy ’66 Scholarship.

Steve and Lucinda supported the college through special gifts to Reed’s major fundraising campaigns and with very generous unrestricted support to the Annual Fund. Steve worked hard to recruit other alumni to the college’s cause, particularly as chair of the Annual Fund and as a member of the campaign committee for Reed’s second major fundraising campaign, which concluded in October 2000, having raised over $112 million. During the development office’s formative years, Steve was a sounding board for managers and helpful in welcoming and mentoring new staff. In honor of this work, Steve received the college’s development recognition award in 1999.

When President Koblik was leaving campus, he thanked Steve for his important leadership on so many fronts and especially for his engagement with Reed in Portland and support for local college events.

Steve provided important leadership for many other organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, the Columbia River Gorge Commission, earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (formerly Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund), and 1000 Friends of Oregon. 

He is survived by his wife, Lucinda Parker-McCarthy; his daughter, Abigail McCarthy; and his brothers, Timothy, Kermit, and Michael.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2023

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