A fitting farewell
On a sunny day at Stoffer Family Stadium, hundreds of people in mostly dark suits and dress clothes packed shaded stands and a series of sunlit folded chairs below. The smell of turf rose from the football field as the early summer heat reached its comfortable peak for the day.
It was a typical, mild afternoon for late May in Oregon. The occasion was far from typical, however, as it was a memorial service that set the mood. Smiling faces filled the bleachers and laughter echoed to the George Fox University campus.
It could only be that way for someone like Ken Austin Jr.
The inventor, family man and titan of industry died on May 1, leaving behind an unprecedented impact on Newberg and the state at large. The success in business and philanthropy by Austin and his wife, Joan, is well documented, but the amount of people whose lives were changed by the duo is immeasurable.
Austin grew up on a farm in Newberg and started a car-repair business while he was in high school. He graduated from Oregon State University – then called Oregon State College – in 1953 with a degree in engineering.
After marrying Joan – the love of his life – and serving in the Air Force, Austin pursued a career in engineering and struggled to find the right fit. He was hired and fired from six engineering jobs in five years before he finally decided to start his own business with Joan, spurred by his invention of a piece of dental equipment. The rest is history with Newberg's largest employer, A-dec Inc.
The historic nature of Austin's life is as uncommon as it is important. Kerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, was among the first to speak at the memorial service and put Austin's life in perspective.
"When you think of the life of Ken and Joan, you are reminded that history is not just a linear timeline of events, but rather it is the vast collection of human experiences, of stories that reverberate across time," he said. "The positive and historic differences that Ken and Joan made to this community, this region, this state, will reverberate for centuries and decades yet to come."
From donations to local community organizations and statewide political figures, to the countless buildings, funds and causes in between, the Austins poured money into things that were important to them. The Austin Family Foundation has funded and will continue to fund countless educational endeavors in the region as well.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown spoke at Austin's memorial and looked back fondly on the time they spent together at various Special Olympics events and elsewhere in Newberg and around the state. Brown remembered Austin showing her one of his early report cards from OSU, and how he beamed with pride at how bad his grades were.
"In displaying that report card, Ken was making an incredibly important point," Brown said. "Not all kids do well with learning in a classroom setting. He attributed his own success to the educators that saw that spark in him and allowed him to learn through his lifelong passion of tinkering, rather than forcing him into a mold."
The Austins' passion for education, Brown remarked, was evident. Investment in career and technical education causes at local schools was and still is the cornerstone of the Austin Family Foundation's work.
Joan Austin Elementary School bears the name of half of what was an inseparable partnership, and Austin Hall at the OSU College of Business was named and primarily funded by the Austins.
Oregon State was where the patriarch of the Austin family began to make a name for himself. Well, two names: Benny and Ken.
Austin was, as he told many people through the years, the first "Benny the Beaver" mascot at OSU sporting events. Ever the mischievous soul, Austin would draw the ire of referees with his antics at football games, according to longtime friend and OSU President Ed Ray, who also spoke at the event honoring Austin.
"Remember, this was 1952, so nobody knew what a mascot was supposed to do," Ray said. "Ken, being innovative and creative and so forth, decided some things on his own, some of which didn't work out so well. He had a starter pistol he would go out on the field with and, every time a flag would go against the Beavers, he would shoot the flag with the pistol. The crowd loved it, but the referees didn't like that so much."
Ray remembers an anecdote from the university's 150th anniversary celebration, where Austin sat down for an interview and spoke about his life and why he and Joan decided to give to others.
In the interview, Austin recalled that his father had two milk cows and would always share a two-gallon can of milk with their neighbors. When Austin asked why they were giving away the milk instead of selling it, his father replied: "Because we have more milk than we need, and they have no cow."
Members of the audience nodded in reflection at the wise lesson Austin took from his father. Ray smiled, the sun beating down on the podium as he spoke about his friend's life and the things he – 13 years Austin's junior – learned from him.
"It's a very simple lesson that he took to heart and followed his whole life," Ray said.
People on stage and in the stands felt the impact of the lesson Austin learned from his father, and they likely will for decades to come. Parents of schoolchildren, officials from the Newberg School District, A-dec Inc. employees, other local business owners, members of local and state government – all the beneficiaries of Austin's innovation, generosity and love for the community he called home.
They were all in the crowd on Friday, their smiles and the evident changes in their lives – many as a result of Austin and his family's legacy – providing proof that people like Ken and Joan Austin are never really gone.