by Deborah Steele Hazen
“I want my contributions to count for something; to be seed money whenever possible; and to be used as support for ‘lean, mean, efficient’ recipient organizations getting jobs done!”
– C. Keith Birkenfeld
Sometime in early 2005 I received a phone call from my second cousin, once removed, Keith Birkenfeld. Since the mid-1990s, he’d called me every month or so. He subscribed to The Chief and he liked to keep up on what was happening in the Clatskanie-Birkenfeld area and his numerous distant cousins here.
Keith never lived in Clatskanie, but his father was born and raised here. His grandfather was the eldest son of one of the two Birkenfeld brothers who came to the area in Oregon’s north Coast Range that subsequently was named for them. The brother from whom Keith and I are descended moved from Birkenfeld to Clatskanie around 1900, and four of his five children lived and raised their families in Clatskanie. Keith had visited here all of his life, and had a fondness for the community.
While I’d met him as a child, and off and on through the years, it was really during the last 10 or 12 years of his life that we became friends. I enjoyed his phone calls. He always had interesting stories to tell. We discovered we thought similarly on political issues, enjoyed history, music and the theater. Several times during those years, he stopped in Clatskanie for short visits, and once he spent the weekend with us, enjoying a reunion with his cousins here, and a trip to the Nehalem Valley Pioneer picnic.
So, I was happy to take his call that day in 2005, but was somewhat taken aback by the main topic. He asked me to serve, after his death, on an advisory committee for the distribution of a trust fund he was leaving at the Seattle Foundation.
I knew that Keith had been active with the Seattle Foundation and other non-profit organizations; that he believed strongly in charity and volunteer work. He was delighted that the Clatskanie Foundation had been established in the late 1990s and was glad I had joined the board of directors. He passed on some advice about foundation operations, and he hinted that he would be remembering Clatskanie and Birkenfeld in his will. I thought that would be years in the future.
Keith was in his mid-60s. I knew that he had early heart trouble that had prompted him to retire from his career as first a teacher and then an administrator with the Bellevue, Wash. school district. But his heart condition seemed to be under control. He was an active, healthy-appearing man.
His request for me to serve on a committee to help disburse his money after his death, caught me by surprise. “Are you alright?” I asked with concern. He assured me he was fine, just getting things in order. He was an organized man, so I took him at his word. I was honored that he asked me and told him so.
I talked to him once more after that. He told me he had been through a rough spot with his health – I assumed it had to do with his heart – but he said he was feeling better and was anxious to get back on the golf course.
The next call I got was in September of 2005 – the same week my mother passed away – from someone I didn’t know, telling me that Keith had died. I later learned that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just a couple of months before it took his life.
The Will to Give
Later that fall I received a letter and a copy of Keith’s 14-page will from his friend, attorney and executor George C. “Nick” Nickum, whom I am happy now to call my friend.
The will, which Keith wrote himself, is a very interesting document, and includes the quote at the top of this column. Within the will is a list of 35 separate bequests, totaling several million dollars, and ranging from $1,000 to $750,000. The recipients include 4-H, historical societies and museums, public television stations, opera associations, symphonies, theaters, colleges, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (of which he was a member), the Republican party, nature reserves, community centers. The largest bequest was for $750,000 to the Bainbridge Endowment Fund for capital construction projects. Keith lived for years on Bainbridge Island near Seattle in a relatively modest (by Bainbridge standards) condo.
I was astounded to learn that the second largest and final bequest in the will was $500,000 to the Clatskanie Foundation for a capital improvement project.
After much discussion among the board members of the Clatskanie Foundation, and with Nick’s approval, the money Keith left to the Clatskanie Foundation was used to purchase the old I.O.O.F. Hall/Theatre building, conduct engineering and architectural studies, and restore the facade.
The all-volunteer “lean, mean and efficient” board of the Clatskanie Foundation has spent the last several years doing research, putting together cost estimates, an operational plan, partnerships with the Clatskanie Arts Commission and City of Clatskanie, and a fundraising campaign.
In 2012, the Foundation successfully applied for a $500,000 grant from the multi-million dollar C. Keith Birkenfeld Memorial Trust at the Seattle Foundation.
The $1 million that Keith gave us through his bequest and the grant from the trust he left, provided the Clatskanie Foundation with the credibility it needed to successfully apply for large grants from other foundations. Keith has accomplished with our project, exactly what he wanted to do – not only to give himself, but to inspire others to give.
As has been reported in this newspaper and other publications, we have now raised approximately $3.1 million towards the goal of $3.3 million. Last week, a seat-naming campaign was announced. If you are inspired to give, look at the back page of the April 17th issue of this newspaper, or the flyers in various businesses around town, or on our website at www.clatskaniechiefnews.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call me.
Meanwhile, the reconstruction of the interior of the 13,500 square foot historic building in the center of Clatskanie has begun. By this time next year – maybe even before – we will have completed the approximately 170-seat Birkenfeld Theatre, a 2,300 square foot multi-purpose ballroom, a 2,600 square foot suite of offices for the City of Clatskanie, and a 1,000 square foot retail space.
“I am giving my life’s earnings as a charitable contribution. I hope they will give their time as a contribution.” – C. Keith Birkenfeld
In the meantime, since the spring of 2006, I have traveled to Seattle for meetings in April and May to review applications for grants and ultimately give away millions of dollars of Keith’s money to well-planned, deserving, community-serving projects and programs – most of them in the Puget Sound area. Keith wanted his money to go to the places that were meaningful to him. He grew up in Bremerton, the son of Calvin and Isabel (Keith) Birkenfeld. His father was an orphan raised by his aunts and uncles in Clatskanie, who had a career as an insurance agent in Bremerton. Keith did not inherit his money.
After graduating from Bremerton High School, and Washington State University, Keith taught history and then went into school administration. His top salary, while he was working in education was $21,500. His millions came from wise investments in real estate and later in stocks and bonds.
He enjoyed traveling; he drove a Cadillac; he made generous contributions to programs he liked during his lifetime; he wintered in a small apartment in Palm Springs, but considering how wealthy he was, he lived very modestly, in order to do what he is continuing to do almost nine years after his death – making huge and positive differences in the communities he loved.
Inspired to Volunteer
Last weekend my husband Phil and I made the first of two trips we’ll make to Seattle this spring – at our own expense as Keith expected – for a meeting of the advisory committee of the C. Keith Birkenfeld Trust. This year marks the ninth season we’ve met to give away millions of Keith’s money, and we have a maximum of 11 more years – according to Keith’s wishes – to distribute the rest.
It should be emphasized, however, that Keith did not want us to do this haphazardly. It is not easy to get a Birkenfeld grant, and those who do must prove that they are capable of using it wisely for programs that “get the job done.”
Because most of the grants have been made in the Puget Sound area, I haven’t had the chance to see Keith’s money in action. Consequently, I was delighted this time to have the opportunity to visit – along with other committee members – a program that we picked especially for a large grant to reflect Keith’s legacy.
One of his many interests was related to maritime history, culture and industry. Combine that with his dedication to youth and education, plus adventure, character, leadership, fitness, discipline, self-esteem, teamwork and good citizenship, and you have the Tacoma Youth Marine Center, founded to promote youth maritime educational training, and to support the Sea Scout fleet in Tacoma.
On Saturday morning, despite the rainy weather, we visited the center and spent several hours there, hearing about the program, talking to both the very impressive young people involved in it and their very dedicated adult volunteers.
We toured two of the vessels they own, maintain, operate, use for training and community service programs – a 90-foot wooden sailing yacht, originally built for the Vanderbilt family, and a 78-foot former Coast Guard motor boat, originally built to chase rum runners during Prohibition.
The Tacoma Sea Scout program develops 20 to 30 percent of all the “Quartermasters” – the Sea Scout equivalent to “Eagle Scout” – in the nation. It has a high rate of placing students in the most prestigious maritime colleges in the nation, from which they graduate into high paying jobs. We talked to one young man on his way to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and learned of others who are currently serving in the Navy and Marine Corps, as electronic technicians, Special Forces rescue swimmers, and nuclear submarine operators. Others choose the civilian route and have good jobs in the Merchant Marine, the Puget Sound ferry service, building and repairing ships, etc.
As we learned about the Tacoma Youth Marine Center, we wondered why there isn’t a Sea Scout group in Columbia County, which has more Columbia River frontage than any other county. Many years ago, there was. My father was in it. When World War II broke out, he helped patrol the Lower Columbia before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Why isn’t there a Sea Scout program here now? Because there are no dedicated adult volunteers interested in making it happen.
Clatskanie is a town that has always run on volunteerism, but I’m worried about the future. Will we continue to have people who are willing to give their time and talents – and any money they can spare – to make a positive difference in the local communities?
April is National Volunteer Month. Be inspired to give of yourself.