JEFFREY MIZE, Columbian staff writer
December 28, 2004
George Propstra gets a hug from his great niece Ashley Cunlisk, 9, of Vancouver at the community square dedication at Esther Short Park. (Photo by Troy Wayrynen/The Columbian)
George Propstra, who made a small fortune as the founder of the Burgerville chain and spent the final 15 years of his life giving millions back to the community, died early Sunday. He was 90.
Propstra died at Southwest Washington Medical Center shortly before 1 a.m. He was admitted to the hospital Friday with pneumonia.
Carolyn Propstra said her husband had battled an assortment of medical problems for years.
"His heart, which was a really big heart, just wouldn't carry him another foot forward," she said.
For decades, Propstra was Clark County's most recognizable restaurateur as operator of The Holland in downtown Vancouver and the Burgerville chain. Propstra, with his distinctive gravely voice, emerged as Vancouver's leading philanthropist since retiring from business in 1992.
"Without the community, we would be zilch, without the dollars they have spent with me or I've coaxed them to spend," Propstra said in a 2001 interview at his home overlooking the Columbia River.
George and Carolyn Propstra donated more than $13 million to community causes, both big and small, through the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington. After Woodland was hammered by floodwaters in February 1996, the Propstras immediately stepped forward with a $12,000 contribution for flood relief.
His largest contributions were $5 million for the Jim Parsley Center, $3.2 million for the community square and bell tower in Esther Short Park, $2.2 million for the Propstra Aquatics Center at McLoughlin Middle School and $1.1 million for Propstra Stadium at Hudson's Bay High School.
"He came to the conclusion he couldn't take it with him," said Ed Firstenburg, founder of First Independent Bank. "I think he phrased it a little more delicately, that he wanted to do something while he was still alive."
Propstra's family operated The Holland since before the Great Depression. After decades selling Holland pies and Colossal burgers, Propstra wanted to put his money to work in the community.
"It's fun to make money, but it's nice to use it," he said in 2001. "To just put it in and hoard it away, that's not what it's all about."
Paul Christensen, a Vancouver businessman who founded the Hough Foundation to boost the neighborhood where he attended elementary school in the 1940s, said Propstra set an example.
"It was because of him that I was motivated to turn myself to the needs of the community," said Christensen, who has spearheaded million-dollar charitable projects. "Tremendous, tremendous guy. I loved that man. Totally unselfish. You don't get citizens better than George for any community. I get a lump in my throat saying that."
When Propstra committed himself to a project there was no hesitation or second-guessing. His $3.2 million contribution to a community square in Esther Short Park helped transform the former transient haven into the heart of a revitalized downtown.
"First-class guy," said Ed Lynch, a Vancouver businessman who worked with Propstra on Esther Short Park. "And when he did something, he did it right."
Propstra remained a modest man. When he learned of plans to rename downtown's Sixth Street "Propstra Boulevard" in his honor, he called Mayor Royce Pollard and quashed the plan. Propstra worried about the costs of companies having to print up new business cards and stationery and government having to install new street signs.
"It really wasn't my cup of tea," he explained later. "My name ain't Martin Luther King."
Propstra dealt with tragedy in his personal life. Kenny, one of three children Propstra had with his first wife, Margaret, died of cancer at age 20. Margaret, whom Propstra married in 1938, died in 1990.
Butter and ice cream
Propstra, a Chicago native, came to Clark County as a small child. His father, a Dutch immigrant, opened several creameries. Propstra, one of three boys in the family, took over his father's butter and ice cream business in 1940.
During the five decades in which he built a restaurant empire, Propstra opened and operated 32 Burgerville and three Holland restaurants in Southwest Washington and Oregon.
He had a reputation as a no-nonsense businessman with an eye for details who worked long hours and emphasized customer service. He could be a demanding boss, but he also would bend over backward to help his workers.
"He was a great guy," said Minnie Proctor, who met Propstra as a 15-year-old waitress at The Holland in 1945. "Got right in there and worked with the rest."
"He was the first guy there in the morning and the last guy out in the evening," Lynch said. "He really tended to business."
Carolyn Propstra, who ran The Holland's business office for 25 years and married Propstra in 1992, said her husband's reputation as a hard-nosed businessman wasn't deserved.
"In business, people used to say he was kind of a bear," she said. "I always would say those were the people who weren't doing their jobs."
Propstra seemed to have an innate sense of what his customers wanted. Christensen said he once asked Propstra why he didn't serve more healthful foods, such as fish and vegetables, at his restaurants.
"He said, 'Paul, you will never separate the American eater from his fat,'" Christensen said.
At age 50, Propstra took up flying, both planes and later helicopters. Freeman Keller, a close friend of Propstra for than a half-century, said he and Propstra frequently would fly somewhere for lunch or to inspect a Burgerville under construction.
"He furnished the plane and the gas, and I bought the lunch," Keller said. "With his income and mine, that was the way it should be, always 50-50."
Propstra and Keller were both members of "The Liars Club," a group of longtime Vancouver businessmen who meet at Chronis' Restaurant & Lounge to swap stories and enjoy each other's company.
During the past year, Propstra purchased Vancouver Food Center, at 12th and Main streets, with the intention of building a bakery there. Firstenburg said Propstra's friends gave him a hard time about his plans.
"He finally said, 'Well, I just have to have something to do. I just can't sit around and do nothing,'" Firstenburg said.
Carolyn Propstra concurred.
"Even when he couldn't walk, he always had to be going," she said. "It was amazing. I would always say if his legs could go as fast as his mind was going, we probably would all be in trouble."
In recent years, Propstra battled a series of strokes and other medical problems that robbed his body of some of its vigor, but his mind remained sharp and his sense of humor robust.
On warm summer days, he could be seen using a scooter to maneuver through Esther Short Park. Propstra gave millions to build the park's Salmon Run Bell Tower and fountain.
Nancy Hales, executive director of the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, said Propstra celebrated his 90th birthday in the park last June and frequently went to the Vancouver Farmers Market or other events in or near the park.
"And sure enough, if the flowers weren't blooming to his satisfaction, I would hear about it on Monday," she said.
Propstra always was direct and focused during their numerous conversations about his charitable work, but he was never harsh, Hales said.
"And he would always end by, 'OK, what do you need to make this happen?'" she said.
"He never stopped looking for things to do, he never stopped giving to the community," she said. "Just two weeks ago, he was complaining there was too much white powder on the bell tower and I better get right on that. And I'm going to."
Hales' voice cracked with emotion as she talked about the man who had been one of her organization's biggest contributors, as well as a personal friend.
"I love him so much," she said. "My dad's name is George, too. I remember when he and my dad first met. He said, 'I want you to know that I'm Nancy's West Coast dad.'"
A legacy of Giving
* Jim Parsley Center: $5 million
* Esther Short community square and bell tower: $3.2 million
* Propstra Aquatics Center at McLoughlin Middle School: $2.2 million
* Propstra Stadium at Hudson's Bay High School: $1.1 million
Other projects that received smaller contributions include:
* Festival of Trees Christmas tree lighting
* Friends of Vancouver Symphony
* Fort Vancouver fireworks display
* 1996 Woodland flood relief
* Washington State School for the Blind
* Salvation Army
* Friends of the Carpenter
* LaPhare Community Help Center
* Open House Ministries
* Share Inc.
* I Have A Dream Foundation (class of 1999)
* Healthy Steps Clinic at Southwest Washington Medical Center (for low income women & children)
* Hospital Rehabilitation Unit at Southwest Washington Medical Center