Robert Schaefer named Clark County First Citizen for 2013

Longtime local attorney influenced land use, education, child care, more

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoRobert Schaefer

Robert Schaefer’s fingerprints are all over Southwest Washington.

Beautiful places like Paradise Point State Park, educational institutions like the Vancouver campus of Washington State University, high-tech industries in Camas and even Clark County’s one-of-a-kind child care consortium all stem from the work of attorney, former legislator and tireless community activist Schaefer, 83.

Schaefer was chosen Wednesday as Clark County’s First Citizen by the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington. He’ll be honored on Tuesday, Oct. 1, in a special presentation at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

“Bob is a man of vision. And his vision can be measured. Quite simply, he gets things done,” wrote Jim and Liz Luce in support of Schaefer’s nomination.

“I am very much surprised and appreciative. I probably don’t deserve it,” Schaefer said Wednesday afternoon.

Child care and education, health care and hospitals, private industry and economic development, high technology and even church matters have all seen Schaefer’s leadership during a career that has spanned more than 50 years. His many honors start with a State of Washington Outstanding Young Man Award in 1961, through a “Pillar of Economic Development” award from the Columbia River Economic Development Council in 2002 and a Fifty-Year Award of Honor from the Washington State Bar Association. The CREDC has called Schaefer one of the most influential people in Clark County.

He also received a Bishop Cross from the Episcopal Church of Western Washington in 1994. He has served in leadership positions at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Church of the Good Shepherd.

Swimming in the lake

Schaefer was born in Seattle on April 19, 1930, but grew up in Clark County and attended Arnada, Shumway and Vancouver High schools. He attended Clark College and then Willamette University and Willamette Law School, graduating in 1955 and joining the bar that same year. He has worked as an attorney ever since, with his own law office in downtown Vancouver; he also served for a few years as deputy prosecuting attorney for Clark County.

It was while a young attorney in the county prosecutor’s office that he was invited to run for the Legislature. That was back in the day when campaigning meant delivering speeches at Grange halls, he said, and crowds’ reactions gave you a pretty good idea whether or not you were headed for Olympia. Schaefer served for four terms, from 1959 to 1967, and was speaker of the house in his final term. His time as legislator is noted particularly for the acquisition of land for Battle Ground Lake and Paradise Point state parks.

“I always went swimming and fishing at Battle Ground Lake as a boy, like so many others,” he said. “We were told the owner would consider selling to the state. We talked about the best park we could acquire, and Battle Ground Lake was our first choice.”

Even after returning home to private law practice, Schaefer never stopped exerting well-seasoned influence in Olympia.

Former State Sen. Al Bauer — himself a former Clark County First Citizen — called Schaefer “my mentor” in the Legislature. “Of all the legislative issues facing the Vancouver area, he was on the front line on every one of them,” Bauer wrote in support of Schaefer’s nomination.

Bauer said Schaefer’s lobbying work — including the creation of an economic “fact book” about Southwest Washington — brought countless benefits to the region. It’s because of legislation written by former legislator Schaefer, Bauer said, that high tech manufacturer SEH America never left Vancouver for Gresham, Ore. and that WaferTech was attracted to Camas.

“I can honestly and emphatically say that it would not have happened without his contribution,” Bauer said.

Furthermore, Bauer added, Schaefer understood that attracting and keeping good jobs also required a skilled, educated workforce. Schaefer and his colleagues “convinced legislators that Southwest Washington had the worst upper division education in the state, and that if we were going to replace the lost smokestack industries with new high tech industries, it would require ... a highly regarded research institution.” Schaefer co-chaired the committee that eventually brought a branch campus of Washington State University to the area.

Struggling students

In the late 1980s Schaefer helped create the Southwest Washington Child Care Consortium, which has grown to become the largest community-run child care system in the nation. He served on its board of governors.

Schaefer also helped create HOSTS (Helping One Student to Succeed), a private tutoring and mentoring company that has grown to serve more than 1 million students since its founding in the early 1970s. “Many people do not realize that HOSTS was created in Vancouver, largely by the efforts of Bob Schaefer,” wrote Bill Gibbons, a fellow founder and former CEO of the firm, who is now superintendent of Cornerstone Christian School in Hazel Dell. “It was through Bob’s leadership and support that the company grew from helping children in Vancouver to become a model program for our nation.”

“Bob’s heart is to reach out to those students who are struggling to learn, especially in reading and math,” Gibbons said.

Letters in support of Schaefer’s choice as First Citizen underline his dedication, caring, brains and people skills.

“His commitment of time, intelligent thought and hard work — all for the betterment of fellow citizens — is widely recognized,” wrote Twyla Barnes, the superintendent of Educational Service District 112. “Bob’s efforts have never been perfunctory; rather, he approaches any and all endeavors with a thoughtful, energetic fervor that inspires his peers and delivers impressive results.”

Schaefer’s wife since 1954, schoolteacher Sally Jo Schaefer, was named Clark County First Citizen in 1984 for her volunteerism and work with the Clark College Board of Trustees. The couple has three grown children.

At 83 years old, Schaefer said he’s still “in the thick of it.” In recent months he was been quoted by The Columbian on Clark County economic development policies (he’s not happy with County Commissioner David Madore) and as an attorney for Thompson Metal Fab (which is worried that it won’t be able to ship its biggest products under a new Columbia River Crossing bridge).

“Being involved in helping people and seeing your community grow is a very important part of life,” he said. “If you develop a community and an economy that really cares about people, you’re always proud of that. I think the good Lord asked us to do that here.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.