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Inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and visionary dies at the age of 87 on May 1

PHOTO COURTESY OF AUSTIN INDUSTRIES - Ken Austin Jr. and his wife Joan co-founded A-dec Inc. in 1964 and formed into the largest privately-owned dental equipment manufacturing company in the United States.

Philanthropist, inventor, engineer and industrialist Ken Austin Jr. died May 1 at the age of 87.

The co-founder of Newberg dental equipment giant A-dec Inc. with his late wife, Joan, had been in failing health for some time, according to Ryan White of Gard Communications, the Portland public relations firm that made the announcement of his death Thursday morning.

George Edmonston Jr., a close friend and the primary researcher for the Austins' biography "American Dreamers," said Austin had been hospitalized in early April, perhaps for pneumonia, and had remained on oxygen after being released from the hospital.

"He lived a huge life, a life that positively impacted thousands of lives, and so many of us were proud to have known him," Edmonston said. "When I first heard he had died, my world changed forever."

Word of Austin's death spread throughout the region quickly, eliciting responses from city halls, boardrooms, statehouses and even ballfields.

"Ken embodied so much of what makes this state great," Gov. Kate Brown, who received substantial financial support from Austin following her re-election in November, said in a press release. "He was ambitious and creative and generous. With A-dec, he and Joan helped revolutionize dentistry, but they didn't stop there. They worked to ensure opportunity for others. They worked to help families and build communities. They didn't forget where they came from. They got involved and made their city, their county and their state better."SUBMITTED PHOTO - After graduating from Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) with a degree in industrial management, Ken Austin Jr. served in the Air Force for several years, applying skills he learned as a youth fixing and racing cars as a mechanic while also learning to fly.

"All of us with the city of Newberg are saddened by the loss of Ken Austin Jr., his caring, his philanthropy, his personal efforts have touched thousands, both in our community and afar," said Newberg Mayor Rick Rogers. "He and Joan and their children and grandchildren have truly made Newberg the place that it is. We are fortunate to have been blessed with their goodness. … We all will work to remember Ken's legacy in our efforts to make Newberg a better place."

Mike Parker, the voice of Oregon State University athletics, took the unusual step of speaking about Austin's death during a Beavers baseball game on Saturday, sharing with his radio listeners the impact the Austins had on OSU athletics and academics.

The Austins lent their name to innumerable enterprises and causes over the past 50-plus years. That philanthropy can be seen locally at an elementary school named after Joan Austin and a business education program at OSU, Ken Austin's alma mater.

"Ken Austin built a legacy at Oregon State University, and in Oregon, that is unmatched," OSU President Ed Ray said in a release. "As an undergraduate he invented Benny Beaver. He took his degree to the U.S. Air Force and around the world, eventually (returning) to Oregon to found a dental company that changed the industry."OSU ARCHIVES - Ken Austin Jr. was the first ever Benny Beaver, donning the mascot's suit while a student at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) in the mid-1950s.

The Austins gave millions of dollars to the university over the course of decades, a fact that can be witnessed by the buildings that carry their name on the Corvallis campus.

"A donor and engaged alumnus, Ken helped launch the Austin Family Business Program and contributed significantly to the construction of Austin Hall (the 100,000-square-foot home of OSU's College of Business), where tomorrow's leaders will learn from the past and shape the future," Ray said. "Ken was a dear friend and mentor to me and I will miss him greatly. I know he is going to be with his dear partner Joan."

"At Oregon State University, Ken was and will always be an icon," Edmonston said.

In Newberg, Ken Austin was a nearly lifelong member of Rotary, the service organization, including stints on the Newberg Rotary Foundation back to its beginnings in the early 1970s.

"I was first introduced to Ken when joining Rotary 15 years ago," said Tom Tesmer, past president of Newberg Rotary. "Of course, I'd heard of his success at A-dec, his brilliant engineering mind and philanthropy, so I was a bit intimidated when meeting him. What struck me most was his humility and, of course, his sly sense of humor.  Not at all what I expected, but most appreciated."

The start of something big

The Austins founded A-dec Inc. in 1964 after the then-33-year-old Ken Austin had created an air-powered vacuum device called the Air-Venturi System for use in dental offices.

Joan Austin took care of the day-to-day duties of running the business while Ken Austin designed and fabricated a succession of dental devices and equipment. By February of the following year they had hired several employees and took up quarters in a 1,000-square-foot Quonset hut.

Today, A-dec is the nation's largest privately-owned dental manufacturing company and is Newberg's largest employer with more than 1,000 employees, working on a 50-acre campus on Mountain View Drive.

In 1999, Ken Austin was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. In 2000, he earned OSU's E.B. Lemon Distinguished Alumni Award. He was a trustee at George Fox University, former president of the Oregon 4-H Club and a past chairman of the American Dental Trade Association. His named appears on 40 United States and 33 international patents.

Principle before profits

The couple demonstrated their view of the world and how businesses should operate in 1975, when they created the "A-dec Way, a 15-point set of principles that puts concern for people first and encourages team work, creativity, honesty and public service," according to a press release. "This was the backbone for how Ken and Joan viewed the world and operated their enterprises."

That credo carried over to A-dec's partnership with Rotary to manufacture dental equipment that was portable and could be easily dispatched to all points of the globe. The result was Rota-Dent, a portable control unit, and TotaChair, a portable dental chair that Ken Austin designed. More than 80,000 of the units have been dispersed around the world through Rotary.

Giving a leg up

Ken Austin's spiritual journey began with his fight against alcoholism in the early 1980s, which resulted in the creation of Springbrook Northwest, a residential treatment facility situated adjacent to A-dec in Newberg. The facility eventually became Hazelden and then joined forces with the Betty Ford Clinic to become Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Treatment Center.

The couple's determination to ensure access to addiction and mental health services in Newberg and Yamhill County blossomed in 2015 with the formation of the Austin Family Foundation, which also concentrated on supporting education from elementary school to college.

On the business front, the couple fulfilled Joan Austin's vision of supporting Newberg's burgeoning wine tourism industry by opening the Allison Inn & Spa on Joan's birthday in September 2009.

"Communities like Newberg produce one or two individuals like Ken Austin in a 100-year time period and we were lucky enough here in our town to have had him here as one of our own," Edmonston said. "Ken and Joan Austin formed a business partnership unprecedented in the history of Oregon. Now they are both gone, joined together once again. I hope Heaven is ready!"

Austin is survived by son Kenneth Austin III and daughter Loni Austin Parrish, as well as their spouses, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

As of Tuesday morning services had not been scheduled.

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