Former Philanthropist of the Year Lematta dies

Wes Lematta, 82, was a pioneer in helicopter industry

By Craig Brown, Columbian metro editor

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One of Southwest Washington’s most successful businessmen and generous philanthropists, Wes Lematta, died Christmas Eve at age 82.

Lematta was a pioneer of the commercial heavy-lift helicopter business, and grew his fortune along with other 20th-century Oregon tycoons such as tire magnate Les Schwab and salad king Al Reser. The Lematta family business, Aurora, Ore.-based Columbia Helicopters, employs more than 600 people worldwide.

Wes Lematta and his wife, Nancy, gave millions to charitable causes, such as the “I Have a Dream” scholarship program for students at disadvantaged Vancouver schools. In 2008, the Lemattas were named Philanthropists of the Year by the Community Foundation, a Vancouver-based charitable organization.

Lematta died Thursday afternoon of complications of cancer, said Dan Sweet, a spokesman for Columbia Helicopters. Lematta had battled the disease off-and-on after contracting bladder cancer 25 years ago. Details on a memorial service should be announced next week.

The family’s charitable giving started decades ago with a $2.50 donation to the heart fund, the Lemattas recalled in 2008. As the helicopter business grew in magnitude, so did their charity:

• $3 million to Providence Cancer Center in Portland, which operates a research laboratory in their family’s name. The Lemattas lost a daughter, Jill, to cancer in 2005.

• $1 million to the Oregon State University College of Forestry to endow a Lematta Professor of Forest Engineering.

• At least $200,000 to the “I Have a Dream” program that provided years of counseling and support, and ultimately college educations, to entire classes of children at local elementary schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

• Countless more donations to the Humane Society for Southwest Washington, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington, and many other groups.

The Lemattas, who have lived in the Vancouver area for more than 20 years, were also faithful donors to Republican political candidates and causes.

Glenn Wesley Lematta never advanced in school beyond the eighth grade, but found his life’s calling in a World War II foxhole. While serving in the infantry, he watched the American pilots streaking overhead in their P-51 Mustangs. That, he used to say, looked like the good life, Sweet recalled. After the war, he used his GI Bill educational benefits to learn to fly helicopters, then an emerging technology.

The family business was formed when Lematta convinced his brother, Ed, to sell his gas station in order to finance their first helicopter. Eventually, two other Lematta brothers joined in Columbia Helicopters.

As helicopters grew in size and capacity, Lematta saw how they could be used to do other jobs besides transport people. Together with a Southern Oregon company, Columbia pioneered the use of helicopters to remove logs from roadless forests in 1969.

In the company’s early days, Wes Lematta did much of the flying. “He was always a gentleman. When he was flying operations, he’d wear a coat and tie,” Sweet said.

On the afternoon of Sept. 10, 1957, Lematta made a daring rescue in Coos Bay, Ore. The dredge William T. Russell was sinking rapidly after being rammed by a freighter that had lost its steering. Other vessels were unable to reach the Russell due to high winds and sea swells.

Using his helicopter, Lematta made 18 trips to the ship, saving 15 sailors clutching to posts and the ship’s masts. He flew so low that at one point the chopper’s rotor slapped a wave, nearly stalling the engine.

In later years, he gave up flying to run the company. He eventually retired from day-to-day operations, but still attended every Monday management meeting when he was in town, Sweet said. The Lemattas also have homes on the Oregon Coast and in Palm Springs, Calif.

Wes Lematta is survived by his wife Nancy, daughters Marci Walsh and Betsy Lematta, and a son, Bart Lematta.

Craig Brown: 360-735-4514; craig.brown@columbian.com.