Business and civic leader Richard E. Withnell honored
May 1, 2009
Corban confers a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa to Richard E. Withnell, the keynote speaker at the 63rd Commencement ceremony at
10 a.m. on Saturday, May 2. Professor of Humanities Jim Hills describes the profound community impact of Withnell’s leadership.
It started with a movie. Mr. Holland’s Opus tells the story of a music teacher who poured his heart and soul into music and into his students. Dick and Gayle Withnell saw the film in 1995, and were reminded of Withnell’s father, a music teacher with much the same drive and passion as Richard Dreyfus’s Holland.
By this time Withnell’s own drive and business acumen had put him in the driver’s seat of one of the most successful auto dealerships in the Pacific Northwest. The Withnells determined that their success should benefit others and began a music scholarship program for students in the Salem-Keizer School District. If the kids would set five short-term goals and five long-term goals—the Withnells told students—and send in quarterly progress reports, Dick and Gayle Withnell would give them a hundred dollars per quarter. Over the years the Withnells have contributed more than $60,000 to music students who have benefited not only as the recipients of welcome scholarship money, but as the beneficiaries of the Withnells’ modeling of responsible and successful life planning as well.
That’s how it started. Since then Dick and Gayle Withnell have poured millions of dollars, thousands of hours, and powerful, unmetered wattage of human energy into educational, civic, and philanthropic causes. Here are some highlights:
Withnell has served on the Marion County Children and Families Commission, is Fundraising Chairman of the Salvation Army Kroc Center Campaign, co-chaired the No Meth Task Force, has served on the Executive Committee of Linfield College (his and Gayle’s alma mater), has been president of Family Building Blocks Board of Directors and vice president of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, and is on the Board of Directors of the Salem Hospital, Liberty House, and the Luis Palau Foundation for World Evangelism.
He has co-chaired Linfield College’s capital campaign, and chaired the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley and the budget committee at Chemeketa Community College. He has served on the Advisory Board of Willamette University, led Willamette’s Cardinal Round Table, and has been a part of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management’s Advisory Board.
He has been the recipient of more than a score of awards for both business and civic activities. Here’s a sample: the Dealer Education Award, the Five Star Dealer Excellence Award, the Automotive Dealership Service Excellence Award (Good Housekeeping/Automotive News), recognition from both Time and Newsweek magazines for excellence in the automotive business, and awards including the Willard C. Marshall Volunteer of the Year Award (Salem City Council), the Distinguished Citizen Award (Boy Scouts of America), the Others Award (Salvation Army), the Philanthropist of the Year (United Way of the Willamette Valley – twice), the 2006 Greatness Award (Special Olympics Oregon), the Spirit of the Red Cross Hero Award, and the First Citizen Award (Salem Area Chamber of Commerce).
In 2003 Withnell and Anna Peterson formed the NO METH—Not in MY Neighborhood Task Force, which proved successful in increasing the reporting of drug activity and the consequent improvement in law enforcement efforts against the meth epidemic. As a result of increased arrests, however, more children who had been removed from dangerous drug houses fell into the care of Marion County officials. These kids needed homes. Withnell led the way here, too. Working with Sue Miller, director of Family Building Blocks, he organized a fundraising campaign that raised nearly a quarter million dollars in just over a half hour to provide shelter and care for these frightened and displaced children.
In all of this, Dick and Gayle Withnell found the time, energy and focus to guide and nurture their own two children into honorable and successful adulthood. David E. Withnell is now the president of Withnell Motor Company, and Gina Oschner is a recent Oregon Book Award winner as well as the winner of national awards (the O. Henry Award and the Flannery O’Connor Award) for fiction.
The Withnells have five grandchildren: Daniel, Jake, Connor, Soren, and Natasha.