Article by Rich Donnell

The last time I spoke with Paul Ehinger was four years ago. He called and wanted to know how he could get a copy of a book my small company, The Donnell Group, had published a couple of years earlier on the former Coe Manufacturing owner, Fred Fields. I was also the ghostwriter for the book, which was told in Fields’ words. By the time Ehinger called, Fields had since passed away and before that had given away all of his books. I had given away most of the books I had, and was down to two copies. As a publisher of books, you always like to maintain at least two copies for posterity’s sake.

I sent Ehinger one of my books. And now I’m glad that I did. It was the least I could do, having for many years scrutinized and published Ehinger’s data on mill operations, closures and employment, related to the declining timber sales on national forests in the Northwest U.S. During our brief conversation, Ehinger told me he was still active as a consultant. “Kind of like journalists,” I said. “Retirement isn’t in our vocabulary.” He had a good chuckle.

Ehinger died in February at age 93 in Eugene, Ore., a consultant to the end. His was one of three recent deaths in the Northwest that caught my attention. The other two men, like Ehinger, experienced the post-war rise of the Northwest forest products industry that continued into the 1970s, and saw the beginning of its consolidation in the 1980s.

The name John Fery was synonymous with Boise Cascade, since he was the man responsible for saving the company in the early 1970s and transforming it into a great paper and wood products manufacturer. Fery died in February at age 86 in California, though his heart was always in Idaho, where he has long been admired for his philanthrophy. Fery was especially smitten with the YMCA, which he had discovered and clung to as a boy. When you think of Bill Whelan, if you’re old enough to remember him, you might have difficulty placing him with one particular company. That’s because he led many different companies—U.S. Plywood, Champion International, Roseburg Lumber, Pope & Talbot, Timber Products Company. Whelan died at age 95 in January in Lake Oswego, Ore.

I had the privilege of speaking with Whelan a few times as I did research for various articles. He was always very cooperative. He was savvy, too, such as the time he installed new x-y scanning and positioning technology at the U.S. Plywood/Champion International sawmill in McCloud, Calif., when Sun Studs’ owner Fred Sohn thought he owned all the patents to it and had installed it at his sawmill in Roseburg. Whelan apparently simply called up the computer programmer who did the work for Sun Studs and had him do the same for the McCloud mill. Sun Studs didn’t sue Whelan, but rather the computer programmer’s company. The case and appeals went on for decades.

I hesitated to devote this space in this issue to the passing of three figures, which many of you haven’t heard of. But when you hear people refer to the rich history of the forest products industry, it’s not just idle chatter. These were three men who helped to write the post-war chapters.