DeWils founder Wilson remembered as ‘a creator’

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

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In high school, Duane Wilson snagged a job building rowboats for the owners of a marina on Lacamas Lake. By building at least 10 of the boats at the same time, Wilson realized the time-saving value of cutting and assembling many parts at a time.

It’s a lesson Wilson put to good use in later life as founder of a business empire that now encompasses DeWils Industries, an Orchards cabinet maker with an international market, and DeWils Interiors, a Vancouver retail cabinet and appliance store.

Wilson, who died Monday at age 82, turned over the company to sons Tracy and Randy starting in the mid-1980s. Four of his seven grandchildren now work for DeWils Industries, a company with more than $25 million in annual sales and about 130 employees.

It all started with a man who always wanted to build things with wood.

“As far back as I can remember, he was making something,” recalled his older brother, Willard. As a child Duane Wilson built stilts, a scooter with a wooden box as a body, and a soap box derby car. “He was a creator,” said son Randy Wilson, DeWils’ chief operations officer.

Duane Wilson suffered from congestive heart failure but continued to spend part of most days at DeWils, even through the last week of his life. He never strayed far from the work of his hands. His home, built in the 1980s, itself is one of Wilson’s creations: He designed it himself and had it built on the site of a former salmon-processing plant where he’d worked while in high school.

His expansive garage doubles as a wood shop, where Wilson loved to make fine furniture. He filled his home with the furniture that he built.

“He was amazing with his furniture,” said longtime friend John True. “He was a magician.”

Duane Wilson was born Oct. 14, 1933, the youngest of four children of Russell and Edna Wilson. He attended the former Vancouver High School and at age 21 married his high school sweetheart, Tannis Hughes.

He went to work as a lineman for the Bell Telephone Co. When his parents closed their hardware and lumber store in Orchards and converted the front of the building into a grocery, Wilson began making furniture in back and opened a retail store called DeWils Maple Shop. He chose the name DeWils, which draws from his first and last names, because there was a Wilson Furniture Store on St. Johns Boulevard. His mother became his first employee.

In 1959 Wilson created DeWils Industries and quit his telephone company job after he secured his first two large orders. Both orders fell through, but Wilson would say later that he was glad that he quit his day job, because it motivated him to succeed.

Wilson recognized in the mid-1960s that mass-production techniques would produce lower-cost cabinets than the custom-made kitchen cabinets that were standard in the post-World War II housing boom. But he was unable to convince the bank, which refused a loan. Wilson turned to his dentist, Charles Stecher, who invested in the company and was quickly repaid when DeWils proved successful.

With his company’s growing success, Wilson no longer had time to make furniture. “He was always trying to get back into the furniture business,” said his son Tracy Wilson, DeWils’ chief executive.

Though he traveled in his later years, he would get tired of it. Karen Wilson, his wife of 26 years, said she knew it was time to return from their home in the California desert when Duane took to killing flies and then charting his daily kill count, fitting his penchant for record-keeping.

In recent years, he enjoyed woodworking and spending time with a circle of friends who would gather in his garage for conversations and cigars.

“Duane lived to enjoy his friends,” said Craig Angelo, who would join him to talk about news, politics, and lifetime memories. “His place was in the garage among his woodworking tools.” And he would invite those close male friends to his beach house in Gearhart, Ore., for his birthday weekend outings in October.

“He was a man’s man,” said Karen Wilson. “He enjoyed being with guys.”

Survivors include his wife, Karen; daughter, Darcy Richards; sons Randy and Tracy; brother, Willard; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

No date has been set for a memorial service.