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A Steady Hand at a Critical Moment

Don C. Frisbee, Trustee

Long a leading light in Portland’s business and civic circles, Don Frisbee served as CEO of Pacific Power & Light (later PacifiCorp) for 17 years and chairman of its board of directors for a further 21 years. His significance to Reed, however, stems from his influence on the board of trustees in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the college suffered from internal strife. 

“Don Frisbee was a critical bridge in the course of the college’s history,” said former President Steven Koblik [1992–2001]. “He was a key player in the transition that took place in the ’90s at Reed.”

Reed went through a difficult stretch after the retirement of President Paul Bragdon [1971–88]. The campus was beset by a series of divisive policy and employment issues. President Jim Powell [1988–91] clashed with the faculty and departed after three years. The recession of 1990 wrought havoc with the college’s finances. “The campus mood was dour, the faculty were angry, the students were frustrated and left in droves,” said Koblik.

Frisbee, who became chairman of the board in 1991, was a rock of stability during this period. He enjoyed unusual insight into the often-difficult relationship between boards and presidents, perhaps from his own experience as CEO. He provided steady leadership but never tried to micromanage. “No president is successful without a partner on the board of trustees,” says Koblik. “Don knew that the board needed to protect and to affirm a president’s ability to get a job done.” By the time he stepped down as chairman, Reed had weathered the storm and its finances were substantially stronger.

Frisbee graduated from Beverly Hills High School and served in the U.S. Air Corps meteorological program in 1943–46. He completed his undergraduate work at Pomona College and married classmate Emilie R. Ford in 1947. After he earned an MBA from Harvard, the couple moved to Portland, where he worked as an investment analyst for First Interstate Bank of Oregon in 1949–53, and then for Brown Electro-Measurement (Electro Scientific Industries). A year later, he joined the local utility Pacific Power & Light (PacifiCorp) as assistant treasurer, advancing to vice president, CEO, and chairman during a time of great expansion for the company. In 1991, the Oregon Business poll of readers and community leaders named him the business community’s service leader of the decade.

Frisbee steadfastly served the cause of higher education as trustee, chairman, director, and member of many educational institutions, including the Oregon Independent College Foundation, Oregon Health & Science University, the Oregon Partnership for International Education, Portland State University, and Whitman College. He chaired the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education in the Portland metropolitan area. With his daughter-in-law, Denise, he also founded and operated the Statewide Organization for Schools.

He volunteered with dozens of organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America, the Cascade Center for International Business and Policy, the Children’s Museum, the City Club, the Clatsop County Historical Society, the Greater Portland Trust in Higher Education, the High Desert Museum, the OHSU Foundation, Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Oregon Trail Project, the United Way, the Oregon Zoo, the World Affairs Council, and the YMCA. He was instrumental in the creation and growth of the Oregon Leadership Forum.

“He cared deeply about the civic infrastructure, how to encourage and empower individuals to make a difference the way that he, himself, had,” notes the Congressional Record of July 13, 2015. 

Success is attributed to many factors, including natural inclinations, luck, and a sensitivity to people, Don remarked. “In each one of us there’s a need for a sense of satisfaction, a sense of worth. An organization can do the unusual, or by some standards the impossible, if it can constructively take advantage of that desire in people.”

Don and Emilie established the Don C. and Emilie Frisbee Scholarship in 1986. They raised three sons and one daughter. The family enjoyed hiking, camping, and spending time at their ranch in Sisters, Oregon. Don excelled at trail riding, tennis, handball, racquetball, and body surfing. With Emilie, he traveled around the world, often returning to Mexico and Italy. Emilie died in 2003, and Don later met musician Betty Perkins, whom he married in 2014.

“Don was a wonderful father, grandfather, husband, friend, and mentor,” says his family. “He was curious about life and people, engaging in conversations with everyone he met. He was interested in his children and grandchildren’s lives and activities, always asking questions and supporting their choices. He will be deeply missed.”

Survivors include Betty; children Robert, Ann, Peter, and Dean; and four grandchildren.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2015

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