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News / Life / Clark County Life

These famous folks are linked to Vancouver and Clark County in ways you may not have realized

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: December 25, 2023, 6:05am
10 Photos
This image released by Paramount+ shows Sam Elliott, center, and LaMonica Garrett in a scene from &ldquo;1883.&rdquo; Elliott attended Clark College.
This image released by Paramount+ shows Sam Elliott, center, and LaMonica Garrett in a scene from “1883.” Elliott attended Clark College. (Emerson Miller/Paramount) Photo Gallery

If you’ve lived in Clark County for a while, you probably know that this area can be linked to a lot of famous names. Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant used to ride his horse along Fourth Plain. George C. Marshall commanded Vancouver Barracks before developing a plan to reconstruct Europe after World War II. Even skyjacker D.B. Cooper probably dropped in; part of his loot was found near Frenchman’s Bar.

Here are six other famous names associated with Vancouver and Clark County, some in ways you may not realize:

Sam Elliott

Before he brought his distinctive voice and chiseled good looks to the film industry, Sam Elliott plied the stage at Clark College. In a 2017 interview with The Columbian’s Scott Hewitt, Elliott said he moved to Portland with his parents as a teenager and, after graduating from David Douglas High School, enrolled at Clark College.

“I found it a great school. My recollections are pretty keen. I just loved it,” Elliott said. “The drama department there was great. But I knew I wanted to be a film actor. I grew up in Sacramento, (Calif.) and I’d seen too many movies, too many movie theaters. I didn’t want to do stage work. I wanted the movies.”

So after he graduated from Clark College in 1965, he went to Hollywood and landed his first film role in 1967. According to the entertainment website IMDB.com, Elliott has made more than 100 movies and TV shows, oftentimes playing cowboys or doing voice work. In 2019, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in a remake of “A Star is Born.” Elliott currently lends his voice to the Fox cartoon series “The Family Guy” and has other projects in the works.

Tonya Harding

Tonya Harding grew up in Oregon and frequently skated at Clackamas Town Center, back when the mall had an ice rink in the middle of the food court. Despite a tough upbringing, she was very good at it. She won the first of two U.S. women’s figure skating championships in 1991, the same year she became the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel in competition. She represented the United States at the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics.

But her reputation became forever stained in 1994 when her ex-husband hired a team of thugs to break the right knee of her principal U.S. rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding was never criminally charged in the assault, she was later stripped of her titles and kicked out of U.S. figure skating.

She returned to Portland and settled in Clark County, where she made headlines for several years in stories about drunken brawls, car crashes and non-payment of rent. She pursued careers in professional boxing and reality television and could sometimes be spotted working side jobs.

In recent years, she’s lived a much quieter life. She remarried in 2010, and she and her second husband welcomed a son the next year. Locals have seen her skating at Mountain View Ice Arena in east Vancouver. According to public records, she and her family live on a rural property near Yacolt.

Willie Nelson

Longtime Columbian readers have probably read this story several times before, but country music legend Willie Nelson’s long road — he’s 90 years old — led through the Vancouver radio studios of KVAN-AM.

A 1997 story by The Columbian’s Dave Jewett gives this account: Nelson had been having a hard time making a living doing a little singing and radio work in Fort Worth, Texas, so he decided to try his luck elsewhere. His mother in Portland sent money for Willie, his wife and their small daughter to fly to Portland. (A second daughter was born at Vancouver Memorial Hospital in the middle of a snowstorm Jan. 10, 1957.)

“Things started turning around for me,” Nelson wrote in his autobiography. “I got a respectable job as a disc jockey in Vancouver. My show was on from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., all country music. I was head up against Arthur Godfrey in that time slot but started drawing good ratings. I was a very successful disc jockey in Vancouver. We had radio personalities like Shortly the Hired Hand and Cactus Ken. I was Wee Willie Nelson.

“In the fall of that year, I made my first record,” he wrote. “I cut it using the equipment at the radio station. The A side was ‘No Place for Me,’ written by W. Nelson, produced by W. Nelson and performed by the W. Nelson Band for Willie Nelson Records.”

At age 24, Nelson was feeling comfortable with his career in Vancouver, but a visitor soon changed all that. Songwriter and agent Mae Axton was in the Northwest promoting a tour by singer Hank Snow. She dropped by KVAN, where she ended up being interviewed by Nelson. Axton was famous as the person who wrote”‘Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley, so once they were off the air, Nelson asked her for career advice.

“She told me to get the hell out of Dodge,” according to Nelson’s autobiography. So he walked into his boss’s office and demanded a $100-a-week raise. “‘Pay me what I’m worth or I’m taking a hike,’ I said.

“He told me not to let the doorknob hit me in the ass on my way out.”

Nelson went first to Texas, then to Nashville, Tenn., and became a star. In 2007, the country music legend returned to play a gig at the Clark County Fair.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen

Bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen were software geeks long before their seminal product, Microsoft Windows, changed the world. In 1973, they worked at the Bonneville Power Administration’s Ross Complex in Hazel Dell. According to a 2018 Columbian article, they were hired for $165 a week to work on BPA’s Real-time Operations Dispatch and Scheduling system, or RODS, an early computerized system used to monitor the Northwest’s power grid at the Dittmer Control Center.

Bonneville had commissioned another company, TRW, to build the system. Allen and Gates worked for TRW to help the company debug a program that would become RODS.

In his memoir, Allen recalled that “Bill and I piled into his orange 1967 Mustang convertible and drove south to Vancouver, Washington, a land of strip malls, car washes and a vintage A&W Root Beer drive-in stand where we’d become regulars.”

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A former network specialist at the company, Jack Leach, recalled his memories of Gates’ and Allen’s time at the power station in a post on BPA’s Facebook page.

“They (TRW) learned of two guys in the Seattle area who had developed a ‘hot shot’ reputation around the University of Washington computer center where they frequently hung out to get free computer time. TRW didn’t know that these guys were teenagers when they contacted them, but they gave them an interview, liked what they saw, and offered them a short-term job to come to Vancouver and work on the Dittmer project,” Leach wrote.

“As you can imagine, we (the ‘computer experts’ already working at Dittmer) were somewhat skeptical and amused by the arrival of these youngsters, but word quickly spread that they knew what they were doing.”

Allen and Gates started work on the RODS project in January 1973 and remained on the debugging team until school started in the fall.

According to another biography, “Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry — and Made Himself the Richest Man in America,” Gates and Allen lived at the Brandywine Apartments, more recently known as the Green Tree Apartments, 6405 N.E. Hazel Dell Ave., with a third roommate, Ric Weiland.

Gates later recalled that the guys had contests “to see who could stay in the building like three days straight, four days straight. Some of the more prudish people would say, ‘Go home and take a bath.’ We were just hard-core, writing code.”

They did take a few days off, apparently. That summer, Gates broke his leg while waterskiing on Lacamas Lake.

Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky was a young woman who had a sexual relationship with an older, more powerful, married man. But this man didn’t work at the White House. He worked at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics.

Andy Bleiler, a theater technician, met Lewinsky in the late 1980s when she was a student at the Beverly Hills, Calif., high school where he worked. Between September 1993 and June 1995, Lewinsky attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland and baby-sat for Bleiler and his wife. Although her former classmates later said Lewinsky talked openly about her affair with a married man, it didn’t come to light until after Lewinsky became a White House intern in the Clinton administration.

As the world now knows, Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton had multiple sexual encounters during her 1995-96 internship, including one that resulted in the president’s DNA later being found on Lewinsky’s blue dress. Clinton was impeached; the Senate acquitted him.

Bleiler later confessed to having a five-year sexual relationship with Lewinsky, which he said did not end until 1997, after her White House internship was over. By that time, so was his career at Vancouver Public Schools.