Everybody has a story: Hathaway descendent engineered a rich history

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Not many folks are left who have as long and rich a connection with Vancouver's history as my dad, Robert Stanley Mercer. We are happy to announce that he celebrated his 90th birthday on April 25.

Bob comes from a well-known pioneer family in the Vancouver area. His great grandfather, Jeremiah Smith Hathaway, came across the Oregon Trail with his wife, Isabelle, and settled in Vancouver in 1852. Hathaway was credited with laying the first sidewalk in Portland, east of what is now the Ross Island Bridge. Jeremiah Smith Hathaway had a dairy business and homestead in Ridgefield along the Columbia River, and made and sold the first cheese in the Northwest.

Bob's grandfather, Alpha Beebe Hathaway, and grand uncle, Alfred Omega Hathaway, reportedly were the eldest living twins in Clark County (and at one time in the U.S.), living to the ripe old ages of 96 and 92, respectively. We are all hoping that Bob will beat these numbers.

Bob likes to say, "I am a lifelong resident of Vancouver, but if asked where I was born, I will tell you Oregon." His folks, Ruth Hathaway and Semri Keiski, a Finn, spent a short while living in Ilwaco's "Stringtown," an area with a large Finnish community. The couple had to travel by boat to Astoria, Ore., to the local hospital on the night of Bob's arrival. Ruth's hospital stay was short, and the family went back across the water to Ilwaco. It was a short while later that they returned to Vancouver.

As a young man, Bob kept busy working several jobs. Ruth and Semri had divorced and, as times were lean (post-depression era), Bob helped his single mother out by doing his part. At 15, he was an usher at the Kiggins Theater, which he enjoyed immensely. Later he embarked on a lifelong career with the railroad, first as a fireman with the Union Pacific, then as journeyman engineer with the Spokane, Portland and Seattle, and eventually a long-tenured, well-respected engineer with the Burlington Northern. For extra money, he also sold Electrolux vacuums door-to-door and, being a handsome young man with an affable personality, he was popular with the ladies and thus the company's top salesman.

Bob credits the love of his family and friends for keeping him going eight years after the loss of his wife, Rosemary. Rosemary Mathis Mercer married Bob in 1946 and they would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in 2006. Sadly, "Ro" passed away the previous year from heart failure.

Bob and Rosemary had a wonderful marriage and raised their three children in Vancouver. The family is still close and remains in the area. Bob and Ro worked side by side building their dream home on the west side of Vancouver, overlooking the lake. Bob is proud of the home they built, "brick by brick," with loads they hauled from the Hidden brickyard.

Bob had served 42 years when he retired from the Burlington Northern in 1983. His last year, he surprised everyone by making the switch from engineer on freight trains to a final turn as engineer on a passenger line Amtrak.

Bob's 90th birthday celebration was held at the Old Spaghetti Factory. The theme, naturally, was trains. Everyone donned engineer caps and enjoyed a cake that had been decorated with a large black-and-white photo of Bob and "the 700" during its 1955 Valhalla run. Everyone raised a cheer when Bob blew out his candles and laughed as he was handed a contract by his son-in-law, Jeff, and daughter, Lisa. The contract had the No. 1 on it -- referring to Bob's famous saying, "Live every day to the utmost, as you don't have a contract one for tomorrow."

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Email is the best way to send materials so we don't have to retype your words or borrow original photos. Send to neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.