Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly." -- Touchstone
When the teenaged Carlo Piacentini stepped off of the S.S. France at New York on August 16, 1913, he was on his way to join his brother Angelo in Portland. A decade later, working in Portland as a stonemason and laborer, he proposed marriage to Margaret Colistro (1904-1999). She turned him down because he didn't own his own home. In 1926 he bought a small house on SE 42nd Avenue north of Division Street, and a month or two later they were married. They lived there the rest of their lives. Along the way they had three sons, naming one for family (Carl, in 1928), one for the church (John Baptist, in 1930) and one for the state (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born on his namesake's 52nd birthday, in 1934). Carlo had little formal education, and wanted more for his children. He and Margaret sent each to college, and to different parts of the American dream: one in public education, one in business, and one in the professions. Carl taught in the public schools (universal free public education was one of the forces behind the American dream), becoming a Portland school principal. John worked his way up to become a Safeway store manager before he was 30, then went into business for himself, starting the Plaid Pantry chain of convenience stores. (His mother worked there as a bookkeeper well into her 80s.) Frank went to dental school, earned a graduate degree in orthodontics, and became one of the city's two leading orthodontists as well as a prominent real estate developer. All three sons also offered themselves to community service: Carl on the school board and Portland planning commission, and as an unsuccessful candidate for the city council; John as an early proponent of Oregon's bottle bill and (more quirkily) as the Republican nominee against Robert B. Duncan for the heavily Democratic seat now held by Earl Blumenauer; and Frank as a board member and volunteer for St. Mary's Academy, St. Vincent Hospital, and the Portland Japanese Garden.
John Piacentini died in 1988, a few months after he sold the Plaid Pantry chain to a group of venture capitalists. Carl Piacentini, already ill himself when John died, succumbed a few months later. This past Tuesday, the legacy of Carlo Piacentini's American dream closed when Frank Piacentini died, ninety-eight years to the day after his father set foot on Ellis Island.
Richard Inukai didn't talk much about his experiences in the two years he spent in a federal prison, mainly because he didn't remember much about those two years, for they started in 1943 when he was born in Minidoka, Idaho.Tule Lake, California. His parents, residents of Hood River, were among the tens of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent uprooted when they were ordered by the federal government in 1942 to leave their homes in Washington, Oregon, and California and spend the rest of World War II in confinement. Tule Lake was not called a prison, of course; its official name was the unassuming "Tule Lake War Relocation Center," a pleasant euphemism that made no difference to the men, women, and children confined there. The Supreme Court, in the Korematsu and Hirabayashi cases, had held that the constitution did not prohibit imposing special curfews on, and then relocating and imprisoning, United States citizens in wartime, including Richard Inukai and other newborns, strictly because of their race.
After the war his parents made their way back to Oregon, and then to Portland, where his father, Tom Inukai, operated a service station. Richard Inukai, who died the morning of July 3, absorbed his father's work ethic -- Tom Inukai often worked seven days a week -- but after serving four years in the Marine Corps Reserve he went into a different part of the car business, first in the Ron Tonkin organization, where he rose to be the manager of Ron Tonkin Gran Turismo, then in the early 1970s as the operator of a used-car lot on 82nd Avenue, and later in that decade as the owner of Dick's Country Dodge in Hillsboro. Over the years he added Ford, Chrysler, and Jeep franchises, also in Hillsboro, operating under the common name of Dick's Auto Group.
On the rare occasions that Mr. Inukai talked about the war years, he sometimes showed his anger, not for himself but for the other children locked in the camps. That anger may have led him to become a generous contributor to the Boys and Girls Clubs, and to lead the funding of the near-tripling of the Hillsboro club, now named the Inukai Family Club. It's not named after him, at least not exactly; and I suspect that in his own mind he thought of it as being named after his parents, so that they could, by proxy, give to the children of Hillsboro something that the United States government kept them from giving to their own.
In 1918, when Roger Ash was born in Elk City, Oklahoma, his native state was still a place where people went to, rather than from. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl changed that when his father's oil distribution business failed. By 1930 they were living on a farm in Washita County. A few years later his parents packed the family and headed west to California, where they settled in Pomona.
The Ash family arrived to California's rich mix of agriculture in its valleys, technology in its airplane factories, and diversion in its motion pictures, a heady combination for the people who came there in search of the American dream.
Roger Ash's older brother went to work in a Los Angeles aircraft factory. Roger himself, who died in Portland last week, found his particular slice of the American dream as an auctioneer, starting as an employee of Milton Wershow (1910-1980), who had married Roger's sister. Mr. Wershow (who deserves a post of his own for his connections to one of the Beach Boys, the Sportsways brand of diving gear, a famous gold mine, and Bob Hope) had come from Michigan to California, where he established his auctioneering firm, Milton J. Wershow & Co. (later Wershow-Ash-Lewis Auctioneers), becoming prominent in industrial auctions first in California, then along the west coast, then then eastward as far as South Carolina.
Mr. Ash also developed a special expertise in auctioning sawmills, for which he traveled to so many small towns that he bought an airplane (he had learned to fly in college). He gave up his license in his mid-sixties, telling friends that he didn't want to discover the hard way that he'd lost his flying touch.
On one of his trips to Oregon nearly fifty years ago he came across a struggling mobile home park in Wilsonville that the developer needed to sell. He bought the park, upgraded it,and made it a sort of gem in the mobile home park industry, with so many trees that it was one of the few for which the word "park" was an accurate description. The park, called Thunderbird, was rural when it opened, but the city has grown up around it. A few years ago the demand for industrial land was so high that Mr. Ash announced that he would close the park and offer the land for sale for redevelopment. A court battle between Mr. Ash and the City of Wilsonville ensued (and is still going on), the residents left, the land became vacant, and the market for industrial land evaporated. Today the park looks as if the residents abandoned it for greener pastures, rather like the farms that Oklahomans abandoned eighty years ago when they went to California to search for their pieces of the American dream.