County is a giving place




At The Columbian we often hold feet to the fire. That’s an important role. If we don’t talk about Clark County’s flaws, we can never fix them.

But today I’d like to focus on a strength of this community, not its weaknesses. Clark County may wish it had more business success stories to tout, but we should all be proud of leaders who have accomplished something and then given back.

“The quality of life in this community would not be anywhere near what it is today without very generous, very involved, very energized people that have been generous with their time, their talents and their dollars,” said Elson Strahan, president of the Fort Vancouver National Trust.

Clark County faced a dilemma in the mid-1980s, when Alcoa and Boise Cascade announced they would leave and environmental efforts cut into natural resources jobs. Then local people decided to do something. They started writing checks.

Hospitals, libraries, schools and groups that serve the poor have all benefited from the rise in philanthropy we’ve seen over the past 25 years. The Clark College Foundation’s assets, $1 million in the mid-’80s, are more than $60 million. The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, founded in 1984, has given $90 million.

Some philanthropists have given so much that their names have become like monuments.

George Propstra, Burgerville’s founder, supported the Jim Parsley Community Center, local athletic facilities and the plaza at Esther Short Park.

Ray Hickey, former owner of Tidewater Barge, gave more than $20 million — including to a trail along the Columbia River, YWCA Clark County and the hospice that bears his name.

E.W. and Mary Firstenburg, of the family behind First Independent Bank, gave to Southwest Washington Medical Center, the Community Foundation’s Giving Fund, education and programs for people with disabilities.

Propstra died in 2004, Mary Firstenburg in 2009, and Hickey and E.W. Firstenburg both died this year. But their legacies live on in a new generation of Clark County philanthropists.

Pink Power, the recent fundraiser for Southwest Washington Medical Center, made that clear. Organizers estimate they raised more than $500,000 for a neonatal intensive care unit. That doesn’t include the $3 million David and Patricia Nierenberg pledged, as part of $15 million they will to give the hospital.

Active philanthropists who deserve acclaim include Lee and Connie Kearney, Ed and Dollie Lynch, Joe and Teresa Pauletto, Sandee and Al Kirkwood — and many others.

With small donors worrying about job security and big donors worrying about their portfolios, people are giving less these days, but they’re still giving.

“The need is greater than ever,” said Richard Melching, president of the Community Foundation. “Truly, any amount is helpful.”

That so many people recognize this speaks well of our community.

“Philanthropy is the heart and soul of a community, and Vancouver and Clark County are amazing,” said Jean Rahn, executive director of the Southwest Washington Medical Center Foundation. “Times are tough, but people are stepping forward the best they can.”

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or